Should Children be Taught to Think?- Part Two

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by Chad Nance


Editor’s Note: You can read Part One of this head-scratcher of a “debate” HERE.

By Staff

The real discussion between Board members started after Board member Jane Goins asked Dr. Martin to explain Common Core and its relation to Systems Thinking, asking him to “give the chronology of the Core Curriculum and the development thereof… what exactly is the Core Curriculum, how long it’s been in our System and why, how many States adopted it and as it’s been alluded to, it’s been recommended that it be discontinued in certain States. I want that definition of Core Curriculum and I want a chronology of it.”

systems thinking

Dr. Martin responded that “the issue of Systems Thinking and Common Core are two different things.” He stated that the work related to Systems Thinking was about 20 years old, and the Common Core was relatively new, having emerged from a meeting of the nation’s Governors who felt that our nation needed higher standards and a more rigorous education system if our students were going to be prepared to compete internationally. Martin stated that the essence of the Common Core Curriculum was related to only Math and Reading, having students go deeper in fewer concepts in Math, and having students read a greater percentage of non-fiction works and gain the skills necessary to answer questions with answers from the texts. The other main change with Common Core is that the new curriculum reduces the number of goals and objectives for each subject and increases application based instruction. Systems Thinking is only connected to the Common Core in order to help educators prepare their students to solve more complicated problems by giving them tools to analyze information and engage in multiple step solutions. Martin related that Systems Thinking was not a curriculum but a tool or technique to better accomplish Common Core.

Board member Buddy Collins wanted to know the educational basis of Systems Thinking. He cited the MIT connection with the concepts in Systems Thinking and listed several people he believed connected with resource such as Gordon Brown, Peter Senge, and Jay Forrester.

Dr. Martin listed Universities and school districts using Systems Thinking, but cautioned against trying to assign too much strict educational assessment, such as would be expected of a curriculum, saying “Systems Thinking is not a curriculum, it is a methodology, a way to help children think differently.”

Collins disagreed, saying that Systems Thinking appeared to him to be a derivation of a social science intent on predicting behavior. Collins said that the point of Systems Thinking is to “go behind the theories, doesn’t that relate back to the social sciences?” and expressed concern that “we’re relying upon a non-vetted educational tool that’s based upon social science that quite frankly, when you look at it, is based upon a Socialist model.”

Board member Jill Tackabery disagreed with the idea that the tool hasn’t been vetted in educational settings or was promoting a social science or religion, citing her research that found 18 Universities were using or teaching Systems Thinking, many of whom were Catholic or Protestant, including Samford University in Alabama, a Baptist school. Tackabery read off a list of the courses Samford offers that include Systems Thinking, as well as the fact that the former Dean of the education school at Samford, who left that post to become the Deputy Superintendent of Education for the State of Alabama, supports Systems Thinking and has written papers to that end, as evidence of University based vetting of the concepts. Tackabery also noted that books by Peter Senge, the management leadership expert who has been a part of efforts to have educational applications made for the Systems Thinking tools, are listed as required texts in many college Education courses.

Peter Senge himself became a topic of heated discussion as the conversation turned to the Action Item at hand – whether or not to move forward with the offering of District wide Systems Thinking training already in planning stages for summer 2013. The training would be utilizing a portion of the Federal Race to the Top grant awarded specifically for Professional Development, fulfilling a part of the grant request that was written specifically to implement Systems Thinking training.

systems thinking

Jeannie Metcalf said she “will never support anything that has to do with Peter Senge… I don’t care what [the teachers currently trained in System’s Thinking] are teaching. I don’t care what lessons they are doing. He’s is trying to sell a product. Once it insidiously makes its way into our school system, who knows what he’s going to do. Who knows what he’s going to do to carry out his Buddhist way of thinking and his hatred of Capitalism. I know y’all are gonna be thinkin’ I’m a crazy person, but I’ve been around a long time.” Metcalf went on to say that Peter Senge is “a Socialist and a practicing Buddhist,” and that “he wants to get his hands on our school children.”

Dr. Martin asked Metcalf what she sees as the potential outcome of having Peter Senge himself involved in delivering training on Systems Thinking. Metcalf responded “We would be (sic) children growing up not knowing how to think for themselves. We’d have children being told from their teachers that there is no such thing as truth. They’d be told that the American way of life is not the best way, that we’re part of the global society, that Americanism, that you don’t have rights, that trees have just as much rights as you do.”

Superintendent Martin responded “Just to say it one more time. The materials that we are using are not a curriculum.”

Board Member Buddy Collins and Superintendent Martin got into their own back and forth about Peter Senge and Systems Thinking, with Collins lifting up a notebook and citing “sources he’s read” who’ve discounted or maligned Senge and Systems Thinking, and Martin stating that he has found no academic sources against Systems Thinking, challenging Collins’ assertions and stating that no scholarly, credentialed sources have come out against the tools. Martin then said if Collins would hand him his notebook, he’d “be happy to read anyone in there who has any kind of academic credentials” adding only slightly under his breath, “I hope you’re gonna let me borrow your notebook.”

Collins stated that he thinks “it’s useful to have this kind of discussion. I wish we had it 2 years ago so we wouldn’t be in a situation where we have 100 teachers out there trained and this Board not knowing what is going on.”

Martin calmly replied “as I recall, you were invited to be a part of that and chose not to.”

Elisabeth Motsinger offered her experiences with Systems Thinking as well as the leadership in the training programs in an effort to calm some of the rhetoric. She stated that she had spent time with Jim Waters of the Waters Foundation and that he and his wife Faith are “about as conservative as they come.” Motsinger also said that Sam Walton III, who is funding the use of Systems Thinking in the Midwest, “would not be considered a wild lefty in anybody’s imagination.” She challenged the notion that the people involved in Systems Thinking have a shared political thinking. Motsinger reminded the Board that Peter Senge had been in Winston-Salem and that “every Board member was invited to dinner with him and invited to meet him and only 2 Board members took that opportunity when he was here.”

Motsinger went on to try to speak rationally to some of the fears expressed by those connecting Systems Thinking in Education to other applications such as the Sustainability movement. “I’m not interested in trying to teach Socialism in our school system.” She said. “I am not interested in trying to undermine children’s belief systems. I am not interested in taking children’s faith away from them. I’m interested in making sure that we come up with the very best strategies we possibly can to educate all of our children in this district and so I find a lot of the assumptions I’ve been hearing disturbing at best.”

When the Item finally came up for a vote, more than 3 ½ hours into the Board meeting, Chairman Lambeth reminded the Board that since they had previously approved the Race to the Top grant which they wrote to fund Systems Thinking training specifically, the only options available to them were to attempt to modify the grant to allow for a different professional development, not engage in any professional development, or accept that they will have to move forward with what was previously approved.

After a brief discussion, the Board agreed to first vote on continuing along with the training as was previously planned, and only address revisions if that did not pass. The motion did not pass, with Lambeth, Goins, Davenport, Collins and Metcalf voting against it.

Jane Goins then proposed her version of a motion to move forward. After stacking the motion with specifics which included excluding Peter Senge from being involved in any manner, and allowing the Board to be privy to planning sessions and approval of speakers before the training next summer, Goins said that she felt it appropriate to continue with the training. She said “I have four grandchildren. I do not believe in Socialism, Communism, Nazism, any of those things, but I do believe as an educator in training our people and giving them the best tools available to educate our children. And I have failed to see, as an educator, the horrible effects that could come from this training. However, if we as a Board do find that those are being embedded or being brainwashed into our children, we have the option, we can always say ‘stop it right now.’” Goins said that she could not support Peter Senge’s involvement at any level unless he “voluntarily comes here to address these questions and assure us that we’re not being indoctrinated.”

Marilyn Parker spoke in favor of moving forward with the training, and cast her doubts on the ability of any training to indoctrinate anyone. She said “in 34 years of being an educator I’ve never seen a program that would make me become a ‘Stepford Wife’. It is our job as a Board to be in classrooms, to be observing. The classrooms I have been in to see Systems Thinking, I have not seen anything that in any way threatened my belief system.”

Eventually, Goins’ Motion was brought forth, and seconded by Parker. The vote was cast to continue with Systems Thinking training and implementation in our schools, and passed with only Jeannie Metcalf and Buddy Collins opposing.

The concept of Systems Thinking will likely remain a topic of conversation, but unless the effects of its implementation demonstrate brainwashing or indoctrination, the talk will probably center around the more academic discussions of the ways in which it has supported our educators and students as they learn under the new Common Core curriculum.

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