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Title: Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Author(s): Donella Meadows (ed. Diana Wright)
Date of Publication: 2008 Publisher: Routledge
Pages:xiii + 218 ISBN: 978 1 84407 726 7
Price: Format:Paperback
Target Readership Educator







Content: 1 – The basics; 2 - A brief visit to the systems zoo; 3 - Why systems work so well; 4 - Why systems surprise us; 5 - Systems traps ... and opportunities; 6 - Leverage points - places to intervene in the system; 7 - Living in a world of systems; Appendices.

Review: Back in 1972, systems thinking was an addition to the burgeoning world of environmental science. Its apparent simplicity coupled with its predictive ability presaged a new era in analysis. Sadly, that early promise fell apart when the Meadows' book Limits to Growth was fully critiqued and was found to be lacking in some areas. That much of the critique was based on a faulty reading of the analysis did not help and the idea of systems analysis was set back. However, the notion continued to develop and now, with global warming models, has become an important technique to understand if not apply. This book has interest by virtue of the fact it was authored by one of the leading figures in the early systems debate. It has been assembled to show how systems analysis can be applied and as such it becomes a guide to the basic thinking needed.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part looks at the basic idea of systems. We start with a very simple model of input, output and feedback and the ways in which changing these can lead to further responses in the system. This initial view is useful but hardly representative of the more complex systems. Chapter two therefore expands upon this idea using two of more inter-related systems. This is useful in two ways. The obvious one is that it can better model real-world situations; the second is that in building the models slowly, the reader can appreciate how even the most complex systems can be reduced to that same simple input-output-feedback version. Having given the reader some idea of the ways in which systems work, part two examines their limitations. Chapters three and four are complementary in that the former looks at the advantages of using models and the latter at some elements systems analysis is less good at explaining. Both are vital for the beginner. It was blind faith in the power of systems analysis that, in part, led to its demise in the early 1970s and it is the need to realise its limitations that will help it become a popular way of understanding situations today. Part three moves the reader towards a more pro-active use of systems analysis. Chapter six examines the places where one might be able to effect change (and why it might end up with the opposite effect). Chapter seven is focussed less on systems analysis and more on thinking and how we approach decision-making. As such it is more a call for more rigorous thinking than a blind support for this method of analysis. In some ways this is the most effective chapter because it demands that the reader stops and considers how his/her thinking might be adding to/reducing the problems. It expects people to think before they act.

As has admitted in the editor's introduction, there are numerous books on systems analysis many of which take a far more detailed approach to the subject. What there are not however are many texts which explain the system from the bottom up and build upon that initial construction to make a more powerful model. As such this is an ideal text for the teacher who needs to know more but is uncertain of how to proceed. It requires virtually no maths which can make student understanding more difficult. It uses simple but 'real-world' examples to explain how the models work and it demands that the reader thinks about how they "see" the world. This is certainly a book that deserves to be on the reading list if not library and it should be a key text in teacher education courses.





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