Can Systems Thinking be Applied to Learning or Technology Systems?

We’ve been examining systems and trying to determine whether a holistic approach best explains social phenomena, or whether individuals, in seeking their own self-interests, give rise to institutions and social norms. I must confess that although the picture it paints of human nature is rather bleak and dark, the perspective of the individualists and Game Theory in particular makes a lot more sense to me than that of the holists. I can handle a bottom-up philosophy much more readily than a top-down one, possibly because it gives me a greater sense of control over my own destiny.

I also feel that while it is helpful to look at both learning systems and technology systems as a whole, it is also helpful to break them down into components and understand how and why those components work and interreact. For example, learning systems work in isolated situations. There is not one right way to learn or to teach, and what is right is often related to the content of the material being taught, the prior knowledge of the learners, and even the individual learning preferences of the learners. Since the success of a particular learning system or combination of them is driven by individuals, it is helpful to understand them from both a holistic and an individual approach, so systems thinking can be helpful in that instance.

Similarly a technology system is made up many individual components. While the technology functions together as one system, the individual components each have their own function and some may be switched out to improve or change the functionality of the overall unit. My son builds his own computers and builds custom computers for others as a hobby. His understanding of the individual components allows him to design a computer which is perfect for the individual interested in gaming. That computer is quite different from the computer for the person interested in composing his or her own music, and that computer in turn is different from the computer for the online student or the self-employed photographer running his business from his home. He understands each individual component and can trade up for more graphic power, more hard-drive space, better sound quality, or faster processing speeds as needed to support each person’s needs. The end result is still a functioning system which each person would call a computer, but they might all contain components of very different specifications; some components might be completely lacking in some units and be of vital importance in others.

Systems theory is difficult to get my head around but I have been finding this chapter on Games Theory to fit better into my world view and it makes some sense to me. Although I see value in understanding the whole, I don’t think the holistics approach as well explains the state of our societies and why we have governments and institutions. I do think we are the sum of many parts, and while we have formed systems which have become more than the sum of their parts, I think we need to understand the components that make up those systems to ensure they work their best and are best suited to individual needs. This is true whether you are talking about learning systems or technological systems.


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