“Systems thinking skills are critical for developing a sense of agency”
Leyla Acaroglu, a social scientist, entrepreneur, and founder of the UnSchool of Disruptive Design, discusses why both learners and their teachers need to develop a different skillset to transform our future.
Aisha Schnellmann: What critical skills do young children need to develop for the future?
Leyla Acaroglu: In my opinion, systems thinking is a critical thinking tool we need to transform our society from one that exploits resources into one that is a regenerative force in this world. Many of today’s problems are a result of externalities and unintended consequences caused by yesterday’s solutions, with linear thinking disconnecting people from the natural systems that surround them.
In contrast, systems thinking teaches that we are all interconnected and interdependent on natural systems. It completely changes how you see the world and how you see yourself in it. The world becomes a dynamic, constantly evolving system that you are a part of. This way of thinking therefore develops in learners a sense of agency and gives them confidence that they do have the power to affect change on themselves and the world around them.
It also changes the way they approach complex problems and issues. This fundamental mindset shift from linear thinking in fact needs to occur in all generations of society – from young children to older adults.
“Many of today’s problems are a result of externalities and unintended consequences caused by yesterday’s solutions.”
AS: Do you think that in the present school systems, sufficient opportunities are available for young children to develop these skills?
LA: I think there are of course opportunities, but it differs from country to country. It also depends to a significant extent on the teachers’ capacity to incorporate activities that develop these skills in their lessons. During my journey as an educator for example, I’ve met teachers who were themselves overwhelmed with teaching this entire new skill because it was new to them, too. This led me to create educator support tools that enable teachers to get over this inertia, develop these skills themselves, and motivate them to design learning experiences that integrate frameworks such as lifecycle thinking and circular systems design.
There is also a need to create environments that maximize learning, where there is less directed teaching but more interactive experiences that encourage inquiry and curiosity, creativity, wonderment, and engagement. Instead of students learning individual subjects independently, an approach where these are taught together in the context of how they intersect in the real world, would be transformative.
AS: What other skills do you think children additionally need to actively contribute to social innovation and sustainability in the future?
LA: Creativity and resistance to “failure”. It is important for children to learn that there is really no such thing as failure because learning is, at its core, an iterative process. When you make a prototype that does not work, instead of viewing it as a failure, children can discover how to use it as an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve done and figure out what didn’t work. Skills to solve problems such as observation, reflection, and curiosity are also important to develop.
AS: Transforming how children are trained to think requires significant resources and a coordinated effort. What roles can governments and educational institutes play to support this effort?
LA: Although teachers are generally provided with a curriculum, they have the autonomy to design lessons how they see best, while delivering the expected syllabus. Teachers therefore have a tremendous influence on the way children learn. Governments can empower teachers to become more participatory and action-oriented by equipping them with necessary support tools and with the capacity to approach the curriculum from a more holistic perspective.
“There is also a need to create environments that maximize learning, where there is less directed teaching but more interactive experiences that encourage inquiry and curiosity, creativity, wonderment, and engagement.”
My project with the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland is one such example. I worked with the education authorities to go through their curriculum and analyze how sustainability education, creative thinking, and systems thinking could fit in their current curriculum. This resulted in interactive workshops and eventually a toolkit that is used in several Finnish schools today.
I recently saw photographs and videos of 7-year-olds designing solutions for climate change as part of class. This for me demonstrates the transformative role of education – with children imbued with a sense of agency, encouraged to be creative, and unafraid to ask complicated questions about complex issues.
Designer, sociologist, sustainability provocateur, and 2016 United Nations Champion of the Earth, Leyla Acaroglu challenges people to think differently about how the world works. As a pioneer of creative change, she weaves together sustainability, design, and systems thinking to challenge the way people see the world. She is the founder of Disrupt Design, The UnSchool, and CO Project Farm.
Leyla Acaroglu was one of the keynote speakers at the 2019 Zurich Campus Seminar. This inspirational event for teachers, entitled “A Digital Transformation in Schools,” examined ways to shape the future of education and presented exciting model projects as part of Spotlight Switzerland.