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A Premise for Government

Random thoughts from my afternoon bike ride, inspired by my reading of Jane Jacob’s Systems of Survival. The book explores the relationship between guardianship and enterprise and the hazardous results of one behaving like the other.

A Premise for Government

It occurred to me today that we might stop referring to the job as ‘politician’, and instead have our political leaders embrace the word ‘governance’. It seems as though we spend a lot of time on policy, dancing a few steps this way, and then a few steps back the other direction. I wonder how much value a ‘policy moratorium’ would offer, where government focused on its role as public guardian in the given policy context.

How much time, effort and resource are wasted on shifting policy one inch at a time, and to what extent does it improve life for the aggregate? Systems Design tells us that there are no perfect solutions, and even if we achieved a ‘perfect’ implementation, the ceaseless shifts of the world around us render our solutions imperfect the very next moment.

I’ve learned that I offer far more value in the classroom when I accept policy as is, and concentrate my efforts on my role as classroom guardian. More transformative than perfect policy, or access to resources, or investment in infrastructure, is development of the inherent capacity in students. No policy can prompt a new perspective on being, but we can learn about our circumstance when we focus on the ‘as is’ circumstance and recognise our cycles of behaviour. If the status quo is characterised by institutionalised and apathetic membership, a shift in culture is required.

I have come to see the teacher’s role as two distinct jobs: One is the role of mentor, offering encouragement and examples to students so that they might develop their technical capacity and personal drive. Jacobs would describe these as commercial pursuits. The second job is that of guardian, ensuring existing policy is understood, and that transgressors are held accountable. In the classroom, this looks like ‘auditing’ self-monitoring students to encourage integrity in accounts and reports.

When government spends its time ‘perfecting’ policy, we exhaust limited resources on the margins. There are circumstances when policy change can have great influence, though perhaps for the time being, we might accept the rules of the game. I’m finding that the most impact is experienced by establishing cultures of enablement and trust within the classroom community, collaborating with students, parents and administrators to leverage our existing capacity.

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Systems Thinking: A Gharagedaghi Brief

I’m now back from a seven-week summer sabbatical in Chicago. Alongside improv workshops and taking stage to tell stories, I spent much of my time learning about Systems Design.

In particular, I grew fascinated with Jamshid Gharagedaghi’s Systems Thinking; Managing Chaos and Complexity (2005). I saw parallels between the call for student-directed, project-based classrooms and Gharagedaghi’s projections for organizational success in the 21st century:

The age-old lesson behind the rise and fall of human institutions: success changes the game and converts, by default, the very secrets of success to the ultimate seeds of destruction.

In hopes that others might find value in connecting with Systems Thinking, I’m posting my notes here. Also here’s some notes from my reading of Donella Meadows. Please feel welcome to use and share.


What follows is a selection of excerpts and summaries from Jamshid Gharagedaghi’s Systems Thinking; Managing Chaos and Complexity (2005). I offer this brief in response to members of OCADU’s 2014 Strategic Foresight and Innovation Graduate Class who, despite the text’s inclusion on their readings list, reported skipping the reading due its relative density and complexity. My hope is that the pages that follow will offer a basic sense of the foundational implications of Systems Thinking and grounds for reading the complete text. 

I came to Systems Design as someone interested in shifting the traditional high school experience. I believe that learning rooted in authentic experience and the real interests of students is better for all stakeholders. Consistent with the practice of self-directed, project-based education, my work aims to transition teenagers from institutional notions of achievement towards skills development that are more likely to improve the particular circumstances of their lives. As I’m fond of saying, ‘A job will never make you wealthy. Best get started on building something you can call your own. ‘

Implementing a classroom practice that shifts according to the unique context and values of students has proven a significant undertaking, and I’ve iterated platforms and techniques in an effort to encourage students, teachers, administrators and parents to embrace a more process-oriented approach to schooling.

The broad field of Systems Thinking, and Gharagedaghi’s writing in particular, has helped me recognize the elemental nature of the challenges I encounter. The text also offers tools, strategies and examples that shift organizations away from predetermined algorithms of behavior towards malleable, generative communities of interdependent, autonomous individuals behaving in manners consistent with the greater interest.

What is Systems Thinking?

Wikipedia describes Systems Thinking as the “process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole”. Gharagedaghi says it is far more valuable to consider the whole as a means to understand its parts, than it is to take the sum of the parts in an effort to see the whole.

At best, Systems Thinking offers an approximation on what might be going on, a way of looking at the world. If all things are interconnected, an effort to define boundaries is a fool’s errand. Taking time to notice patterns and relationships and emergent qualities of those relationships offers insight into the mechanics of our circumstances. By no means prescriptive, Systems Mapping offers an opportunity to design towards a more thriving experience.

This text considers the specific context of human organizations, what Gharagedaghi calls a ‘multiminded system’, a voluntary association of purposeful members. The cohesive ingredient is membership’s shared image of a desirable future. Our behavior is related to this image, and ingrained behavior can be thought of as culture. Recognizing and shaping the culture of organizations is a central theme for Gharagedaghi. He aims for members to develop a sense of autonomy such that effective choices are made within the unique context of their environment while simultaneously integrating members into a cohesive and effective whole.

Why Should I Care?

The context in which we live is shifting. Adhering to choices and routines that proved successful in the past will lead to future peril. For instance, the industrial model of school, characterized by guardianship and ready-made programs, prepares students for a stable job market, an approach that leaves contemporary youth unprepared for the malleability and enterprise required in an unstable world.

My particular hope is that those involved in shaping the lives of youth will discover value in helping kids take agency for themselves and recognize the harm in prioritizing achievement of predetermined outcomes over the enablement and development of decision-making capacity in youth. Beyond the scope of education, Systems Thinking is a powerful premise to consider the world in which we live and the influence we have upon it. Be it in business or community or family, we have an opportunity to foster more human experiences for ourselves and others.

Consistent with my understanding of Financial Principles (wealth flows through investment) and Positive Psychology (contentment flows from agency to pursue personally meaningful activity), Systems Design reinforces the notion that a common characteristic of successful organizations are autonomous people interacting within bounded communities of common interest. This text offers some grounds for manifesting this nature of organization.

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What I learned about storytelling from 1-week at Second City Chicago

This summer I had the privilege of doing a one-week intensive course through Second City Chicago’s Training Center. Led by Andy Eninger, head of the writing program, the course was called Solo Performance. We spent most of our time taking stage, following a prompt, and creating a scene from there.

We practiced a variety of techniques, including direct monologue, stepping out of context and addressing the audience directly, playing multiple characters within a scene, jumping from scene to scene without breaking stride, prop work without the use of props, and mime. The core of the practice was improvisational, and still I learned a ton about the structure of storytelling.

My greatest challenge was getting out of my head.

“Let your body get out front of your mind”.

That is, when thrown a prompt like ‘daffodils’, my first impulse was to try and think of something. Instead, Andy asked me to make a movement and then discover what that movement might be; committing to whatever it was that was happening, discovering the story at the same time as the audience. Through this practice, the scene would unfold.

While most of our workshop time was spent in this sort of creative play, I did manage to note a few prompts for telling compelling stories.

Put a reasonable character in an unreasonable circumstance. The NASA janitor finds himself on the space shuttle. ”I think I’ve taken a wrong turn.”

Put an unreasonable character in a reasonable circumstance. An 84 year-old, crotchety, walker-toting stewardess gets on the airplane PA system. “If you want something to drink, get it your own damn self!”

In both cases, put obstacles in the way of characters achieving what they want. If the stewardess wants to be left alone to rest, create a situation where she’s dealing with ongoing demands. “Pardon me, ma’am. Can you help me get my dog’s squeaky-toy out of the overhead compartment?” If the janitor wants to be a good employee, create a situation where he’s asked to do impossible jobs.

All characters have something they want. As they attempt to satisfy these wants, they are propelled forward through the situation.

Audiences are generally looking for
1) Broken characters coming together, or
2) Whole characters coming apart.

In the telling of a story, find the internal vulnerability. Let the audience hear the inner dialogue. What’s at stake? Need to make this moment important.

Why is this character taking this action today? Why didn’t they take this action yesterday? What has changed in the life of the character and prompts them into this new behaviour?

Addressing these basic prompts creates tension, lends insights into the nature of the character, and leads to funny and/or dramatic circumstances more likely to engage an audience.

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Mobilise Students, Release Teachers

I find myself thinking a lot about the role of teachers in the classroom.
Are students better served through coaching and mentoring support, instead of the direction they tend to receive?
And if students are better served by a more humanist, process-oriented learning experience, how can administrative mandates around curriculum achievement continue to be served?
In my experience, teachers as coaches foster a space where student enterprise may occur. What tips the whole class into a more creative, engaged learning space is when the early adopters among the students, those inclined to be self-starting, offer inspiration and models for their peers. Some will say that self-direction may be appropriate for some, but not for all. This has been the case with the students I’ve worked with. All have proved capable and enabled and curious in some regard, and when their teacher legitimises their interests and seeks to know more about their existing capacity that the culture of the classroom begins to transform.
It may seem obvious that institutions are less than interested in fostering these kinds of spaces, more inclined to pursue the prescriptive models of learning that have been implemented for generations. However, I am finding spaces that are more pliable. Business Studies is one such context. Another is working with drop outs.
As I am fond of saying; in an era of budget cutbacks, the most underutilised resource in education are students. When we help students identify their existing interests, legitimise their productive inclinations, and learn how to design curriculum, we are mobilising this resource. In my experience, once students confront their institutionalised or apathetic dispositions, they are keen for the challenge. It is teachers, administrators, and parents who are more resistant to trusting the nature of young people, and my work has been to design platforms that help all stakeholders transition to a model of learning that will prove more appropriate for the contemporary world.
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Exam Week Reflections

At the moment, I am supervising a group of thirty high school seniors as they write a final exam. Their desks are covered in Scantron sheets, scratched notes and eraser shavings. All of us are looking forward to being through with the semester and on to more meaningful use of our time.

For my part, I am looking forward to returning my attention to posting here at Life Well Spent. It has been a long year in the trenches of high school classrooms, and while life on the front lines is draining, I am taking a lot of learning away with me.

I look forward to sharing stories of students taking ownership for their learning, details of projects set for the year ahead, and profiling students walking out of school and on to success of their own creation.

Here’s hoping that those of us emerging from another year in the institution will find the space to reconnect with our human spirit. My hope is to use the summer to honour passions that touch my soul and find the energy to move forward with initiatives that hold meaning to me and my community.

Thanks to Free Your Mind and Think, as well as Charles Tsai, for the image.

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In the Media: Become More Enterprising

Over the past few weeks, I’ve collected links that make clear the need for education programs that encourage young people to become more enterprising. Our work here at Life Well Spent puts into practice some of the ideas that have been written about, and it’s nice to know that our work is part of a broader effort to generate  learning spaces that aim to develop the skills required to thrive in the 21st century.

Stanford’s Social Innovation Review talks about the role of schools in developing enterprising students.

Adobe Software writes that creativity must play a bigger role in education.

The Next 36 is developing Entrepreneurial Leaders at the college and university level.

The New York Times reports that coaching is a cost-effective way to help undergraduates succeed in university.

The Globe and Mail reports that 3/4 of high school students report anxiety when thinking about their future, and that there exists a need to help students manage pressures associated with decision-making.

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Need a Job? Invent It.

New York Times writer Thomas Friedman recently posted an article that addresses the value in learning to be innovative. In particular, Friedman discusses the Finnish education system. which has been gaining attention as a framework that the rest of the world ought to be considering in efforts to develop 21st Century skills in young people.

For our part, Life Well Spent has spent much of the past ten months implementing a student-directed, inquiry-based learning model in high school Business Studies courses. As these projects wrap up over the next few weeks, we will look forward to sharing images and anecdotes from our most recent experience in encouraging teenagers to take the wheel of their own learning.

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Students decide what happens in their Classroom

Here’s a terrific video that describes what it can look like when students take ownership for what happens in their classrooms.

and a Ted Talk that tells the story of rural students using design process to use the community as their school space.

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Building the Plane in the Air

Alan Levine has posted about his open-source digital story telling class, ds106, and it has me inspired in a number of ways. To being with, it’s evidence that when you imagine a classroom as an open community space, people will make it their own. Further, when you host that community in the online world, the places the community can gain access are limitless.

Ds106 is an open source learning space that helps people develop their digital story telling skills. The assumption is that the people who participate are eager to create, and it seems that there are thousands who have stepped up for the opportunity. The premise is that there is no ‘right answer’, but the undertaking is a query in which all participants, including the instructors, are encouraged to contribute. “Building the plane in the air,” is one way that levine describes it.

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The Happiness of Responsibility

The Christmas holidays proved a happy time in my home. The days were filled with good friends and lots of space to relax. I managed to read three different books, and just about every meal was home cooked (sometimes by my own two hands!).

After the break, I asked my students about their holidays. They agreed that it was a happy time. And for sure they preferred holidays to school. When I prompted for details, they said they liked things like sleeping late, hanging out with friends, playing video games and getting to do what they wanted.

I felt it, too. The lessening of responsibility offered space to do the things I most enjoyed. That led me to wonder if happiness comes from a lack of responsibility. Were we all just looking forward to a time where we had fewer have-to-dos? And by extension, does it follow that responsibility stands in the way of happiness?

When I shared this thought with my students, they said it made sense. School sucks. School brings things they have to do. Holidays are good. Holiday has fewer things they have to do.

Except I believe that responsibility is a defining characteristic of adulthood. It’s taking responsibility for our commitments and our choices that allows us to sustain on own two feet. While it’s true I found happiness in the holidays, it’s because I found space and energy to give myself to activities that feel more meaningful than the administrative realities of my classroom job. Taking responsibility for activities that hold meaning lets me feel like my life has relevance and I’m building towards something that ‘matters’. Accepting responsibility for things handed to me by others seems a good way to have my energies exhausted and spirits dampened.

So the challenge remains; how can we work to help young people discover their inclinations to build, and through that, embrace responsibility. One thing seems clear. Mentors like myself can express satisfaction in the face of responsibility while maintaining an ongoing effort to transition away from those ‘jobs’ handed down by others and towards those we choose for ourselves.

So what are you ridiculously passionate about?


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