Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Scale of Systems

The scale of systems. It’s a concept that has been dancing around the front of my brain. Cars, desks, chairs….other humans, a few select dogs and cats –these are things that are in my world. And, they’re human-scaled. The human-scale is understandable and comfortable. But lately, I’m experiencing a growing awareness of two other scales: the big vista and the little view. Today: the big vista.

The big vista doesn’t fit in the camera’s viewfinder, it defies the camera lens. It’s vast: too big to absorb without a shift in gaze. It’s complicated: each part is complex. It is alive: it takes huge amounts of energy, brainpower and planning to keep it working.
Last month, a journey across the big vista of Southern California’s water system changed my pattern of processing information. I joined a group of local residents on the “rolling college of knowledge” (a tour bus) as we made a loop around Southern California, touching down at pumping plants, water channels and treatment facilities. There were things that filled my senses – gigantic machines and pristine bodies of water. And things that filled my soul – American Bald Eagles and desert moods. But there were things that I learned that I could not fit into my processing structure: statistics, politics, long-range planning and, of course, scale.
Frustration filled the end of our first day on the tour. Too much information. The big vista of California’s water system was too big, too complicated and too interwoven to comprehend all at once. I struggled to comprehend this new scale of understanding. To survive this influx of information, I began to ask different kinds of questions to build my understanding. And that was thrilling. To construct a mental model that could hold the new bits of information, shifting and redefining them until they became categories, hierarchies and relationships that made sense to me. Now, I could use the new information to ask more questions and build even more relationships.
And then, I had a realization: my struggle with the big vista parallels the research process we ask of our students: choose a big vista – bigger than you can comprehend all at once. More amorphous than a teacher, less contained and organized than a textbook. Absorb everything. Record your thoughts. Ask questions. Look for answers. Then, pull all of that together into a comprehensible whole that answers a question that reflects a deep understanding of the big vista.
While I’m grateful for the opportunity to build a new system of questioning (that now lives in my life-skills  toolbox), I’m reminded of the arduous nature of that process. And, the way it dovetails into a responsibility to respect our students’ learning process. To respect start-up time, margin for error and the journey of self-discovery. As they develop ownership of their own learning process, they are, as one student put it, “liberated.”

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