Nature as teacher is the main principle behind the Center for Ecoliteracy‘s publication Smart by Nature – Schooling for Sustainability. This requires thinking in terms of systems – one of nature’s basic characteristics.
At this time on our planet it is required that everyone becomes a change agent.
Wherever you are, whatever your age, you can take the lead in facilitating transformation in your environment. This story is to support you in your leadership role and provide some perspective on and padkos for the journey.
Systems can be incredibly complex. Individual things – like plants, people and communities – are all systems of interrelated elements. They can’t be fully understood apart from the larger systems in which they exist.
Go to the heart of education
Living systems are dynamic. They resist change, but they also develop, adapt, and evolve. Understanding how systems maintain and change themselves has very practical consequences that go to the heart of education for sustainable living.
The centre offers Seven Lessons for educators and change agents who are tackling the challenge of changing systems, which are based on the work of thousands of leaders.
Lesson #1: To promote systems change, foster community and cultivate networks.
Lasting change frequently requires interrelationships within a community. For instance, curricular innovation at a school usually becomes sustainable only when at least a third of the faculty are engaged and committed.
To achieve systems change, leaders must cross department boundaries and bring people addressing parts of the problem around the same table. In the push to make decisions and produce results quickly, it’s easy to bypass people – often the very people who will have the task of implementing changes and whose cooperation is key to success. It’s necessary to keep asking: “Who’s being left out?” and “Who should be in the room?”
Lesson #2: Work at multiple levels of scale.
“Nested systems” is a core ecological principle. Like Russian “matryoshka” dolls that fit one into the other, most systems contain other systems and are contained within larger systems: classes within schools within districts within counties, states, and the nation.
Changing a system affects both the systems within it and the systems in which it is nested. The challenge for change agents is choosing the right level, or levels, of scale for the changes they seek.
Lesson #3: Make space for self-organization.
Networks that can effect systems change will sometimes self-organize if you set up the right conditions.
Lesson #4: Seize breakthrough opportunities when they arise.
From time to time a system encounters a point of instability where it is confronted by new circumstances or information that it can’t absorb without giving up some of its old structures, behaviours, or beliefs. That instability can precipitate either a breakdown or a breakthrough to new possibilities.
Lesson #5: Facilitate – but give up the illusion that you can direct change.
In the provocative maxim of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, “You can never direct a living system. You can only disturb it.”
How? Introduce information that contradicts old assumptions. Invite new people into the conversation. Rearrange structures. Present issues from different perspectives.
Meanwhile, create conditions that take advantage of the system’s capacity for generating creative solutions. Nurture networks of connection and communication, create climates of trust and mutual support, encourage questioning, and reward innovation. Effective leaders recognize emergent novelty, articulate it, and incorporate it into organizations’ designs. Leaders sometimes lead best when they loosen control and take the risk of dispersing authority and responsibility.
Lesson #6: Assume that change is going to take time.
Anticipate that you’ll need time for the education and training required for people to change attitudes, adopt new practices, or use new tools. Set high goals, but take manageable steps. Look for intermediate achievements that allow people to experience – and celebrate – success and to receive recognition on the way to the ultimate goal.
Taking time for stakeholders to understand each other’s concerns and learn to trust each other’s motivations and intentions can be time well spent.
Lesson #7: Be prepared to be surprised.
Change in living systems is nonlinear. As they develop and evolve, living systems generate phenomena that are not predictable from the properties of their individual parts.
The art and science of systems change are continually evolving. We encourage people to experiment with these seven lessons and to expect surprises. Frequently it’s the unanticipated consequences that are the most rewarding and effective results of immersion in dynamic systems.