Systems thinking describes an approach to making sense of the situation where we look at the whole in order to make sense of what individual parts may be doing. As such, it is in direct contrast to normal, Cartesian, ways of thinking which look at parts in order to understand how the whole works.
In this context we define a system as a collection of entities that are seen to be interacting in order to do something. From this basic definition three fundamental principles emerge, that:
- there are relationships between the entities which means that they affect each other in various ways
- what is happening depends on what is seen, and so there will be different perspectives
- decisions need to be made about what is in the system and what is outside, boundary judgements.
Systems thinking is a powerful tool for understanding complex problems, where there are many ill-defined but interacting factors affecting what is going on. Sustainability is clearly a situation where systems thinking is of fundamental importance, and Learning strategies for sustainable organisations provides an introduction to what systems thinking is and how it can be used to develop a learning strategy.
As well as being of great value in carrying out learning needs assessments and evaluations, systems thinking is also a key competency in the field of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), a discipline in education which seeks to improve understanding about social and environmental sustainability.ESD is a central plank of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals and is an initiative driven by UNESCO.
This diagram shows the connections between interrelationships, different perspectives and boundary judgements which are a fundamental principle in systems thinking.