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Systems Thinking applied to curriculum and pedagogy: a review of the literature

Spain, S. (2019) Systems Thinking applied to curriculum and pedagogy: a review of the literature. Curriculum Perspectives, 39 (2). pp. 135-145.

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This paper proposes Systems Thinking as a methodology to better observe, learn, analyse and construct curriculum and pedagogy. Informed by von Bertalanffy’s (1950) principle of Dynamic Equilibrium (Fliessgleichgewich), Systems Thinking presents a means to consider complex systems as continuously breaking down and rebuilding to adapt and maintain function. In addition, I refer to two root metaphors applied by key systems theorists: (i) Descartes world like a machine (reductionism) and (ii) world like an Ecology (holism) and relate these to a Systems Thinking approach to curriculum construction, pedagogy and learning. I also draw upon the Aristotelian dictum: ‘the whole is greater than its parts’ (gestalt) to illustrate how elements of all systems are interconnected and how the application of Systems Thinking can inform new pedagogical approaches and curriculum design. In explaining how a Systems Thinking approach could apply to curriculum development, I draw on two key theorists who draw their perspectives from organismic biology: Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Fritjof Capra, and compare their concepts with theorists who focus on more organisational and applied perspectives, such as Russell Ackoff and Peter Senge. I link this spectrum of Systems Thinking to curriculum development, by first considering its specific relevance to education through its relationship to applied approaches to learning, such as those proposed by Kurt Fischer and Zheng Yan (1998) and Fischer (2019). I then consider the potential for Systems Thinking to act as an analytical tool, which can be applied to global/national educational policy and practice. By looking at critiques of the reductionist Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) as described by Sahlberg (2012), I consider the ways in which taking a Systems Thinking lens can shift the balance in curriculum design more towards Capra’s proposal for a deeper ecology in learning. Finally, I examine the case of the Australian Curriculum and outline how Systems Thinking provides an innovative methodology to support curriculum development of relevance to today’s context. In considering effective historic and emerging initiatives, I propose future approaches where Systems Thinking can be a co-creation tool for learners throughout the education system that is sensitive to student self-efficacy, personalised and independent learning. This is imperative if we are going to prepare students for a future world that cannot be conceived, predicted nor imagined.

Item Type: Journal Article
Publisher: Springer Singapore
Copyright: © 2019 Australian Curriculum Studies Association
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