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Russell Ackoff - Systems Thinking
There isn't much to the video itself, just some footage of Russell standing at a podium. I highly suggest hitting play and then following with the text below. Hesitant to spend on hour on it? Then, at least check out this shorter video that covers some of the same core concepts.
Transcript [With Extra Resource Links Added Throughout]
After one of my books appeared and a student came in. He said, "Professor, I just read your new book."
He said, "It's very good. It contains a lot more than you know."
That's true, so I'm going in freewheeling. I'm going to pick and choose from some of the things I said yesterday, perhaps the most insulting part, to use today. My remarks have two foundations, two ideas out of which they spring, so let me deal with those first.
First, is the concept of "systems" and what "systems thinking" implies. A "system" is a whole that contains two or more parts, each of which can affect the properties or behavior of the whole. For example, you are a system, a biological system called an "organism". And you have parts, like your heart, stomach, lungs, pancreas, and so on, each of which can affect your properties and your behavior.
The second requirement of the parts of a "system" is that none of them has an independent effect on the whole. How any part affects the whole depends on what other parts are doing. So, the way your heart affects you depends on the behavior of the lungs, the brain, and so on. The parts are all interconnected. Between any two parts of a "system" there's a direct or an indirect path.
And finally, if you group the parts of a "system" into "subgroups", no matter how you "subgroup" them, each "subgroup" will have an effect on the properties and the behavior of the whole, and none will have an independent effect.
And therefore, you can summarize those three characteristics of a "system" into a simple statement:
A "system" is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts.
Now, this has a number of consequences which are not apparent, but are incredibly important. The first is:
The essential properties of any system derive out of how its parts interact, not on how they act taken separately.
And therefore, the defining properties of any "system" are properties of the whole which none of its parts have.
For example, an automobile is a mechanical system and its essential property is its ability to carry you from one place to another. But no part of it can do that. There's no part of an automobile, its motor, its body, its seats, that can carry you from one place to another. Its only the automobile taken as a whole.
Your essential property is life. There's no part of you which separately lives. Life is a property of the whole. And therefore, when the whole is disassembled it loses its essential properties and so do all of its parts.
If we were to bring an automobile into this room and disassemble it, but retain every part in the room, we would not have an automobile. What you have is a collection of the parts, because the automobile is the product of the interaction of its parts, not the sum of the parts taken separately.
And this has an incredibly important implication to management which the Western world has not yet learned, and is responsible for the well-documented decline of the West.
In any system, when one improves the performance of the parts taken separately, the performance of the whole does not necessarily improve and frequently gets worse.
The basic principle of management used in the Western world is divide and conquer. If it's a corporation, you divide the production, marketing, finance, personnel, and so on. If it's a university, you break up into departments, curricula, and programs, and then try to manage each one as well as possible on the assumption that, when this is done, the whole will be run as well as possible. And that's absolutely false, because when a system is operating as well as possible, none of its parts may be.
Now, this can be proven rigorously in the systems sciences, but I'll spare you that proof. For one thing, I don't remember it. But there's a simple example that will show you that it's true and why.
According to The New York Times, they're four hundred and fifty seven different automobiles available in the United States. So, imagine with me that we buy one of each and bring them into a huge garage. And then get two hundred of the best automotive engineers in the world to come in, and we give them the problem of finding which car has the best motor.
Suppose they come out and tell us the Rolls-Royce has the best engine. And we make a note of it, then say, "Please find out which one has the best transmission."
The tell us, "The Mercedes has the best transmission."
"Well, which one has the best fuel injector?"
Well, perhaps its the Volkswagen. And one by one, we take every part required for an automobile and find out which is the best one available. When that list is complete, we return it to the engineers and instruct them to remove those parts from those cars and put them together into the best possible automobile because now we will have an automobile consisting of all of the best available parts.
Do we get the best possible automobile? Of course not. You don't even get an automobile. Why not? The parts don't fit. It's the way the parts fit together that determine the performance of a system, not on how they perform taken separately. But we conduct systems, like the university, and corporations, and hospitals, as though the improvement of the parts taken separately will improve the whole.
Now, that's one foundation concept I'm going to use in talking about education. The other one derives from a failure of our educational system to distinguish between the various forms of content of the mind.
The simplest form of content of the mind consists of data. Now, there's an old aphorism that you may not have heard since it's not widely circulated among educators. It goes as follows:
An ounce of information is worth a pound of data,
an ounce of knowledge is worth a pound of information,
an ounce of understanding is worth a pound of knowledge,
and an ounce of wisdom is worth a pound of understanding.
So, we have a hierarchy of the content of mind:
data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom,
of increasing importance as you approach wisdom.
But the allocation of time in the educational system is inversely related to the importance of these contents. Most of the time is devoted to the transmission of information, and some to knowledge, nothing to understanding, and of course, none to wisdom at all. Some have claimed that this is due to the fact that you can't transmit what you don't have.
Data consists of symbols which represent the properties of objects and events. So, if I asked each of you what your address is, or how old you are, how many children you have, all of this would constitute data.
Data are like iron ore. I can't do anything with them until they've been processed, converted into iron. Information is iron, its data which had been processed to be useful, and useful information is what is contained in descriptions.
Description is the mode of transmission of information. It's contained in the answer to questions that begin with such words as, "who", "where", "when", "what", and "how many".
So, if somebody were to enter the campus and say, "Where is a convocation occurring today?" And you tell them, "In the auditorium." That's descriptive. That's information.
If they say, "How do I get there?" They will receive instruction, and the content of instruction is knowledge. Its product is skill.
Knowledge is contained in "how to" questions. Understanding is contained in explanations, answers to questions that begin with the word "why".
"Why in the world you want to go to the convocation?"
An answer to that explains the desire to get here.
Now, wisdom is a qualitative change from the previous four. Data, information, knowledge, and understanding are all concerned with increasing the efficiency with which we pursue our ends, but they don't tell us anything about the ends that are being pursued. There, in a sense, value free. Wisdom makes a transition between efficiency and effectiveness because it evaluates the pursuit, the end which we're pursuing efficiently.
The distinction is contained in a wonderful statement by Peter Drucker, who once said, "There's a big difference between doing things right, and doing the right thing."
You see, we are very largely devoted to doing the wrong thing right. That's very unfortunate because the right-er you do the wrong thing, the wrong-er you become.
When we do the right thing wrong, we make a mistake, which when detected, allows us to improve. So, the distinction is absolutely critical and we are a society which is simply drowning in the pursuit of the efficiency concerned with the pursuit of the wrong ends.
One simple and obvious example is our current concern with the health care system. It isn't a health care system. A moment's reflection will make it apparent that it isn't a health care system. What do the servers of the health care system get paid for? They get paid for taking care of you when you're sick or disabled. It's a sickness and disability care system, not a health care system.
Now, if the income of the servers derives out of taking care of you when you're sick and disabled, you can be damn sure they're going to keep you sick and disabled. They're not going to keep you healthy. If they did, they'd be out of business. Now, what they say and what they declare is irrelevant. It's what they will do, even if unconsciously, because the system is so constructed to focus on the maintenance of sickness and disability.
The same thing is true of most organizations. Corporations are not about maximization of profit. All one has to do is look at the executive offices and the way they move around, and where they stay when they move around, and see that it's not about maximizing profit. It's about maximizing the comfort of the senior executives.
And the university, it's not about the education of students. That's a myth which we perpetrate in order to get public support. The principal purpose of a university is apparent when you try to explain its behavior. Its to provide the faculty with the quality of work life they want. Teaching is the price they have to pay, and like any price, we try to minimize it.
Just look at the universities of the United States, and the colleges, and rank them from the best to the worst. You can start wherever you want to, Harvard, Stanford, and so on. Work your way down to Topeka State Teacher's College, and then plot the number of hours of teaching per academic year. The average hours of the faculty. What do you find? An incredibly strong correlation.
At Harvard, they teach at most, five hours a year. But in some universities, its fifteen hours a semester or a quarter. The implication is clear, but we don't pay any attention to it. The implication is, the better the school is, the less teaching there is. You see, the ideal school is one in which there's no teaching, but a lot of learning.
And that's the first fundamental myth about the educational system. The myth is that a good way to learn something is to have it taught to you, and that's absolutely false. Being taught is a major obstruction to learning.
Now again, any reflection will make this clear. How did you learn your first language? Nobody taught it to you. You learned it. You learn to walk without having it taught to you, how to ride a bicycle, how to talk. All of the essential things of life you learn without having them taught to you.
How many of you ever learned a second language in school as well as you know your first language? Of course not. You want to learn a second language you go live in the country that speaks it. You don't have it taught to you. Berlitz never succeeded as well as living in a foreign country did.
Teaching is an obstruction to learning, but there's a very important characteristic of teaching. How many of you have ever taught a class in a subject you never had as a student? I suspect most of you have. Who learned most in the classroom? Although being taught is an obstruction to learning, teaching is a marvelous way to learn. What we are is professional learners, not teachers.
A student once asked me, "What's the last time you taught a course in a subject that existed when you were a student?"
I had to think about it. It was 1951. 1951! That's more than 40 years ago. Everything I've thought since then didn't exist when I was a student.
The student looked at me and said, "My God, you've had to learn a lot."
He said, "I wish you could teach as well as you can learn."
That's what we ought to be about, the facilitation of learning, not teaching. The university and the college is upside down the students ought to be teaching because that's a good way to learn. And we ought to be continuously learning so that we can enable them to learn more effectively. The principal purpose of an institution of higher learning, or to have two prongs to it:
First, to enable students to learn how to learn, and secondly, to motivate them to want to do so.
You see, 50% of what you learn in a university is irrelevant to what you're going to do later. How many remember how to take a square root? The other 50% will be obsolete within a couple years.
Your success in life after leaving a university depends on your ability to learn in your job or in your activity what you need to know to do the job well. Your future depends on your capacity to learn and your motivation to do so.
Motivation is absolutely critical. We ignore it. We almost deliberately design classes that demotivate students so that they don't want to learn. We make a chore out of it.
I told the story yesterday of an experience I had that was really illuminating to me. My group at the university did a lot of collaborative work with a neighboring so-called "black ghetto", an area called Mantua consisting of 80 city blocks with 22,000 people in it, all black. It was referred to in the city, in the 60s when we started working with them, as "the bottom". It has since received 17 national awards for self-development effort. It's been the subject of seven major national television programs and its leadership has received all kinds of recognition.
One day, its leaders came into my office and said, "We got a problem. Maybe you can help us with it? We have too much illiteracy coming out of our schools. About 80 percent of the students, even coming out of high school," they said, "are functionally illiterate. What can we do about it?"
We said, "Why don't you get ahold of the Board of Education? They have a special group working on the literacy problem."
They said, "We've already done that. They came in. They didn't do us any good."
We said, "Well, we don't know anything about something, this problem."
And they said, "Well, that's an advantage because the people who do can't help us, so why don't you try?"
Well, we did know one thing about the community which turned out to be essential. Those kids were not stupid. They were smart as a devil. They weren't educated, but boy were they smart. And therefore, if they weren't learning how to read, it's because they didn't want to. So, we conducted research to find out why did they not want to learn how to read. Well, the results were incredible.
65% of the households in that area did not contain a book. The kids coming to school had never seen an adult read. Their model adults were not reading people, but talking people. Their culture was oral, not literary. And then they come to school where a blonde white woman tells them that reading is the most important thing in the world and they answer in two impolite words.
Secondly, we learned that when a young man reaches the age of 12, joining a gang was compulsory. It was the only way he could survive physically, by moving around the neighborhood with friends that would help protect him. If, on the other hand, he was ever seen carrying a book, he would be physically attacked, even by members of his own gang, because a book was referred to as "whitey's thing". It was capitulation to a dominating culture, and so they didn't carry books around, and they didn't read books at home, and they didn't see people reading books at home, and now we're trying to make them learn how to read.
Rap was not an invention of the whites, but of the blacks. It's an oral culture. Well, what can we do about it? When we had an idea, and we fortunately had somebody who was willing to finance an effort to try it out. Julius Rosenwald, who was the son of the founder of Sears, lives in Philadelphia and is an old friend. So, we approached him and he agreed to finance a very peculiar effort.
We bought a complete set of Charlie Chaplin silent films, put them in the auditorium of the schools in this neighborhood, and played them during the entire school day. And any child was allowed to come and sit in the auditorium, and watch Charlie Chaplin without an excuse from their teacher. By the end of that semester, every kid in the school could read. Why? They wanted to read the subtitles. They couldn't understand what was going on and they wanted to. And so, they learned and it wasn't taught to them. They got motivated.
Education has to focus on motivation. What excites people? Well, the great Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, has a marvelous book called The Mission of the University, in which he traces the evolution of revolutions. And he concludes that every major revolution in the world's history was created by what he calls "a mobilizing idea", ideas that excite people into action, holy grails of thought.
How much effort do we put into the production and dissemination of mobilizing ideas, ideas that diverge from the normal? You see, universities, and colleges, and the public schools, are largely devoted to maintaining the status quo, not to producing change.
There's a very remarkable man floating around this country, in England, by name of Edward de Bono. Edward de Bono is responsible for the research that was initiated about two decades ago into the subject of creativity. He got into it in a very interesting way. He had married and they had their first child. And de Bono was fascinated by the development of his child, and so began to log everything. Now, if the child said "ooo", he recorded, "January, the fourth, the child said "ooo". When January, the fifth, said "ah"."
And he put all of this down, and pretty soon he observed that the child demonstrated remarkable creativity. He began to look at other children and discovered that they
were equally creative. The creativity was not a sparse competence. It was widely spread among children. And then he looked at adults, and said, "Oh my God. What happened to them?"
Somewhere along the line people who are born with the creative capability lose it. He said, "Why?"
Well, he never answered the question, but two others did. What he did is go on to create create procedures for revitalizing the remnants of creativity in adults. They're called "creativity enhancing procedures", and he wrote a famous book called Lateral Thinking, in which he demonstrates some of those principles.
But Jules Henry, an American anthropologist wrote an incredible book called, Culture Against Man. And Ronald Laing, a prominent British psychiatrist who recently died, wrote a book called, The Politics of Experience. And they dealt with the "why" question and they both came out with the same answer.
We do it in school. We kill creativity. When you are given an examination in school and you read the question, what's the first thing that goes through the student's mind? They learn very quickly the thing to do when you're given the question is to ask yourself a question. What's the question you ask yourself?
"What answer do they expect?"
Examinations are about trying to anticipate the answers expected by the teacher. Expected answers cannot be creative because they're already known. If we use
examinations at all, they ought to be about encouraging students to give us the unexpected answer because that's what creativity is about. It's about surprise, deviation from expectations.
And furthermore, as Jules Henry pointed out, we don't even allow the students ask thecritical questions on their mind.
"What's so good about monogamy?"
"What's so bad about premarital sex?"
"What's so hot about our economic system?"
"What's so good about democracy?"
Questions of this sort are not discussed with the kids. They're put aside, and they learn very quickly not to ask important questions and not to provide important answers. And we wonder where creativity goes. It goes down the drain with conformity to expectations of the faculty, which simply reflect the expectations of society.
Jules Henry asked what would happen if we encourage kids that ask the so-called "improper question" and provide "improper answers"? He said, "We would be confronted with more creativity than society has learned how to handle." And that's our fear, too much creativity. As a result, we have too little of it.
I once got very tired of reading the handwriting of graduate students, like many of you have I'm sure, even with undergraduates. So, I came into a class the beginning of a session one year and said, "You're going to do a term paper, and out of that paper I have to extract the content. I can't do it with your handwriting. You're going to have to type your paper double-spaced typing on 8 and a half by 11 white sheets, with at least 1 inch margins, and I want the pages numbered in the upper right hand corner. Is that absolutely clear?" And they all nodded and said, "Yes".
The end of that semester I received every paper typewritten as I had directed and they were legible. But there was one that I got that was typed this way [*holds up paper horizontally, in landscape*]. At the end of the paper there was a little remark, it said, "Ah ha! I got you didn't I?"
My initial reaction was, "That damn kid knew what I wanted and deliberately wouldn't give it to me." I was going to reject his paper, and then I stopped and reflected, and said, "My God! Look what he did. He spent time trying to figure out how to fool me, how to surprise me."
He was creative. So, I give him an A+, and I added a note, "Don't ever try it again because it won't be creative the next time."
I have sat for years through faculty meetings. There are two things I've learned about:
One, as a member of the Faculty of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. I was selected one year to be the Wharton representative on the faculty of the College of Engineering, a town school. So, for two years I had to sit in town school meetings of the faculty. They were even more boring than the Wharton School meetings. And so having nothing else to do, I try to record the subject matters discussed and the principle concepts used in the discussion. And in two years, the word student was mentioned only once. Only once.
Faculty meetings are about the faculty. They're properly called. They weren't about students. They weren't about educational learning. They're about benefits and academic freedom, and all this sort of stuff that effect the faculty. Schedules, but not about students.
And I learned that the faculty operates on the assumption that it knows what the students need to know. And that's absolutely false. You haven't the foggiest idea what students need to know.
I sat while engineers argued for hours about what courses ought to be required for a degree in engineering. And they ignored the fact, long known, that 65% of the graduate engineers do not practice engineering within five years after graduation. The 35% of the Ph.Ds never practice in the field in which they receive their Ph.D.
A few years ago, the American Statistical Association, one of the largest professional societies of the United States, had a 100th anniversary. And they did a very clever thing. They solicited the membership with a ballot asking us to nominate the four people we would like most to address this at the hundredth anniversary celebration to be held in New York.
Now, they got a whole bunch of names. They took the names most frequently mentioned, made a second ballot, and sent it out to get selection from that. And they
proceeded, this is called the "Delphi technique", until they got it down the four speakers. Those four were invited to address the 100th celebration.
That was quite a to-do. It turned out that not one of the four, who were selected by 15,000 members as the most important contributors ot the development statistics
in the United States, not one of them had ever had a course in statistics. Proving the obvious thing, that changes in the field are never produced by experts, but from outsiders looking at the field.
How do we train people to look at things creatively and encourage them to do so, rather than to act as a combination of a computer, a recording device, and a video camera, and simply spill back to them what we've given to them? That's not human. This is exemplified in the ultimate insult to human intelligence called "computer assisted instruction". What an insult, to have a computer teach. The idea of having a computer teach a person. It's reversed.
At the Hawkins School in Cleveland, we did an experiment where we took second-grade students...And this was a day when computers were complicated, UNIVAC II. You had the program in machine language...We gave the second grade the responsibility for teaching the computer arithmetic. And in one semester, they learned two years, four semesters, of elementary school arithmetic. How do they learn it? On their own, with help. They use a teacher as a resource, not as a teacher, but as somebody who would help them learn.
Ellis Johnson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who moved to Case Institute in the 1960s, got an experimental grant from the National Science Foundation and
conducted a most unusual experiment. He took sixty of the accepted incoming students of The Case Institute of Technology, undergraduates, and offered them a summer job prior to their entry to school. They all accepted because he offered a generous salary.
They were put together in teams of five and they were given the real problem to work on and to work for somebody in a public institution or private who had the problem to solve. So, this was a realistic exercise. For example, one group was sent to Mayfield Heights, Ohio to improve the water supply system because the pressure was running low from overuse of the existing system. Another one was sent to another part of the Cleveland area to develop an emergency service for the new expressway that was built through the area. And so on.
I was in Alice's office one day when one of these groups came in, working on the hydraulic problem. They said, "Dr. Johnson, we've developed an equation to express the flow of water through this system. We'd like to show it to you and see if it's right."
And they wrote it up on the board and he looked at. He said, "No, that's right."
They said, "Now, here's our problem. What we have to do is manipulate these two variables so as to maximize the output. We don't know how to do that. Is it possible to do it?"
He said, "Yeah. That's a problem in differential calculus."
They said, "Well, can you teach it to us?"
He said, "No".
They said, "Well, how are we going to do it?"
He said, "You got to learn it."
"Well, how are we going to learn it?"
He says, "Well, I'll tell you where the books are. You can go get the books and read it. Now, if you have any problems, you can come and ask me about them, but I'm not going to teach it to you."
Well, they did that. At the end of that summer, 95% of the students involved in that exercise passed the first two years of mathematics at Case Institute of Technology by examination.
That's what I mean by teaching is an obstruction to learning. When motivated to learn mathematics, they learn at incredible speed.
Many years ago, we did research on alcoholism and came out with a theory which we were able to test and prove valid. One of our students, a young man by the name of
Robert Court, got very excited about it. He came to see me one day. He said, "That stuff on alcoholism is really exciting." He said, "I wonder if it would work on
They said, "Well, it might in part, but I think they are different phenomena so there'd be some required adjustment."
He said, "I'd like to look into it. Can you support me for a couple months while I try to find out something about drug addicts?"
We said, "How much time you want?"
He said, "Three months."
When we dug up the money and gave it to him, he disappeared. Three months later, he appeared in my office and said, "I've written a proposal for research on drug addiction. I'd like you to tell me what you think about."
He showed it to me and it was incredible. With minor modification, I submitted it the National Institute of Health and got three hundred and sixty thousand dollars for research on drug addiction.
That's not the point of the story. The point of story is that Bob Court, the young man who did all of this, was invited by the medical school hospital at the University of Pennsylvania to come over and give a course on drug addiction to the doctors. He never had a course in medicine, never known anything about drug addiction, but he became the campus' leading expert on the subject. How? He learned it. It wasn't taught to him.
I had a group of foreign students from less developed countries come in to see me one day, headed up by a young Peruvian named Francisco Sagasti, and seconded by a young lady called Virginia Melo. She was Brazilian. He was Peruvian.
They said, "A number of the faculty here have done work on planning for development of less developed countries. Why don't we have a course on planning for development for less developed countries?"
I said that was a great idea. He pointed out that we had students in our student body from 13 less developed countries. They'd make an anxious group of students.
I said, "No. That wasn't acceptable. They could teach such a course."
He said, "Well, what do you mean? If we were to teach the course who would be the students?"
I said, "The five members of the faculty that you've identified."
He said, "You mean you would actually come as students to the class?"
I said, "Yes".
He said, "Will you attend regularly?"
We said, "Yes, if you don't bore us. We will behave just like you do."
"Will you read the assignments?"
"Well, if they're worth reading."
And so on. He said, "That's awfully difficult. We can't give such a course until we know what you already know."
I said, "Right."
He said, "How are we going to learn what you already know?"
I said, "That's your job. That's what we have to do when we teach. We got to find out what you already know, so you do the same for us."
He said, "Well, can we do it next semester rather than this one?"
I said, "Yeah".
And they did. Those 13 students put on the best course I have ever taken. Francisco Sagasti became the chief strategic planner for the World Bank, is now the chief planner for the government of Peru. Virginia Melo is the chief planner for the government of Brazil. And every one of those 13 people hold a major planning function in a less developed country. They were so excited by their experience of learning through teaching.
We've got the university and the college upside down. We think we know what they have to learn. That's unimportant. What's important is that they learn how to learn.
Now, a few other characteristics of our educational system that have to be changed. We make an absolutely incredible assumption that the world is organized the way a
university is. What's that mean? Well, we say experience involves physical problems, chemical problems, psychological problems, social problems, economic problems, philosophical problems, religious problems, and so on. There are different kinds of problems, and so we organize around these different kinds of problems. We take reality apart into disciplines and we think a discipline represents reality.
There is no such thing as a physical problem, a chemical problem, a social problem, an economic problem. Those are absolute illusions. Those adjectives don't tell you a damn thing about a problem. They tell you something, but not about the problem. But we treat them as though they tell you something about the problem. We don't even tell students what the origin of disciplines is.
One of the most exciting things I ever read is the first sentence of a book called On Human Communication by Colin Cherry, a British cybernetician and information theorist who spent 1976 on a sabbatical year at MIT, and wrote this book. And the first sentence of the book reads as follows, "The German philosopher Leibniz was probably the last living man who knew everything."
What an exciting idea, so I went back to look into it. It was literally true. Leibniz spoke 12 languages. He made major contributions to mathematics and science as we knew it that day. The entire domain of science was capable of being contained in a single human brain. But after Leibniz, that became increasingly impossible, as the domain of human knowledge enlarged.
The first division that occurred, occurred at the time of Newton. Newton was not a professor of physics. Physics didn't exist when Newton was there. Newton was a
professor of natural philosophy, because the first division that occurred in the domain of human knowledge was between philosophy and natural philosophy.
Now, they didn't have the guts to call the other part "unnatural philosophy", which it was. And then, natural philosophy divided into physics and chemistry. And as
recently as 1900, there were only six sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. [Although, he only lists five.] Six sciences.
Currently on the register the National Research Council are 450 disciplines. See, disciplines aren't a fact of nature, they represent a filing system for knowledge.
They're exactly a filing system. You probably have a file in your office with multiple drawers, and one drawer reads "A-C", and the next drawer "D-F", and so on. They are ways of retaining information so you can get access to it easily.
The fact that Armco Steel and Alcoholics Anonymous are in the same file don't mean a damn thing, just a convenient way of getting them. If you rearrange your file by date of receipt rather than alphabetically, you wouldn't change the content one bit. You just change your way of access to it. Now, all the disciplines are are labels on files. There are nothing about the content of the files. That's an absolute illusion. Let me give you an example.
This "ghetto" that I referred to earlier, so-called "ghetto". In its development process, started to meet with the faculty, a select group of the faculty university, regularly every Monday morning. And during one of these Monday morning meetings, which were occurring in my office, a young man from the community came in with a piece of news that stopped the meeting absolutely dead. We had to terminate because of the sadness of the information.
There was an 83 year old woman who lived in the neighborhood who had organized what we called a "geriatric set". These are only people who were retired, most of them on
welfare or social security, who would organize things like infant care centers. They took care of children from several weeks old up to the time when they were old enough to go to a daycare center, so that their unwed teenage mothers could either return to school or go to work. They cleared vacant lots to make them usable as recreation and rest centers. They planted trees in the neighborhood, and flowers, and things of this sort. They're a real boon to the neighborhood.
We were able to do something for that woman indirectly. That neighborhood had absolutely no medical facilities whatsoever. We got the University of Pennsylvania Hospital to open a free clinic in the neighborhood, which was the first time they had medical services available to them. This enabled this old woman to go there once a month for a checkup, which she needed because she had a bad heart.
She had gone to that clinic that morning and had gone through the usual check, had passed it, and they had released her to go home. Home, where two rooms at the top
of an old four-story house that had been converted into a tenement, and on the third flight of stairs on her way to her home she had had a heart attack and died.
That's the news that was brought to us. And so we sat around the room silently. And the first one to speak was a professor of community medicine who was in the room, Sam Martin.
He said, "Dammit! I told you we don't have enough doctors in the clinic. You see, if we have more doctors in the clinic, we'd be able to make house calls for patients that shouldn't be coming to us. We should be going to them. We've got to arrange to get more doctors." There was silence.
Jerry Adams, the economist, spoke up next. He said, "Sam, there are plenty of doctors in Philadelphia. That's not the problem."
He said, "The problem is they're private practitioners and she couldn't afford to call one. If her welfare payments, her health benefits, were higher, this never would have happened. She'd been able to call a doctor to her home to give her the exam." Silence.
Professor of architecture said, "Why don't we make them put elevators in all those buildings?"
And then the only woman present, a professor of social work, shook her head and said, "My God, what a pity. None of you know anything about that woman. Don't you know she was married and had a son? She was deserted by her husband shortly after the son was born, and by working as in housecleaning, she raised that son, managed to get him through school at the top of his class. He got a scholarship and came to Penn. Got a degree in Arts and Sciences, graduated top of his class, and got a scholarship to the law school. He went to the law school, graduated at the top of his class, and is now, after several years of employment at one of the Philadelphia law firms, a major principle in that firm. He is married and has two children. He lives in the suburbs, on so-called "mainline", in a beautiful home with two children and a wife, that happens to be a bungalow. And if she weren't alienated from her son, she'd be living with him where she'd have all the money she needs and no steps to climb."
Now, here's the question: What kind of a problem was that?
Is that a medical problem, an economic problem, an architectural problem, or a social work problem? It's none of them. It's a problem. Those adjectives describe the point of view of the person looking at the problem. They don't tell you anything about the problem. They tell you about the person looking at it, but that's not the way we teach disciplines. We give students the wrong impression, that they tell you something about the problem.
Now, I've had the remarkable opportunity to work in over 400 different corporations in my lifetime, and more than 75 government agencies in over 17 different countries, and I've never run across a problem that couldn't better be solved somewhere other than where it was recognized. But what happens in reality?
In a corporation the marketing manager comes in one morning and finds out the sales dropped in New England. "Uh oh!", he says, "We got a marketing problem!"
He now takes possession of that problem because it's a "marketing problem" and tries to solve it by the manipulation of marketing variables, but that problem may be much better solved someplace else. But that never occurs to him because he was taught there is such a thing as a "marketing problem".
This is what interdisciplinarity is all about. I told the story yesterday which illustrates this perhaps better than anything I can say. It's a story of an office building in New York City, which at the end of World War II received increasing complaints from its tenants about the poor elevator service. These complaints kept mounting and management didn't know what it could do about it. But eventually, some of the major clients in the building, multi-floor occupants like accounting firms and law firms, threatened to break their lease and move out because their employees were complaining so much about long delays for elevators.
So, management finally took the problem seriously. Did a little inquiry and found out there's a group of elevator engineers or experts in the area, and they called them and asked them to come in to explain the difficulty.
And the engineer said, "We have to do a survey to find out how serious the problem is."
And so they were authorized to do so, for a fee of course. And they came back several weeks later saying, "You've got a problem. The average waiting time for an elevator in this building is about two minutes."
They said, "The American standard is 20 seconds, which means that you're keeping people waiting six times as long as the desirable average. You've got a problem."
Management said, "What can we do about it?"
The engineer said, "There are only three things you can do about it. One, is you could add elevators. That means you have to take part of the building that's occupied by other things now and put elevators in it. Second thing you do, is use automated elevators, which move more quickly than the old elevators which you've got. The third thing you can do is introduce computer controls to your elevator system. This would enable an elevator, when it reaches the 20th floor and there's nobody waiting above, to go down to the first floor instead of going up to the top before it comes down. This saves time and increases the availability of elevators."
And management said, "Which one of these is the best?"
He said, "We don't know. You have do research to find out."
So, they've got a great big juicy contract. They went off and did the research. Came back after several months and a couple million dollars later and said, "You've got a problem."
"What do you mean?"
He said, "Well, in order to add a sufficient number of elevators to solve the problem, you've got to reduce the rentable space in this building by an amount that you can't possibly justify by the change in income. It would be a bad investment."
"But what about automating the elevators?"
"Well, that will only reduce the time to about one minute, which is still three times too much."
"What about computer controls?"
"Same thing", they said.
"What are we going to do?", said management.
Engineers said, "You can't do anything. It's an old building and it's the cost of age." And they left.
Complaints kept going on. Finally, management became absolutely desperate and decided to do something they would never do under normal circumstances. These were absolutely unique conditions, so they called a meeting of their subordinates. The head of each department in the building was called and everyone came...a large building like this, employees between two and four hundred people...except the head of the personnel department. He was off on a trip and he sent his young assistant, who was a recent graduate in personnel psychology from Penn State. And when they entered the room, management described the problem to them and the result of the engineering study.
They said, "What I want to do here today is brainstorming. Now, this is what brainstorming is. I'm going to ask you if you have any ideas on how we can solve the problem and somebody will make a suggestion. Now nobody can say what's wrong with the suggestion, why it won't work. If you don't think it will work, you have to say what you would do to it to make it workable. So every contribution has to be constructive, working our way toward a solution. Is that understood?" And everybody nodded.
He said, "Ok. Let's have a suggestion."
Somebody raised his hand and made it and everybody immediately told him why it wouldn't work. Three or four of these occurring in a row and pretty soon people stopped making suggestions. It was a long silence in the room and the manager got desperate up at the front of the room. And finally, he looked at the young man.
"You haven't said a word. Don't you have any ideas?"
"Sure. I do have an idea and I'm ashamed to present it. People will make fun of me."
"We don't have the luxury of making fun of you. What's your idea?"
And the young boy told them. Two weeks later at a cost of $500 the problem was dissolved. Now what had he done? See, everybody had said the problem consists of slow or not enough elevators. We've got to add elevators or increase their speed, but that's not the way the young man looked at it.
He said, "People standing there for two minutes are bored. They've got nothing to do and they're complaining about the boredom. Therefore, how do I entertain them so
they won't mind the wait?"
It's a very different problem. The solution was simple. He put mirrors up in the lobby so they could spend their time looking at each other. That has become standard
practice. You will find now on most modern buildings. Elevator lobbies will have mirrors all around because now the men can look at the women without appearing to do so and vice versa.
That's what interdisciplinarity is all about. It means exploring the different points of view around a problem to find which one, or combination of points of view, will give you the best solution. Nobody owns a problem. Every problem is universal. Ok so, the university is not organized the way reality is, or vice versa. A great deal of our effort as educators is to teach people how to solve problems, problem solving. Now, the fact is we very seldom give them a problem. What we usually do is give them exercises or ask them questions. "Well, what's the difference", you say. That's the problem. We treat problems, exercises, and questions as though they're all the same thing and they're very very different.
For example, I have a friend who's very well known in mathematical circles as the inventor of mathematical puzzles of deep significance because their solution always requires some major development of mathematics. His name is Merrill Flood and he was a professor of mathematics at the University of Michigan and recently retired from the University of California. He invented a very well known problem in mathematics called "the travelling salesman problem" of all things. And he used to love to give me puzzles whenever we met.
So, I met him one day. Said, "I got a new one for you. We got a bowl, a glass bowl that is full of balls, all the same size. Some of the balls are white and some are black. You reach into the bowl and come out with a handful of n balls. You put them down and look at them. m out of the n balls are black. And therefore, n - m balls are white. Now, you reach into the bowl and pull out one ball at random. What's the probability it will be black?"
I said, "That's easy."
"What do you mean it's easy? It's an unsolved problem in statistics."
I said, "It may be unsolved in statistics, but it's an easy problem."
He said, "What do you mean? How can it be easy?"
I said, "You just tell me how you know that the bowl contains only black and white balls, and I'll tell you the answer."
"Oh no," he said. "I can't do that. It'll spoil the problem."
I said, "Of course it will. It's no longer a problem. What you've given me is an exercise. You are depriving me of information which you need to formulate the problem. That's an exercise. That's what a case study is. It's not a problem. It's an exercise, but it's because the person who writes the case eliminates information which he used in formulating the case in order to condense it. It's an exercise."
He said, "Well, if that's what you mean by an exercise, there's nothing wrong with it. It will still teach you how to solve problems."
I said, "If I taught you how to box with one hand tied behind you, does that teach you how to box with two hands? You'd get killed when you go into the ring."
He said, "Alright. Let me fix up that problem. You look in the bowl, now and all the balls are white. You reach in and pull out a handful of balls, and m of them have a black core in the middle, and m - n have a white core in the middle. Now, you pull out one ball. What's the probability that it will have a black core?
I said, "How do you know that some of them have a black core and some don't?"
He said, "Boy! You insist on spoiling the problem don't you? All right. Let me give you one more formulation. You got one of these pinball machines and you have two exits for the balls, one on the right and one on the left. And you shoot n balls and m of them come out and the right and m minus n come out on the left. Now, you got one pull of the spring. One ball goes up. What's the probability that it will come out on the left?"
I said, "Give me a screwdriver."
"I want to take the machine apart and see how it works."
"You can't do that!"
"Because it spoils the problem!"
See, he was reducing problems to exercises, and exercises are not an exercise in problem-solving. It's learning how to box with one hand tied behind your back, and that's not what reality is. Then, we come along and we do something to an exercise. We remove the reason for taking it seriously. We remove the context.
So we go ahead and ask a student, "How much is 2 + 3?" Now, we ask that with a full conviction that there's only one possible answer, and that's absolutely false. You don't know the answer to the question "2 + 3?" because you don't know the context. Am I talking about degrees Fahrenheit? Am I talking about logarithms? Am I talking about number systems to base-six instead of base-ten?
All of these affect the answer, but we teach students as though each question has an absolute context and an absolute answer, and therefore "2 + 2" has to be 4, and "2 + 3" has to be 5. And don't make them aware of the fact that 2 + 3 can be 2 and 1/2 as it is if they're degrees Fahrenheit and the two bodies are the same volume, and so on, and on, and on.
The relativity of questions is something we never ask. So, we don't make the distinction between problems, exercises, and questions. And then there's another distinction we don't make. The second of three.
There are four different ways of treating a problem:
One, is "absolution". That's the way we treat most problems. You ignore it and hope it'll go away, or solve itself. So parents come home and find kids fighting, and say, "Let them alone. They'll solve it." That's absolving yourself of the problem.
Problem "resolution" is a way of treating a problem where you dip into the past and say, "What have we done in the past that suggests something that we can do in the present that would be good enough?" This is a clinical and experiential approach to problems. It is basically qualitative and common-sensical. In decision theoretic terms, it looks for a "satisficing" answer, an answer that is good enough. Its the way the clinician works.
Problem "solving" looks for the best thing to do in the current circumstances. It looks for an optimal solution. It's quantitative versus qualitative, experimental versus experiential, and it's research-based. And we leave students with the impression the best thing you can do with a problem is solve it. And that's absolutely false because of a number of reasons: One is, no problem ever stays solved. But more importantly, every solution creates new problems.
You see, every problem in science that was formulated by Galileo has long since been solved, but science hasn't disappeared. Because every time we solve a problem, we create a new one and a new one is harder than the old one. The progress of science depends as much on the generation of new problems as it does on the generation of old solutions.
We don't teach people that. But the important thing is there's something you do to a problem that's better than solving it, and that's "dissolving" it. How in world do you "dissolve" a problem? By redesigning a system that has it so that the problem no longer exists.
There's a marvelous story...probably apocryphal, but I like to believe it's true...of a young man who went to the Ohio Match Company many years ago with a proposal. Some of you are old enough to remember the paper books of matches, which used to be given out every time you bought a package of cigarettes. And there was a problem with those matches because, if you left the cover open and struck a match on the abrasive on the front, sometimes a spark would fly from the match and ignite the matches in the book and people would burn their hands. And the Ohio Match Company used to receive at least a thousand suits a year from people who had burnt their hands.
Well, they got enough sense and printed on the bottom of the matchbox a little statement that said, "Please close the cover before striking." You may remember that. It turned out this didn't do two things: First, it didn't reduce their legal liability for burned hands, and secondly, it didn't stop most people from striking matches with the book open.
Now, this young man came in. He said, "Suppose I could tell you how to make a paper book of matches in a way that people cannot possibly burn their hands, and it will cost you no more to make that book of matches than it does to make the current one. How much is it worth to you?"
"You tell us what the answer is and we'll tell you how much it's worth."
"Oh no, you tell me how much it's worth and I'll tell you the answer."
Well, they wound up hiring lawyers who negotiated the contract. And when the contract was finally negotiated, it involved actually $42,000 according to the story. The contract was signed by both men. He turned to the young man said, "What's your proposal?"
"Take the abrasive and put it on the back of matchbook cover."
And every one subsequently was done that way. See, he didn't solve the problem. He dissolved it. He redesigned the matchbook cover so the problem no longer existed. Dissolution involves design. Solution involves research. We don't recognize design as a way of dealing with problems as superior even to research. And we don't teach design because we don't know it and don't understand it.
Some of us, like me, was lucky enough to be trained in architecture where I learned it without knowing what I was learning. The architect, as a profession, is the only
one I know of who really understands a system. He's unconscious of his understanding, of maybe why he understands it. He doesn't know what he's doing, but he does it right.
A family comes in to see an architect, and they say, "We want to build a home and what we want is a house with three bedrooms, the living room, dining room, and kitchen connected to each other. We want a family room where the kids can play. We want a two-car garage, and want it all on one floor. We'd like it to be, whatever it is, colonial or modern architecture. We'd like it to cost under, whatever it is, a hundred thousand dollars."
Architects says, "Fine. Let me think about it, make some sketches. You come back in a week and we'll talk about it."
What does the architect do? Does he make a list of the rooms they want, and then produce a design of each room, and then say, "How do I put these together into a house?" Is that what he does? Of course not. What he does is produce a sketch of a house, the whole. And now he begins to put rooms in it. He divides the space of the house up into rooms. Then, he looks at it. He says, "Well, these bedrooms are a little too small and they're the wrong shape. They're a little too long for their
width, so I ought to make them a little wider, but that means changing the house. Should I change the house?"
Only if changing the house to accommodate the room makes the house better. A part is never modified unless it makes the whole better. That's a systemic principle. You don't change the part because it makes the part better without considering its impact on the whole. That's systemic thinking. you don't improve the performance of a department of a university or a college unless you can demonstrate that doing so improves the whole. But I've never seen a university or college which evaluates departments in terms of their contribution to the whole. They're always evaluated in terms of their own performance because the university is treated anti-systemically, as a group of autonomous independent entities called "departments". And so the potentiality for learning in an institution of higher learning has never been completely exhausted.
Now, the third thing about problems. They don't exist. There is no such thing as a problem. It's an illusion. Well, it's a concept really, not an illusion. A problem is to reality what an atom is to a table. What you experience are tables, not atoms. You have a theory and a concept that tells you that if you reduce a table to its parts, you will ultimately reach an indivisible part which used to be called an "atom". Now it's a "proton" or a "quark", doesn't make any difference. But what you experience is the whole, not the parts into which you have reduced it by conceptual reduction.
Reality consists of a whole mess of problems interacting. In fact, reality is a system of problems. A problem is an abstraction extracted from reality by analysis. It's isolated from reality. Now what happens when you take a system apart? It loses all of its essential properties. And therefore, when you take a situation, and by analysis reduce it to the problems of which it is composed, you have lost all the essential properties of reality and the essential properties of the parts, the problem. When you take an automobile apart, you got a motor sitting on the floor here. That motor, which is responsible for moving the car, can't even move itself. It loses its essential property when separated from the system of which it's a part. And therefore, the problems that we teach people to solve are illusions. They're not real. They never have the interactions involved.
And so it was in 1950s that we had to recognize the need of developing whole new ways of formulating systems of problems, which are now referred to technically as messes. How do you formulate a mess? And how do you solve it? And the answer is, by design, because it's only through design that you deal with the whole and move to the parts.
You see, we are engaged as educators in what might be called the "Humpty Dumpty fallacy". You remember that "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again."
Once the egg breaks, you can't reassemble it. That's happened to learning. We've broken it. We've got all of these pieces and the question is: How to bring them together?
Well, they can't be. Interdisciplinarity is nonsense. The moment you have disciplines you can't bring them back together again. You've got a broken egg. You're not going to put the yolk and the white back together again. We've got to start over from scratch and redesign the institution so that the whole is dealt with before the parts are created to fit the whole. We do not design the whole to fit the parts, which is what we're doing today. The colleges are assemblages of departments. The departments are not integral parts of the whole.
We have an incredible challenge facing us. Are we going to stand up to it, or are we going to try to preserve the capital we've invested in our own education? And transmit the complacency that most of us have because we feel that we're reasonably being well-educated, and the kids will be lucky if they're as well-educated as we are, which is a terrible crime because we ain't educated at all.
We're only beginning to realize how little we know about the nature of reality.