OneThing37: Words to live by

Let the meaning choose the word

George Orwell

At a recent Republican Presidential Candidates Debate, the host asked each candidate to describe himself in a single word, and we got consistent, cheerful, to name a few.   Back in 2000, Saturday Night Live played off this very idea with fake Al Gore declaring “Lock box” and fake George Bush proclaiming “Strategery.”  To be sure, it’s a gimmicky kind of thing, but it can also be a good exercise in synthesis.

In his “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell famously called on writers and thinkers to practice the linguistic discipline of letting “the meaning choose the word.”  We do not need to think very broadly to cite examples of sloppy or exaggerated thinking where words seem to mean anything the writer or speaker wants.  I also recall Jay Forrester once proclaiming that a hallmark of system dynamics was that it made one’s thinking plain.

It’s what caused me to ask recently what are the ten most important systems words a middle or high school student should know.  So, over the last few weeks, I’ve read dozens of words people ascribe to Systems Thinking; and, while I disagree or am confounded by some of those words, I’ll leave it to others to check either the K-12 List Serve or Systems Thinking World to make their own judgments.

I thought here I’d go to renowned system dynamicist Donella Meadows (1941-2001).  In Thinking In Systems (2008, posthumous), she lists 18 words/phrases:

  • archetypes
  • balancing feedback loop
  • bounded rationality
  • dynamic equilibrium
  • dynamics
  • feedback loop
  • flow
  • hierarchy
  • limiting factor
  • linear relationship
  • nonlinear relationship
  • reinforcing feedback loop
  • resilience
  • self-organization
  • shifting dominance
  • stock
  • suboptimization
  • system

Eighteen words and phrases.  Learn them. Teach them.  And, in a few generations, we’ll all live a different world.


3 comments on “OneThing37: Words to live by

  1. Pingback: OneThing39: a summer for Common Core, STEM & Sustainability « itsallonething

  2. It is quite ironic, isn’t it, that a tool which is endigesd to help us visualize more of a system, at the same time requires us to put boundaries around it, effectively cutting links to larger context.One of my takeaways from our Systems Thinking course was that system mapping is a tool for seeing something and that, by default, seeing only occurs from one viewpoint. This was illustrated to us by the instructor holding up a water bottle and asking us what we saw, then flipping and/or rotating it multiple times and asking the question again, only to receive different answers to the question. Similarly, if you ask 5 or 10 different witnesses of an accident what they see, you will undoubtedly get a different response from each.This does not mean that a system map is useless or outdated as soon as it is made, in fact it can be an extremely powerful tool for analysis, just as each witness in a murder case. The important thing is to recognize the limitation of this tool and understand it for what it is: one view, one lens, on a piece of a whole. A systems map truly becomes useful when you can see and use it for what it is while keeping in mind that the more views of an object/system you have, the closer your perception of it is to reality.

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