In the context of education reform, parents, citizens, taxpayers continually hear the term "systems approach" or "systems thinking."  What is it?  What does it mean?  Where did it come from?  What part will it play in the restructuring of America?

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking grew out of the writings of Alfred North Whitehead.  The science of systems thinking is credited to a man by the name of Ludwig von Bertalanffy and his associates (one of whom is Ervin Laszlo, currently working with the United Nations).  The generic term for systems thinking is general systems theory.

A word about Bertalanffy before continuing.  Bertalanffy came to the United States from Germany on a Rockefeller grant.  He returned to German-occupied Vienna, Austria, in 1938.  His biology textbooks were used by Hitler.  He returned to the United States following World War II.

General systems theory states, simply, that the world is a system of subsystems (also called systems), all interconnected and interdependent to form a wholistic or holistic system; that within any system is an infrastructure that is analogous (the same) across systems, irrespective of physical appearance.

Stated a bit differently, but to the same effect, is the Gaia hypothesis which states the world is a living, breathing organism, irreducible to its parts; that what affects one part, affects all parts; that in the name of saving spaceship Earth, we must change our society.  The Gaia hypothesis adds a spiritual (metaphysical) dimension to systems thinking.

Systems thinking sees everything as wholistic, with all parts interconnected, interdependent.  In the words of Senge (1990), systems thinking …

…is the fifth discipline because it is the conceptual cornerstone that underlies all of the five learning disciplines of this book.

This discipline is the foundation upon which the other four disciplines function:  personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning.  Many who have been through the team building process of consensus will recognize the terms.  The systems thinking model, because of its wholistic approach, is cyclical — sometimes shown as a circle, sometimes as a spiral.  The beginning is the end.  You start at point A and your destination is point A.  The journey between point A and point A is the "process".  At point A the change agents decide what they want the world to look like in x number of years.  This is the goal, destination, or outcome.  Example:  the exit outcomes for the school, state, federal:  what the child should know and be able to do as a result of his or her educational experience; what the child should look like.

The next step is to align everything to achieve point A, the outcome.  In this endeavor, the curriculum, instruction and teaching methodologies are aligned to the outcome to ensure that the outcome is reached; the measure of which is the assessment.  This process is known by many names, among them backmapping.  The technical term is a syllogism: a process used by behavioral scientists to bring about planned change.

Thus it is that mankind can be said to be creating the future.

It is imperative, at this point, to digress to the philosophy behind systems thinking as it is important to understanding the semantics of systems thinking.  Systems thinking sees everything as a system, analogous to all other systems irrespective of physical appearance.  All things are equal, whether it be the ecosystem or mankind — man is no better than animal or a tree.  The underlying philosophy here is humanism that maintains that man is devoid of spirituality or self-determinism.  It therefrom follows that man must be conditioned (the process) to his environment (the outcome or goals), whatever it is decided that environment will be (creating the future).  As stated in the Humanist Manifesto II,

…we can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species.  While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become.  No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.

All the exit outcomes from all the school districts, states, and Goals 2000 are what man must be conditioned to to achieve the created future.  That created future is based on future trends which, again, is cyclical, deciding what "we" (the change agents) want the world to look like (in the 21st Century), then backmapping.  In this same vein, outcome-based education is education based on outcomes — starting at the end and backmapping to ensure the outcome.  In researching future trends, it becomes very obvious that they are not based on fact, but rather on the doomsday prophesies of rabid environmental groups whose religious philosophy is very much humanistic/New Age.

Systems thinking, to repeat, sees everything as wholes.  It is in this context that appear whole language; the wholistic education system incorporating all services to deal with the whole child — mentally, physically, emotionally; life-role or real-life (wholistic) education; constructivist (hands on) learning (the child reinventing the wheel); integrated curriculum deleting the lines of structured disciplines; thematic units addressing social or life-related issues (wholistic); conflict resolution in pursuit of the collectivist (wholistic) society; peer tutoring to promote the group (collectivist) mentality; the child centered classroom; individual learning plans (IEP's) …  Everything that is done is to achieve the whole, with all systems (everything done to produce the child who will look like the exit outcomes) interconnected and interdependent to achieve the whole.

Humanism is a religion that sees everything as wholistic, the basis of collectivist thought and action; it is the foundation upon which Marx built his philosophy (Marx saw Christianity as a religion of self-alienation, something to be stamped out at all cost).  Marx believed the individual mind to be part of the universal mind (the wholistic mind), the collective.  He saw the Hegelian Dialectic as a process for achieving wholes, of Oneness of Mind through a process of thesis (an idea or proposition), antithesis (the opposite idea or proposition) and synthesis (the bringing together of thesis and antithesis).  Synthesis then becomes the new thesis, and through a continuing process (evolution to higher levels), Oneness of Mind theoretically occurs.  If you look consensus up in the dictionary, you will discover that it means solidarity of belief; continual evolution to oneness of mind.  To achieve consensus (wholism), one must give up his or her individual beliefs and conform to the group beliefs — again to achieve the whole.

Left to its own devices, however, consensus is uncontrollable.  Thus, to control the process, and insure the outcome, facilitators are trained in group dynamics (how individuals brought together in a group interact) to ensure the outcome.  Again, we start at point A and return to point A.  In the process, the greater number of participants are brought to hold the predetermined outcome instead of just the facilitator.  In the words of one participant, the job of the facilitator is to make everyone in the group think it's their idea (Resource Document, Schools for the 21st Century, Final Report, January 1995).

Because of multiple parties being involved in consensus, it cannot be rigid except in outcome.  In each instance thesis and antithesis come into play, with synthesis as the outcome, whether achieved incrementally or in one cycle.  From the synthesis of thesis and antithesis comes compromise.  Thus it is that there is no right or wrong answer, everything is relative, situational.  (This is the why and wherefore, also, of no right answer in the classroom.)  Everything is thesis and antithesis, ever evolving in a spiral, whether individual thought or collective thought, to the next higher plain.  This is, incidentally, the process of attaining higher order thinking.  This is the reason for the teacher as facilitator — the guide on the side; not the sage on the stage.

The facilitative process is not one that appeals to the cognitive domain; it appeals to the affective domain — how people feel.  In achieving consensus, it is not what one knows about a subject that matters, it is how one feels that is important.  As so adequately demonstrated by the final evaluation of the Schools for the 21st Century in Washington state, content is excellence in terms of the change agenda, process is the destination, the product, and what learning is about; and emotionality and affectivity are the means by which content and process will be achieved.  If you want to change someone's belief system, you do not appeal to what they know, you appeal to what they believe, how they feel about a subject or issue.  In a consensus circle, the facilitator sets the stage by appealing to the affective domain of the participants — emotionality is imperative.  If the advocates of education reform have learned nothing else from sex education programs and the resulting rise in teen pregnancies, they have learned that appealing to emotionality sets the stage if the intent is for people to compromise their principles.  Once the stage has been set, affective is brought into conflict with cognitive, and the individual is pushed to conform to a group belief system — mine, yours and ours.  Once that has occurred, and individual principles have been compromised, it is very hard for the individual to reclaim his individuality.  To do so requires breaking away emotionally from the new "family" and again thinking for oneself.  The social acceptance within the circle makes this very hard for most people to do — a facet that is very much counted on.  What people learn about each other, intimately, within the circle "of trust" also becomes a coercive factor against anyone who might attempt to break away.

In the classroom, systems thinking plays out in the focus of the classroom.  No longer is the focus knowledge.  Now the focus is real-life or life-role education.  Everything is set in the context of children experiencing real-life situations.  Thus it is that the focus in the classroom is social or life-related issues taught in the context of unit themes or thematic units, whether it is gender, prejudice, discrimination, the environment, homosexuality, life styles, …  The primary focus, however, is upon environmentalism, which is why parents are finding a lot of it in the classroom.  This environmentalism is not, in most cases, based on scientifically validated research, but rather, on the doomsday prophesies of rabid environmentalists with a self-serving agenda — an agenda that plays itself out in such events as the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and similar more recent events such as the more recent earth summit held in Japan.  The fear tactics perpetuated in the name of global warming is a good example.

Future trends harken back to a man by the name of Jay W Forrester and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  (Forrester was Peter Senge's mentor for 20 years according to Senge, 1990).  In 1972, Forrester established a world simulation model known as World 3 for the Club of Rome (this group has a propensity toward world government).  This was a computer simulation model that, according to inputs, predicted future scenarios.  A book, The Limits to Growth by Donnella Meadows, was written over the twenty scenarios predicted by the simulation model.  None of the predictions have come true, but that's beside the point.  It is the doomsday prophesies that "we must change our ways if we are to save spaceship Earth" that dominates the scene.  This is also what comes across in the classroom where turning children into social and political activists for the cause is paramount.  This is what Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson meant, in her 1997 state of education address, when she said,

Education beats out fighting crime, holding the line on taxes, creating new jobs, improving access to health care, or protecting the environment.  And, by the way, when we achieve our educational goals, all of these problems will be addressed in new and better ways.

In his book, A Strategy for the Future, The Systems Approach to World Order, Laszlo predicted that a more accurate and concise model of World 3 would be in place by the mid-1980's.  This, or something similar, is undoubtedly where the predictions of what the world will look like in the 21st century are coming from.  The point that needs to be made here, is that in predicting the future, the future can also be created, starting at point A and returning to it.  In others words, whatever the "we" want it to look like.  What "we" want it to look like is manifesting itself now in the classrooms across American under Goals 2000, STW and the plethora of bills building the system.

In creating the future, one of the first steps, is to analyze "where we are now" against "where we want to be."  This is called a gap analysis.  Undoubtedly, most have heard this term.  The gap analysis becomes the foundation of the change strategy — what "we" need to do to move people from "where they are now" to where "we want them to be" — from "here" to "there."  The facilitative process then becomes the bridge between "here" and "there" whether in the classroom or in the community or in the country.  This is why facilitators are used in the whole of the process, whether in the classroom or in establishing the mission and vision statements and the exit outcomes.

Once the cyclical process is put in motion, theoretically it will envelope the whole community at some point — except those who refuse to participate, referred to by proponents as critics of change, naysayers, the glass half-empty crowd, and enemies of education.  The success of systems thinking, however, is contingent on it encompassing everyone — all.  Because not everyone can be so easily controlled, the necessity comes eventually, in the interests of the system, to invoke tyrannical means of achieving and maintaining compliance to the system.  This is why, in the USSR, dissidents were labeled "mentally ill" and incarcerated "until they came to their senses."  See The Fallacy of Systems Thinking.

Systems thinking is the method of achieving and maintaining the planned economy, in which every facet is carefully monitored and carefully controlled, including the human factor.  It is a system that does not tolerate deviance from the accepted norm.  It is a system that is very much into producing robots that all act and think alike.

Accountability, under systems thinking, is the gathering and analysis of statistical data to measure evolution to outcomes, to insure compliance with the system.  Thus the establishment of huge data banks housing personally identifiable information on every man, woman and child.  Available to the proponents of systems thinking is the element that was missing in early models (Planning Programming Budgeting Systems, mastery learning) — computer technology.  In the gathering, storage and analysis of statistical data and personally identifiable information on every man, woman and child in this nation, coercion becomes a definite factor in achieving the desired outcome — whether it is determined that the parent, teacher or child is the problem.

The Spiritual Dimension

In his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Senge acknowledges that the vision for the writing of this book was born in the fall of 1987 during his morning meditation.  As a book outlining the components of the high performance work organization, the road to continuous quality improvement, the total quality environment, and as a book referenced heavily in books written advocating education reform, this revelation in the introduction gives us a sense of the spiritual aspect of systems thinking.  Senge defines this aspect further in defining personal mastery — one of the five disciplines of the learning organization, acknowledging that it is rooted in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions as well as secular traditions — three components of New Age religious practice.  He also states that personal mastery is imperative to developing and sustaining shared vision within an organization.

Eastern spiritual traditions incorporate mystic practices involving altered states of consciousness, known to parents as guided fantasy/guided visualization, sometimes as centering or relaxation exercises or techniques.  In Senge's words, these practices are key to "working effectively with the subconscious".

Senge also points out, in The Fifth Discipline, that an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling forbids companies from requiring that employees participate in training seminars that they believe violate their religious beliefs, and Christians do believe that these practices are a form of self-divination that is forbidden by the Bible.  But Senge claims that this snafu in the workplace can be circumvented.  He claims that anyone committed to the learning organization is also committed to truth.   In other words, if the Christian refuses to participate in these religious practices, the Christian denies truth and is a roadblock to achieving the learning organization.

There is another way to circumvent this roadblock, as outlined in The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson …

You can only have a new society, the visionaries have said, if you change the education of the younger generation. … Of the Aquarian Conspirators surveyed, more were involved in education than in any other single category of work.  (p 280)

Teachers are being taught the techniques of guided fantasy/guided visualization by people such as Jack Canfield of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.  Canfield is a New Age author and promoter of confluent education.  In an article published in New Age magazine in 1978, Canfield instructs …

If you're teaching in a public school, don't call it meditation, call it "centering."  Every school wants children to be relaxed, attentive, and creative, and that's what they will get.

In a sidebar to this article, it is acknowledged that …

Many of the new methods and approaches we have written about in this article are beginning to be adopted by more and more teachers in pilot programs.

More and more parents are becoming aware of the use of the techniques of guided fantasy/guided visualization in the classroom.  Both of these techniques place the child in an altered state of consciousness — a key component of yoga or meditation.  In this state, children are VERY open to suggestion which is why this state is used in most accelerated learning programs that can be connected to George Lozanov, the Bulgarian (communist) professor.

Besides the religious aspect of guided fantasy/guided visualization, parents need to know that these practices can have a very adverse affect on a child in a couple different ways.  First, children placed in an altered state of consciousness are often taken to meet a spirit guide, guide, or wise old person.  In The Beautiful Side of Evil and Like Lambs to the Slaughter, Johanna Michaelsen exposes these spirit guides as demonic spirits.  If anyone is the least bit dubious about where this can end, these books are recommended reading.  This is also one of the reasons why parents are seeing Native American studies being brought into the schools as the Native American spirituality (religion) incorporates altered states of consciousness in pursuit of spirit guides — the hawk, the eagle, the coyote, the bear, etc.  Just as marijuana is an introduction to harder drugs, introducing children to guided fantasy/guided visualization invariably leads to broader experimentation.  It is dangerous, as Johanna Michaelsen divulges in her books, and often leads to satanic, occult worship — earth worship (GAIA), spirit guides, mandalas, etc.  These practices in schools are, however, being touted as an avenue to the inner wisdom, creativity, and self esteem we hear so much about these days.  Anyone who wants to get an eyeful of where it goes, just pick up The Light Shall Set You Free, co-authored by Dr Shirley McCune (currently an employee under the direction of the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction and a friend of Terry Bergeson) and read it.

The second problem is that the practice of placing children in altered states of consciousness should ONLY be done by licensed clinicians and then ONLY under certain conditions.  This medical procedure should NEVER be used in a group setting such as a classroom where the use of it by teachers is nothing short of medical malpractice.  That aside, more and more lawsuits are being filed by parents whose children have been put in these hypnotic states, resulting in problems returning to consciousness, flashbacks at any time (like psychedelic drugs cause), and blackouts.  Teachers are being taught how to use these techniques, they are not being told the whole story behind the use of these techniques or what can happen if they do use them.

Guided fantasy/guided visualization is New Age, and their use in the classroom exposes children early to New Age practices in pursuit of the learning organization, the high performance work organization, the total quality environment.  It is being done in schools without the knowledge or informed consent of parents which violates their rights as well as the child’s.  It also violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, forbidding the establishment of a state religion.

Referenced Resources:

Ferguson, Marilyn; The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time; New York: G. P. Putnam Sons; 1980.

Lazslo, Ervin; A Strategy for the Future: The Systems Approach to World Order; New York: George Braziller; 1974.

McCune, Shirley and Dr Norma Milanovich; The Light Shall Set You Free; Albuquerque: Athena Publishing; 1996.

Meadows, Donnella et al.; The Limits to Growth; New York: New American Library; 1972.

Michaelsen, Johanna; The Beautiful Side of Evil; Eugene: Harvest House Publishers; 1982.

Michaelsen, Johanna; Like Lambs to the Slaughter: Your Child and the Occult; Eugene: Harvest House Publishers; 1989.

Senge, Peter; The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization; New York: Currency Doubleday; 1990.

©September 1998; Lynn M Stuter

Websites Regarding Systems Theory:

International Federation for Systems Research

International Society of Systems Sciences

International Systems Institute