Teaching Holistic Systems Thinking


  • Robert Johannson


holism, systems thinking, teaching, cybernetics, communication


            My wife and I got into systems theory by teaching parenting classes in the Inner-City of Winnipeg. We were familiar with the behaviourist paradigm, and found it profoundly destructive. Looking for an alternative we turned to Gregory Bateson and systems theory. So we developed a new course based on systems theory called Families Working Together: Leadership for Parents.

            How do you teach holistic systems thinking to adults, specifically teaching parenting to parents with “problem” children in the Inner-City? Holistic systems thinking has three aspects: information and communication, cybernetics or control theory, and holarchy or nested systems. We were striving to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their family. In our modern individualist world that means learning leadership.

            We do live in holistic systems and people have ways of talking about them in a vocabulary accessible to the average person. Holistic thinking means moving up the relationship ladder from object relations (it-it), to instrumental relationships (I-it), to authority relationships (I-you), to negotiated relationships (I-thou), to the family relationships (We), and the larger society and its institutional systems. People are involved at all levels, and shift between levels and have a basic understanding of how to operate in holistic systems. Much of this is unconscious and some of this is explored in the social sciences.

            The presuppositions being taught are defined by the questions we ask. e.g. Communication: “Are you speaking the same language?”

  • Introduction: List learning goals: “What do you want to learn?” written down on a flip sheet. Outline the lesson plan, “This is where we will be talking about the issue that concerns you.” Modeling the group process as negotiation (I-thou), harmonizing the group goals with the goals of the participants.
  • First Hour: Sharing: Go around the circle and hear from each family. This helps to define the problem, to provide feedback about what is working and what isn't, and to make people aware of their own decision making power. It also promotes listening skills.
  • Second Hour: Content: Each section of the course attempts to reflect communication, control, and holistic thinking at the same time, and to make the theoretical models available at a useful level of abstraction by asking interesting questions. What are people like? How are people different? What are families like? How do you survive emotionally? Then moving on to four essential leadership skills: looking and listening, problem solving, negotiating, and celebrating. Finally, closing by talking about continuous learning.

            At the end we would post their initial learning goals and ask, “Did you learn answers to your questions?” We would use their responses to constantly revise the course.

            The course begins at the negotiated relationship level. It is not much use in mechanistic, instrumental, or authoritarian relationships. Leaders must be able to model the things that were being taught. Leaders must be learners. Making the course useful requires a constant process of adapting to specific realities and different cultures.


2022-02-24 — Updated on 2022-02-24