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The Triple Focus: A New Approach to

Also by Daniel Goleman from More Than Sound
What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence Focus for Teens: Enhancing
Concentration, Caring, and Calm
Focus for Kids: Enhancing Concentration, Caring, and Calm
Leadership: A Master Class DVD series: with Bill George, Warren Bennis,
George Kohlrieser and more Leadership: The Power of Emotional
Intelligence: Selected Writings
The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights Better Parents, Better
Spouses, Better People with Daniel Siegel
Knowing Our Emotions, Improving Our World with Paul Ekman
Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence with Richard
Good Work: Aligning Skills and Values with Howard Gardner
The Inner Compass for Ethics and Excellence with Naomi Wolf

Socially Intelligent Computing with Clay Shirky Rethinking Education with

George Lucas Leading the Necessary Revolution with Peter Senge

Available at morethansound.net
Copyright © 2014 by More Than Sound All Rights Reserved
Published by More Than Sound, LLC Florence, MA

The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education / Daniel Goleman / Peter
Senge 1st Edition
ISBN 978-1-934441-78-7

Table of Contents
Introduction 9

Part One
Rebooting an Education for Life Daniel Goleman

Part Two
Focusing on Ourselves Daniel Goleman 17

Part Three
Tuning in to Other People Daniel Goleman 29

Part Four
Understanding the Larger Word: Systems and Systems Thinking Peter Senge
Part Five
The Potential Partnership Between SEL and Systems Education Peter Senge
and Daniel Goleman 65

Endnotes 87

Imagine this: Someone under the age of eighteen may never have known a
world that didn’t have the Internet. And in more and more parts of the world,
most children under the age of ten never knew a time where there wasn’t a
handheld device they could tune in to—tuning out the people around them.
Kids are growing up in a very different world today, one that will change
even more as technology evolves. But the changes will go beyond
technology. These kids are also growing up in a world facing unprecedented
social and ecological challenges that they will need to help address.

What are the tools that we might give kids today that will help them on this

In this book, Peter Senge, organizational learning and systems thinking

expert at MIT and author of The Fifth Discipline, and Daniel Goleman,
author of Emotional Intelligence and a founder of the movement for social
and emotional learning, examine the inner tools young people will need to
contribute to and thrive in this new environment. We will describe three
crucial skill sets for navigating a fast-paced world of increasing distraction
and endangered person-to-person engagement—a world where the
interconnections between people, objects, and the planet matter more than
ever. Think of these skill sets as a triplefocus—inner, other, and outer.

Daniel Goleman will explore the first, inner focus—focusing on ourselves—

on our interior world, connecting with our sense of purpose and deepest
aspirations, understanding why we feel the way we do and what to do about
those feelings. Inner focus holds a key to a purposeful life, to concentrating
on the task at hand, ignoring distractions, and managing our disturbing
emotions. He’ll also delve into the second kind of focus, tuning in to other
people, or empathizing, being able to understand another person’s reality and
relating to him from his perspective, not just from our own. Such empathy
leads to caring and to the ability to work together— keys to effective,
connected relationships.

Peter Senge will explain the third kind of focus, outer focus: understanding
the larger world, the way systems interact and create webs of
interdependence, whether this interaction is in a family or an organization, or
the world at large. This understanding requires systems thinking, not just the
simplistic “A causes B,” there-is-a-rightanswer thinking of traditional
education. For years, Peter has been part of a growing movement among
innovative businesses who have shifted how they see and manage for
complexity. And now he is a member of a network bringing these constructs
and tools to schools, enabling students to better understand their world.

The book is broken down into segments that examine how to incorporate this
triple-focus into learning. In the first part of this book, Daniel will make the
case for teaching children how to cultivate inner and other focus. He will
describe how they can improve self-awareness, selfmanagement, empathy,
and social skills—and how these benefit their personal development and their
academic performance. And he will share a taste of how some schools are
already teaching their students these vital skills.

In the following segment, Peter will examine that third skill set, systems
understanding: analyzing the dynamics of when I do this, the consequence is
that, and how to use these insights to change the system for the better. Peter
will also share the innovative work on how the systems view is being taught
in schools today and what it is revealing about the innate systems intelligence
of children.

We are now seeing that these skill sets can operate alongside each other very
naturally. As human beings, we always need to understand self, other, and the
larger systems of which we are a part. To explore this possibility, in the last
section Daniel and Peter will reflect together on areas of important synergy
going forward between social and emotional learning and systems education.
While these two fields and the associated networks of educators have
developed largely independently, together they could constitute a real critical
mass for a host of deep changes that have otherwise frustrated education
innovators for years. When all three intelligences are honored, children seem
to thrive. This is an education that not only will better equip our children for
their future but can be realized starting right now.

One of the reasons we’re writing this book is that so much progress has been
achieved in the past two decades in each of these fields. There are time-tested
constructs, tools, pedagogical strategies, and resources to help schools bring
them to students effectively. We share a passion to bring this to scale, so
more and more students can benefit. When we visit classrooms in pioneering
schools of all sorts, we experience a kind of heartbreak in knowing that all
kids don’t have this education. These programs have high value for kids, for
teachers, for parents, and for families. So why aren’t they available for all

As more parents, educators, and students bring social and emotional learning
and systems thinking into schools, we will see happier, calmer, and more
personally mature students succeeding in their lives and contributing to vital
societal changes.

—Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge

Part One Rebooting an Education for Life Daniel

When I was writing the book Emotional Intelligence, I visited one of the very
first curricula designed to boost emotional intelligence. It was in the public
schools in New Haven, Connecticut, and came about because a Yale
psychologist, Roger Weissberg, listened to the mayor of the city, who had
called together about a hundred concerned citizens. The city of New Haven—
apart from the corner where Yale University sits—was a povertystricken area
where many kids who were born to unwed teen mothers themselves became
unwed teen mothers living on food stamps, and where the local models of
success were drug dealers. A tough place to thrive.

The mayor said to this task force, “Our kids are really in trouble—what can
we do to help them?” So Roger Weissberg developed the Social
Development Curriculum for schools there. This was one of the pioneering
programs in what has become a global movement in “Social and Emotional
Learning,” or SEL.

Now SEL is found in thousands of schools worldwide, with hundreds of

different programs. Recently there was a meta-analysis of different studies
analyzing schools that have SEL programs and those that don’t. They were
able to get data on 270,000 students. This massive aggregated study found
that the effects of participating in SEL programs were as follows: Pro-social
behavior— behaving appropriately in class, liking school, good attendance,
and so on—went up by 10%; anti-social behavior—misbehaving in class,
violence, bullying—all dropped about 10%. Most interestingly, academic
achievement test scores went up by 11%. Gains, by and large, were most
significant in schools that needed them the most.

The relationship between the effects of SEL on behavior and academic

achievement comes as the greatest surprise. My understanding is that students
are paying attention better because they have learned how to more effectively
manage their attention, and because they like their teachers and being in
class, and they’re less worried about fighting and being bullied. So when
these behavioral capacities improve and students feel at ease in an
educational setting, then they can learn better. From an academic standpoint,
it’s a great argument for bringing SEL into schools.

In Emotional Intelligence, I reviewed findings from what was then a new

study by the W.T. Grant Foundation. They were interested in the problems
kids were having and assessing the value of the various “wars” on these
problems, as many interventions were called at the time. There were wars on
drugs, violence, poverty, bullying, even a war on high school dropout rates.
They evaluated all these programs that were meant to help kids deal with
these problems in their lives and found that many did not work. Some
actually made things worse.

But those that helped had certain active ingredients in common. They were
taught over many years rather than just once; they repeated basic lessons
through the grades as students’ abilities to comprehend grew; they
emphasized the school as a community; and they reached out to families.

And they all taught a common core of abilities. The active ingredients boiled
down to a handful of emotional and social abilities. These included self-
awareness, or knowing what you feel and why; self-management, what to do
about those feelings; empathy, knowing what other people think and feel and
understanding their point of view; and then social skills, putting all of that
together for harmonious relationships, and drawing on all these emotional
intelligence skill sets to make good decisions in life.

Those five points—self-awareness, selfmanagement, empathy, social skill,

and good decision-making—are now the core abilities taught in SEL.
Even though this is a growing, global movement today, you’ll only find these
programs in a small portion of schools. But those schools are seedbeds for
spreading this educational approach. And as SEL continues to find new
homes in classrooms worldwide, we hope to shape the next generation of
whole-child education by showing how the triple focus—inner, other, outer—
can even better prepare children for their future.

—Daniel Goleman

Part Two Focusing on Ourselves Daniel Goleman

The children coming into their second grade classroom that morning arranged
their chairs in a circle for a daily ritual: Their teacher asked every child to tell
the class how he or she felt (unless unwilling to share), and why he or she felt
that way.

This simple exercise in a New Haven elementary school was the first time I
saw a lesson in emotional literacy.

While what we feel and why may seem self-evident to adults, this basic inner
sense must be learned in childhood. That second grade teacher was helping
each child master this lesson in selfawareness.

Naming emotions accurately helps children be clearer about what is going on

inside— essential both to making clearheaded decisions and to managing
emotions throughout life. Getting it wrong can throw children off track.

For instance, girls who develop eating disorders as teens have been found to
confuse sadness and hunger when they are still in
elementary school—and end up binge eating in their teen years to soothe
their distress. That, in turn, sets the stage for eating problems in later life.

Self-awareness—turning our attention to our inner world of thoughts and

feelings—opens the path to managing ourselves well. An inner focus lets us
understand and handle our inner world, even when rocked by disturbing
feelings. One of the core abilities for doing this is how we deploy our
attention. We can turn our awareness inside, and we can monitor where we
put our focus. These are life skills that keep us all on track throughout the
years, and help children be better learners.

For instance, when children tune in to what matters to them most, to what
engages them, they connect with the interests that motivate them. Such
“intrinsic motivation,” which comes from inside, tells us what we truly care
about—for a child, what she really wants to learn and why. If after a while
she is just following the teacher’s goals for what she should learn and not
thinking much about her own goals, she can develop an attitude that school is
all about other people’s agendas—and fail to tap her inner reservoir of
motivation and engagement. On the other hand, attuned teachers can use
students’ intrinsic interests to excite them about what they are learning.

This ability to tune in to what matters to us also has an ethical dimension. As

we go through life, the sense that we are on course with our own values
becomes an inner rudder. In our life and career this can blossom into “good
work”—a potent combination of what engages us, what matters to us, and
what we can accomplish successfully. Good work requires enthusiasm,
ethics, and excellence. In the school years, the equivalent is “good
learning”—being engaged with what feels important, what we are enthused
by, and building the skills and constructs that we can get better at as we

Neuroplasticity, an anatomical form of progress, is the understanding in brain

science that our brain continually grows and shapes itself through repeated
experiences, throughout life and particularly in childhood. The brain is the
last organ of the body to become anatomically mature; it doesn’t take its final
shape until the mid-20s. Particularly during our early years, our experience—
and the neural networks this activates—either strengthens this circuitry or
winnows it.

For example, studies show that our minds wander about 50% of the time on
average. At Emory University, volunteers were told to keep their mind on
one target, and of course after a while it would wander off.1 But the
volunteers would notice when it wandered, a moment of “meta-awareness,”
and bring it back. In this exercise, every time your mind wanders, and you
notice it has wandered, you re-focus on the target. In theory, each time you
bring it back, it’s like a repetition of a triceps curl—but in the mental gym
you’re strengthening the circuitry for focusing, for salience, and for ignoring

Such neuroplasticity in action presumably happens with all of the circuitry

for social and emotional learning. The circuits for empathy and for managing
yourself internally develop and grow throughout the childhood and teen
years, and they can be cultivated so they develop along the best lines. That,
from the perspective of brain science, is what SEL aims to do.

Ideally we want to help kids exercise the right circuitry at the right time for
the right reason— for instance, the SEL focus on managing yourself, which
depends largely on circuitry in the prefrontal cortex. Likewise for the social
circuitry of the brain, which helps us feel what another person is feeling,
know what to say next, and keep an interaction harmonious.

Developmental psychologists tell us that our ability to witness our own minds
—our thoughts and feelings—resides in networks mainly located in the
brain’s executive centers in the prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead.
Strong, disruptive emotions, like anger or anxiety, flow from circuitry lower
in the brain, the limbic centers. The brain’s capacity for “just saying no” to
these emotional impulses takes a leap in growth during the ages five to seven
and increases steadily from there, though it tends to lag behind the emotional
centers during the teen years.

The ability to be mindful of impulse—to stay focused and ignore distractions

—can be enhanced by the right lessons. This is especially important for doing
well in school. The brain’s centers for learning operate at their peak when we
are focused and calm. As we become upset, these centers work less well. In
the grip of extreme agitation, we can only focus on what’s upsetting us—and
learning shuts down. For these reasons, students learn best when they’re calm
and concentrated.

What’s New: Attention Training in SEL

I visited a second grade classroom in Spanish Harlem to watch the daily
session they call “breathing buddies.” During breathing buddies time, each
child goes to their cubby and gets a favorite little stuffed animal, lies on the
floor, and puts it on their belly. Then they watch their stuffed animal rise as
they inhale, while counting 1, 2, 3, 4, and then count 1, 2, 3, 4 again on the
exhale, watching the animal fall. They do that for just a few minutes.

That simple session of focus exercises the circuitry for paying attention in a
way that’s appropriate at the second grade level. And the effects stay with
them throughout the day—the kids are calm and focused. The teacher in that
classroom told me that one day scheduling changes meant they had no time
for “breathing buddies,” and the class was chaotic.

I strongly believe “breathing buddies” previews a next step for SEL. Soon we
will be applying the new science of attention to help children become better
at observing their inner world, understanding it, and managing their emotions
when they become rocky.

Some schools are already teaching children to be “mindful,” which means

paying attention to what they think and feel without being carried away by
those inner stirrings. This observing awareness creates a platform within the
mind from which a child can weigh her thoughts, feelings, and impulses
before acting on them. And that moment of pausing gives a child a crucial
degree of freedom that allows her to manage her emotions and impulses
rather than simply be controlled by them.

Attention is the essential skill for learning. The specific capacity for keeping
your attention where you want it is termed cognitive control. The circuitry for
cognitive control runs through the prefrontal cortex, which acts as the mind’s
executive center. This is the part of the brain that allows us to resist
distraction, inhibit harmful impulses, delay gratification in pursuit of our
goals, be ready to learn, and stay focused on our goals.

An influential book called How Children Succeed discusses the value of

“grit.”2 Having grit means you are able to identify a goal in life and keep
striving toward that goal, even when you have setbacks and difficulties. Grit,
unsurprisingly, turns out to be a big factor in a person’s life success. It’s one
of the many abilities that, from a brain function viewpoint, is based on
cognitive control.

There’s an unexpected bonus to

strengthening a child’s cognitive control: The brain uses the same circuitry
that helps us focus on a goal to also manage destructive emotions. When we
help a child enhance cognitive control, we’re helping them strengthen a wide
array of vital abilities. These spillover effects help to curb a range of
problematic behaviors that otherwise we try to manage through rules,
sanctions, and warnings. While we all need such ethical guidelines, expecting
them to suffice when a child has not developed cognitive control is a bit like
closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

To illustrate the benefits of cognitive control, imagine that you are four years
old and sitting at a table with a luscious marshmallow on it. You’ve been told
you could have this treat now, if you want—but that if you can wait several
minutes you will get two marshmallows. That was the predicament of the
children who participated in the “marshmallow test,” a famous experiment in
psychology about the importance of cognitive control. It was done at
Stanford University back in the 1970s by a psychologist named Walter
Mischel, with the children enrolled in a campus preschool.3

He found that if a child simply stared at that marshmallow, she was very
likely to eat it on the spot. But if the child could find a way to distract herself,
she was better able to wait and get two later. The ways the successful kids
distracted themselves included, for instance, singing songs or talking to
themselves. Over the course of the many years, Mischel taught the kids ways
to shift their attention away from that tempting treat—like imagining a frame
around the treat as though it were a picture in their mind, or reminding
themselves about the two marshmallows they’d receive if they waited.

A surprising finding emerged 14 years after the marshmallow test, when one
group of the kids was tracked down as they were graduating high school.
Researchers compared those who as four-year-olds grabbed the marshmallow
right away with those who got the two later, and found that the ones who
waited still could focus on their goals, inhibit distractions, and manage
disruptive impulses well. But the ones who at four did not wait for a second
marshmallow, now at 18 still had trouble delaying gratification in pursuit of
their goals.

But the shocker was in terms of their SAT scores, at the time a crucial factor
in college admissions: The kids who waited outscored the ones who didn’t by
210 points (from a possible total of 1600 points). That spread is greater than
the difference between kids whose parents have no education beyond
elementary school and those who come from a family where a parent has an
advanced degree. Even among these children connected with the prestigious
Stanford University, the strength of their cognitive control informed their
future academic success more than IQ and parental education.

Years later some of the then-four-year-olds still remembered the

marshmallow test. What we don’t know, of course, is if that experience itself
operated as an intervention, teaching the kids it’s better to wait!

A more recent study done in Dunedin, New Zealand, makes this point very
powerfully.4 Researchers followed every child born in the city over the
course of a year, more than a thousand children. When they were between the
ages of four and eight, researchers tested them rigorously at each grade level
(including with the marshmallow test at age four) on cognitive control. They
then tracked them down when they were in their 30s and found that those
with better cognitive control as children were doing better financially and had
better health than those who had tested poorly as children. This ability turned
out to be remarkably powerful as a predictor of life success—stronger than
childhood IQ or the social and economic status of the child’s family.

Significantly, the children who managed over those four years to enhance
their cognitive control ended up doing as well as those who started out with
good levels. Additionally, in the course of a healthy childhood cognitive
control tends to grow stronger. But, the researchers point out, if this is a
learnable skill that can be further enhanced by the right lessons, why not give
every child these advantages?

The take home for schools is that we could be teaching kids to enhance their
cognitive control. In some sense, this ability comes down to how well you
pay attention—and attention is a mental skill that can be increased and
cultivated. There are many ways to do this.

For example, pre-kindergarten toddlers learn voraciously by watching people

around them, modeling their own behavior on what they see people around
them doing—parents, siblings, even other kids (especially older ones).
Everyone in the life of a toddler is a model for learning.
The people who create the Sesame Street TV show are very aware of the
power of modeling for their toddler audience. When I visited Sesame
Workshop, where the show is put together, I was pleasantly surprised at their
scientific sophistication: All the scriptwriters were in a meeting with
cognitive scientists. It turns out every segment in Sesame Street is based on
the science of child development wrapped in entertainment.

The people there told me about a segment they had just developed that is
designed to enhance cognitive control. It was called “The Cookie
Connoisseur Club.” Alan, the storekeeper on Sesame Street, had decided to
start a cookie club, and of course, Cookie Monster was most eager to join.
But as Alan explained to him, if you’re going to be in this club, you have to
be able to take a cookie and not gobble it right away. Instead you first look to
see if there are any imperfections. Then you sniff it. And then you take a
nibble. Cookie Monster flunked the test the first time.

The writing team at Sesame Street actually consulted on scripting this

segment with Walter Mischel, the psychologist behind the marshmallow test.
Mischel recommended Alan tell Cookie Monster to remind himself that if he
could wait and just nibble his cookie, he would get a whole lot of cookies
later in the cookie club. It worked. With this lesson, they were modeling
cognitive control for preschoolers.

Yet another way to cultivate children’s cognitive control uses more advanced
technology, in the form of a video game called Tenacity, in development at
the University of Wisconsin. It’s intended for a wide range of ages, because it
adjusts its difficulty to your ability level. In the game, you’re walking
through a desert scene, for example, and every time you breathe out, you tap
the screen. On the fifth exhale, you tap it twice, and if you do that
successfully, you see flowers bloom in the desert as a reward. I tried it with
my four grandchildren when they were between the ages of six and thirteen,
and they loved it. Tenacity helps kids cultivate focus. As the user gets better
and better at the game, the difficulty increases so he or she can continually
improve this mental tool.

These are all different ways to cultivate cognitive control. There are by now
many pioneering schools where children learn similar attention-training
methods. Research shows benefits like improved concentration and better
resistance to distractions, as well as lowered anxiety.

Because it is such an essential element of helping children better manage

their inner worlds and enhance learning, this training in attention seems an
obvious next step for SEL. Children must learn to pay attention to attention

—Daniel Goleman

Part Three Tuning Into Other People Daniel Goleman

Empathy and Academic Success
Social and emotional learning
complements academics—putting them together educates the whole child.
We’ve reviewed the selfmastery abilities that give children resilience in life
and in learning, and will serve them in pursuing their goals despite setbacks.
But the second part of SEL concerns a focus on other people.

This is the basis of empathy—

understanding how other people feel and how they think about the world—
along with social skill, cooperation, and teamwork. In the working world
these abilities are seen in the best team members, good organizational
citizens, and effective leaders. But these adult competencies are rooted in
what we learned as children.

The neuroscience basis for this focus on others is studied in a relatively new
area of brain research—social neuroscience. This field highlights the circuitry
involved during interactions. This includes, for instance, “mirror neurons,”
which activate in our own brain, based on what we see in another person—
his movements, his emotions, even his intentions. These neurons, and the
many other orchestrated circuits of the social brain, create an inner
attunement—an immediate sense of what’s going on that keeps our
interactions smooth. Like the circuitry for self-awareness and self-
management, these social circuits develop throughout childhood, giving us
the inner tools for empathy and social skill.

When it comes to “other” focus, one feature still missing from schools—even
most that teach SEL—is helping kids cultivate caring and compassion. It’s
not enough just to know how other people think or feel; we also need to be
concerned about them and be ready to help. I think this is a vital life skill for
both kids and adults, and such an addition to SEL would be an important next
step for schools.

There was a classic study done years ago at the Princeton Theological
Seminary where divinity students were told they were to give a sample trial
sermon and be evaluated on it. Each student was given a topic from the Bible.
Half of them were given the topic of the Good Samaritan, the man who
stopped to help a stranger in need by the side of the road. The other half were
given random Bible topics. After some time to prepare, one by one they went
over to another building to give their sermons. As they were going from one
building to the next, they passed a man who was bent over and moaning,
clearly in pain and in need. The researchers wanted to know if the students
would stop to help. Even more interesting: Did it matter whether they were
pondering the parable of the Good Samaritan or not?

It turns out that what mattered more was how much time pressure they
thought they were under—and in a way this is true for many of us. We’ve got
our to-do lists, we’ve got more and more incoming emails and other
electronic messages than we’ve ever had in human history. The question is
how far are we from noticing the other person—from tuning in, to
empathizing, to being concerned if he or she has a problem? And then, how
likely are we to actually help? I think that the key to having compassion—to
being a caring child, parent—or even a co-worker or citizen—is attuning to
the problems that people are having and being predisposed to do something
about them.

Of course it’s not enough simply to be free from our to-do lists and other
preoccupations. The key to compassion is being predisposed to help— and
that can be learned.

There is an active school movement in character education and teaching

ethics. But I don’t think it’s enough to have children just learn about ethical
virtuosity, because we need to embody our ethical beliefs by acting on them.
This begins with empathy.
There are three main kinds of empathy, each involving distinct sets of brain
circuits. The first is cognitive empathy: understanding how other people see
the world and how they think about it, and understanding their perspectives
and mental models. This lets us put what we have to say in ways the other
person will best understand. The second is emotional empathy: a brain-to-
brain linkage that gives us an instant inner sense of how the other person
feels—sensing their emotions from moment to moment. This allows
“chemistry” in our connections with people.

Those two are very important of course; they’re key to getting along with
other people, but they’re not necessarily sufficient for caring. The third is
called, technically, empathic concern— which naturally leads to empathic
action—like the Good Samaritan, the person who tunes in and who stops to
help. Unlike the other two kinds of empathy, this variety is based in the
ancient mammalian circuitry for caring and for parenting, and it nurtures
those qualities.

That last type of empathy offers the foundation for what’s been called a
“caring classroom,” where the teacher embodies and models kindness and
concern for her students, and encourages the same attitude among the
students. Such a classroom culture provides the best atmosphere for learning,
both cognitively and emotionally. Learning in general happens best in a
warm, supportive atmosphere, in which there exists a feeling of safety, of
being supported and cared about, of closeness and connection.5 In such a
space children’s brains more readily reach the state of optimal cognitive
efficiency—and of caring about others.

Such an atmosphere has particular importance for those children at most risk
of going off track in their lives because of early experiences of deprivation,
abuse, or neglect. Studies of such high-risk kids who have ended up thriving
in their lives—who are resilient—find that usually the one person who turned
their life around was a caring adult, very often a teacher.

If you ask them what made the difference, very often they’ll tell you it was
that teacher who really saw them, who really understood them, who really
cared about them and saw their potential. Such caring and genuine concern is
important not just in the classroom but throughout the school. Administrators
need to care about teachers so that the teachers feel they have a secure base.
When you have a secure base, your mind operates at its best. You can
function optimally. You can take smart risks. You can innovate and be
creative, feel enthused, motivated, and tune in to other people. Compassion
comes more easily.

The more upset we are, the more selffocused we become. We tune out the
people around us, tune out the systems around us, and we just think about
ourselves. Being able to manage your inner life lets you tune in to others with
genuine care, and function at your best. It’s true for teachers, for parents, for
administrators, and for kids.

Several research centers have been piloting programs that cultivate an attitude
of kindness and concern, Stanford and Emory Universities among them. The
Mind and Life Institute has created a network of educators and researchers
(from these and other institutions) to distill the active ingredients from this
research and adapt it into a curriculum for younger students.6 They plan to
start with the first or second grade, and then roll out developmentally
appropriate versions for each successive grade level.

For instance, one of the guided reflections a teacher in such a program might
lead students through is all the ways other kids are “just like me.” The
children would be instructed to consider their common hurts and hopes, their
fears and anger, their kindness, and their need to be loved. Such a widened
view of how others feel and see the world acts as an antidote to a one-
dimensional view of other children that can lead to negative stereotyping or

One appeal: These are empirically tested methods, and so this program in
cultivating compassion should be state of the art. Helping children cultivate
their capacity for caring and concern—for empathic action—will likely be the
next major step for SEL.

Training Smart Decision Makers

A class of second-graders is brainstorming the answer to a question their
teacher has put to them: “What’s the best way to respond if you think another
student has taken your crayon? What would make it better, and what would
make it worse?”

Accusing, they decide, would make it worse. Asking if he or she took the
crayon might make it better. And on and on, they spun out a range of ways to
handle the situation, evaluating the better or worse outcomes of each.

A fourth grade class brainstorms using the same method to consider a

different dilemma: “What if you have a part in a school play, but suffer from
stage fright?”

And in eighth grade the question is: “What would you do if your friends
pressured you to try drugs? How can you say no and keep your friends?”

Such conundrums are of vital urgency in the lives of students, and the
answers matter enormously. Being able to think your way through these
questions and sift through a range of possibilities to find the best response
forms that basis of effective decision-making throughout life.

Helping children learn good decisionmaking is the fifth goal of SEL, and it
builds on the foundation put in place by better self-awareness and self-
mastery—which allow for clear thinking— and by empathy and social skill,
which sensitize us to how others are feeling. And, as we’ll see, good
decisions are aided by a better understanding of the systems involved—this
adds still another crucial ingredient to sound decisions.

Technology and SEL

Basic human skills, like decision-making and empathy, are being challenged
perhaps more than ever today, in part because of the pull of digital devices.
Consider texting and email, which can be particularly risky environments for
youth these days. The brain’s social and emotional circuitry has trouble
online because our neurological design assumes face-to-face interactions, not
an email. When I look at you, part of my brain is instantaneously reading
thousands of messages and it tells me what to do next to keep the interaction
operating well. Online I get none of that feedback.

And because there’s no feedback, a phenomenon occurs called “cyber-

disinhibition.” When I read your email, there’s an absence of incoming social
messages apart from the text, so my social brain does not tell the emotional
circuits how to adeptly interact. Cyber-disinhibition means your emotions get
out of control: If you’re upset, suddenly you’re breaking up with your
boyfriend in a text message. That’s an emotional hijack— furiously typing a
message and hitting SEND and then thinking, oh my gosh, what did I just do?
Or you send a cruel text message, writing something hurtful—neither of
which you would do face-toface, because your social brain would help you
adjust your response to the person’s reaction.

The antidote here would be a combination of mindful awareness and

empathic concern— pausing before sending an online message to empathize
with the person who will receive it, and considering how that person is likely
to feel reading the message. (And if it’s late at night and you’re worked up,
don’t send it now. Get a night’s sleep—that’s the pause—and then read it
over from the receiver’s viewpoint before sending, adding a dab of empathy.)

One of the looming questions is how SEL will mesh with the emerging
education technologies. On the one hand there are some worries about how
these technologies alter our abilities to focus on the task at hand and on each
other. In other words, will educational technology hamper the cultivation of
emotional intelligence? On the other hand, these technologies may open the
way to new positive possibilities for teaching SEL itself.

There’s a paradox when it comes to SEL: Technology can remove the person
from the process. There’s no interaction between student and teacher; instead
there’s an interaction between student and screen. Yet some of the problems
that kids are starting to have—and that may become worse in the future—are
because kids spend too much time relating to screens and not to people. The
human skills of self-understanding, managing our inner worlds, or
empathizing and getting along with compassion, have always been taught in
physical, interactive settings (otherwise known as life). This is the original
SEL curriculum that we have historically gotten outside the classroom, just
by living life.

Therefore, SEL lessons are best taught person-to-person: with your fellow
students, with your teacher, with your family. Translating this to
technological formats should be done very thoughtfully, and would be
unlikely to replace completely the human interactions that kids need.

But Peter Senge has helped me see a flip side, where technology and SEL can
fit together in ways that make coherent sense. As Peter observed:

Technology can enable us to deliver high-quality, content-based learning

from increasingly highquality online offerings. If this is done correctly, then
you can use the classroom in a very different way. I’m sure the very first
thing you get from teachers who are attracted to SEL is, ‘Where do I get the
time? You know, I’ve got already too much stuff I’ve got to jam into my

Well, if you’re using the technology to get more and more of the content and
basic skills delivered outside the classroom, you can reinvent the classroom.
Kids can come in and talk about their projects. And they can get together and
work on their projects. You can really transform the classroom. I think more
and more educators see the huge potential synergy here.

As Peter also pointed out to me, if you’re using the technology to get more
and more of the basic academic content and skills delivered, you can reinvent
the concept of schooling. You have more space in the day, which gives you
more room for developing SEL skills (and, as we’ll see, systems thinking).
Of course, the technology is still very new, and there’s always pushback and

My hope is that teaching a good portion of standard academic topics through

technology will add open time to the day that teachers can use to help kids
with those three kinds of focus: selfawareness, focusing on others, and
understanding larger systems and how they apply in our lives. Thanks to this
dialogue with Peter, I’ve changed my mind: I’m now a big advocate of
technology and learning… just not for the delivery of SEL! I believe that’s
best done person-to-person.

Identifying Systems
This brings us to our third focus: systems awareness. Systems operate
everywhere we are. The family is a system, the school is a system, a
playground is a system. Every organization operates as a system, though we
may not be aware of it. Even so, we can learn what the dynamics of systems
are and become more intentional about how we are shaped by them—and
shape them in return.

Perhaps the largest systems problem we face is the “Anthropocene

Dilemma.” Geologists call these times the “Anthropocene Age,” which refers
to the fact that, for the first time in history, the actions of one species,
humans, are now part of how the whole Earth system functions. Most
importantly, life support systems for the planet are slowly degrading because
of unintended side effects of our actions. This human-caused degradation
started with the Industrial Revolution and has accelerated greatly in the last
50 years.

From a brain science viewpoint, the dilemma is this: Our brains are designed
for survival in earlier geological ages, not for the new Anthropocene reality.
Our brain’s alarm system rouses us only when it perceives an immediate
threat, and today’s changes in planetary systems are either too macro or too
micro for our perceptual systems. Because we don’t immediately sense the
negative consequences of our daily habits writ large—how our systems of
construction, energy, transportation, housing, industry, and commerce injure
our planet’s life support systems—it is easy to simply ignore them or pretend
they are not happening.

I’d love to see an education that included some understanding of this, so that
kids would grow up making better decisions than the present generation of
adults. Today we largely disregard the choices that we need to face because
those decisions are shaped by the systems that we’ve created that operate our
everyday life. To make better decisions, we must first see and think about
those systems.

Consider Mau Paulig, who was born on a small island in the South Pacific
back in the 1930s. Paulig was the last living “celestial navigator.” He learned
from his father and an array of other masters in celestial navigation how to
pilot an outrigger canoe from, say, Tahiti to Hawaii without any artificial
navigational aids. Instead he read nature’s signposts: the winds, the clouds,
the seaweed, the fish, the smells. Much of what he could sense told him
something important that he could put together with the other signals to know
where he was heading.

A few years before he died, Paulig was able to pass this knowledge on to a
group of younger Polynesians who were part of a cultural renaissance in the
South Pacific. If he had died without doing that, his special skill set would
have disappeared from the earth. Now, it has survived.

We may be in a very analogous situation with our own children. I think we

have to preserve basic human skills of self-understanding, of managing
ourselves, of tuning in to other people, of working together well, and of
understanding the larger systems in which we operate. Sophisticated
technologies will not substitute for these skills, though they could potentially
augment them if we have the wisdom to shape them to do so.

With a deeper understanding of systems, grounded in mindfulness and caring,

today’s students will go through their lives better prepared to make decisions
that are good for them, beneficial to others, and helpful to the planet.

—Daniel Goleman

Part Four Understanding the Larger World: Systems

Thinking & Systems Intelligence Peter Senge
As Dan has pointed out, wherever we are, we are always part of something
larger, whether we are kids playing on the playground or adults trying to
build a successful business, school, or social enterprise. For example,
Dan pointed to the importance of effective implementation in determining the
impact of SEL programs on kids and teachers. But what is “effective
implementation” other than the effective coordination of aims and activities
among a large number of people? For SEL to succeed, you need a well
thought-out and doable curriculum—but you also need support structures like
good training to help teachers develop new skills, good coaching to translate
these skills into demanding classroom settings, and strong peer networks of
teachers to help one another along the way. Plus, none of these are likely to
take root unless the overall culture and priorities of the school are aligned.
For example, are the teachers and administrators getting better at working
together and resolving their conflicts as opposed to just covering them up or
waiting for the “boss” (i.e., principal) to resolve them? In short, effective
implementation, inescapably, is a systems issue!

And, as Dan also reminds us, we are always acting in the midst of larger
biological and social systems. The school uses energy and lots of material
inputs, from food and packaging to books and computers. How this energy is
generated (fossil or renewable fuels) and what happens to all the “stuff” after
it is used (recycled or disposed of in landfills) affects living systems locally
and beyond. Learning how to see and improve these systems can also be an
exciting and relevant dimension of the whole education process.

Interdependence is not just a feature of today’s global economy. Nature is

continually in flux and infinitely interconnected, as every native and agrarian
society knows. Our species evolved within this interdependence. So, it makes
sense to think that we have some innate capacities to understand
interconnectedness, and that cultures that endured for long periods of time
understood this. Just as our needs to hunt and avoid being hunted developed
brain circuitry to alert us to sudden threats in our environment, so too are we
tuned to the subtle interplay of longer-term natural cycles, even if this
capacity is largely undeveloped in modern society.

Our innate systems intelligence, just like our innate capacities to understand
self and other, needs to be cultivated. For millennia, our ”teacher” in
understanding systems was the living world. Learning to hunt meant learning
how to read the many signals of the forest. Learning how to grow food meant
learning how to steward soil and water, and working within the ever-
changing ebbs and flows of the seasons. And, as the Mau Paulig story
reminds us, learning to be a celestial navigator meant learning types of
knowledge few of us in modern societies can even appreciate. This
understanding of nature’s systems laid the foundation for understanding
social systems. As many Native American cultures put it, “Our first
relationship is with Mother Earth; all other relationships are shaped by this

What is especially exciting today is that two decades of applied research and
innovative educational practice are beginning to reveal the depth and
robustness of this native systems intelligence. Not only is developing systems
intelligence feasible, it seems to be connected to the two other intelligences
we have been exploring here. Though the corresponding brain research lags
behind that for understanding self and the other, it is reasonable to conjecture
that the same capacities to manage our attention enable all three. Just as the
perception of danger generates adrenaline and focuses attention on immediate
possible sources of threat, so too does the ability to slow down and be more
aware of our larger settings—internally and externally—develop when we
feel safe and learn how to access a more holistic awareness of the present

Today, many schools are demonstrating how, with simple tools and
innovative pedagogy, this largely untapped systemic intelligence can be
unlocked. Not only does this enrich the SEL attention to self and other, it
extends naturally to deeper understanding of the systems underpinning a host
of academic subjects, from physics and chemistry to history and social
studies. When done well, cultivating our systemic thinking capacities also
enhances a student’s sense of efficacy in dealing with the host of social and
environmental challenges we now face.

Dynamic Complexity
One of the first challenges we all face in understanding a system arises from
the way cause and effect, action and consequence, can be connected in non-
obvious ways. As a young engineering student, I was introduced to the
gyroscope as an archetypal example of dynamic complexity. This relatively
simple device with interconnected spinning wheels looks simple enough. But
when you push one of the wheels down, it may actually move to the left, and
when you push it to the right, it may rotate upwards. This all occurs because
of the counter-intuitive consequences of the laws of gyroscopic motion, a
particular case of the more general principles of angular momentum. In fact,
most of us discovered these laws first hand when we learned that to ride a
bicycle successfully we had to speed up and turn into the direction our bike
was falling—exactly the opposite of what we had learned as walkers, to slow
down and lean away from an impending fall. In fact, the non-obvious
causality of dynamic complexity is all around us.

Consider the confounding effect that time delays have on our understanding
of social relations. A powerful illustration for me came when our kids were
very young, in a preschool at MIT. Coming home from school one day, one
of them said, “So-and-so is a jerk.” We were surprised because, just a few
days earlier, “so-andso” was a friend. When we pointed that out, he
responded, “No, he’s a jerk.” When we tried to understand this sudden shift
in our son’s reality, we learned of course that there was a reason—there’s
always a reason. It turned out that other child had thrown sand in his face or
done something that made him upset when they were playing. I cannot
remember all the details after so many years, but I do recall that our son could
not see any connection between this unfortunate turn of events and his own
actions. The fact that he had said something a few days earlier that hurt this
child’s feelings, or he didn’t share something when expected, was long
forgotten by the time the other struck out against him. So, the fact that the
other boy had just reciprocated in kind out of his own hurt feelings was
invisible to our son. It was a small introduction to the impact of time delays
in human relationships. We unknowingly hurt another’s feelings with our
actions—the consequences of which only become evident later. And this time
delay obscures our understanding of how we were part of creating the very
problem to which we later react.

The first time I saw how innovative teachers were addressing dynamic
complexity occurred when my wife, Diane, and I visited a pioneering
systems-thinking middle school in Tucson, Arizona, 20 years ago. The story
behind the school was one of those wonderful coincidences that shape
history. Just by chance, a former dean of the engineering school at MIT who
had retired and lived up the street, ambled down to the school one day and
said, “You guys should be doing systems thinking in your school.” The
gentleman, Gordon Brown, famous in the history of engineering education
for pioneering MIT’s science-based engineering curriculum in the 1930s also
happened to be the mentor to my mentor, Jay Forrester, who invented the
”system dynamics” method I was trained in. When we visited, about five
years after Gordon had first showed up, we saw systems thinking and related
organizational learning approaches integrated into most all the classes and
into the school management as well. As far as I know, no one had ever done
that before—and to this day, several of the national leaders in this work
started off at that same school.

We actually walked into an eighth grade science class that day and
immediately noticed something odd—there was no teacher in the room. As it
turned out, a couple of the students were having some trouble with some
library research (yes, these were the days when you walked to the library to
do your research!) and the teacher had gone off to help them. The first thing
that surprised us was what we didn’t see. We’re talking about eighth grade
here—a room of thirty or so 14-yearolds and no teacher. What would you
expect to see? Chaos, right? But the students hardly seemed aware of there
being no teacher. As we learned, they were all working on a year-long project
to help design a new county park being built north of the city. What we saw
wherever we looked were students sitting in twos and threes in front of their
new Macintosh computers, working with a program their teacher had
designed. This wasn’t an extra-curricular activity. It was their eighth grade
science curriculum. All their eighth grade science, as well as a whole lot
more, was woven into a real-life project, which would culminate when they
reported their recommendations to the county park commissioners at the end
of the year. Clearly, the whole process was very engaging for the students.

Just how much so we discovered when two boys asked us to come over and
help them sort out a debate they were having. They were working on
alternative options for laying out the park trails. One boy wanted to put the
trails here, but the other disagreed. The first boy’s plan would go by some
beautiful areas and, according to the simulation model, would provide more
foot traffic and, he figured, more revenues. But there’s an ancient burial
ground near that location, argued the other boy. And, even though more
revenues could be generated in the short term, this trail system might really
offend some people. It might eventually start a whole backlash against the
park, he reasoned, and even a possible loss of revenues in the longer run. So,
here they were, wrestling with the dynamic complexity of a very real problem
and discovering what, today, the systems educators call two “Habits of a
Systems Thinker.” A systems thinker:

1. Recognizes the impact of time delays when exploring cause and effect

2. Finds where unintended consequences emerge.

That science class stands out for me now, particularly because it was the first
of so many systems classrooms I have visited where I’ve seen the striking
innovations in pedagogy they embody. Middle school math teacher Rob
Quaden characterizes this shift toward a systems mindset for a teacher
succinctly: “You just naturally start thinking of the classroom as a system,
and when you do that you see that you have a room full of teachers, not just
one standing in front.” Quaden’s eighth grade algebra classes have become
something of a Mecca for innovative math educators. They visit to observe
how he integrates social, emotional, and mathematical education through
which kids mostly teach each other algebra. Working together, “kids often
can solve problems in more interesting and deeper ways than is ‘expected’ in
a traditional approach,” he adds.

Another pioneer in systems thinking pedagogy, high school math teacher

Diana Fisher has won awards for her work teaching ninth- to twelfth-graders
how to develop their own systems simulation models. “The key is being very
open to what the kids actually want to understand, and then believing that
they have the ability to generate real insights into complex issues that they
truly care about, well beyond what you—the teacher— may understand.”
Over the years, Fisher’s students have developed their own simulations of
diverse subjects from energy transition to diffusion of new technologies.7

Several years ago, one of Fisher’s students wanted to understand drug

addiction because of painful family experiences she had witnessed. Knowing
how important the subject of addiction was to many students, Fisher enlisted
the help of a local university professor, Ed Gallaher, to develop a sequence of
applied systems learning tools. This started with a simple drug-use simulation
model the students could build and modify, culminating in a simulation of
alcohol addiction through which they could vary the gender, weight, type of
drinker, and other factors to study a phenomenon that was very real to them.

A few years into this journey, I heard Fisher and Gallaher present at a
professional systems dynamics conference. Gallaher compared the
understanding of the high school students with the second-year medical
students he regularly lectured on pharmacokinetics (a branch of
pharmacology examining how substances administered externally affect
living organisms8 ). While the medical school students, Gallaher said, had a
more comprehensive knowledge of technical terminology and literature, the
systems-trained high school students had “a deeper and better understanding
of drug dynamics.”

“My twenty years of experience teaching science and math from a systems
perspective has shown me again and again,” says Diana, “how much we
underestimate the capacities of high school students. All their lives they have
been responding to adults telling them to ‘Do it this way.’ Letting them build
their own models frees them and reveals their systems intelligence. They also
come to recognize how overly simplistic answers to dynamically complex
problems are not only misleading but often counterproductive.”9

Social Complexity
In the world of social systems,
understanding complex problems is confounded by a second layer of
complexity: the presence of different people and groups who truly see the
world differently. This social complexity always happens in tandem with
dynamic complexity, challenging our emotional as well as cognitive

The video that I have used the most often for the last couple of years shows
three six-year-old boys sitting around a little diagram they created on their
own about why they are having fights on the playground. They are at one of
the many schools today that now focus on systems thinking in early learning.
Wanting to find a solution to a very real problem they are having, they came
in from recess one day and used a tool familiar to them—they drew a picture
of a reinforcing feedback loop, in their case a vicious cycle.
© 2014 Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation, www.watersfoundation.org

The diagram has two key variables: “mean words” and “hurt feelings,”
connected in a circle so that increasing either one increases the other. As a
teacher walked by, she asked if they could explain the diagram and filmed
their explanations with her smart phone. So all this was very spontaneous—
actually quite typical of what happens in these schools.

One of the boys started by saying, “First, we get mean words, [then] hurt
feelings. Then a fight breaks out, and we get more mean words. Then we
have more hurt feelings and more mean words.”

It was clear the boys understood the escalation dynamic this reinforcing loop

Another boy added, “We’ve thought about all the ways we could break the
reinforcing loop. These are crossed off [pointing at places on the diagram
where crosses have been drawn] because… they didn’t really work. Saying
‘I’m sorry,’ kind of worked. But we haven’t tried these out yet [pointing to
other places on the loop]. So, the next time we get into a fight, we’ll try

After sharing their thinking about “where the leverage is” to break the vicious
cycle, one boy enthusiastically proclaimed, “If this reinforcing loop said ‘nice
words’ and ‘nice feelings,’ we could get rid of this and get rid of this
[pointing to different parts of the vicious cycle loop], and change this into
something that’s not bad, something that’s good.”

This last comment prompted one of the others to agree, poignantly, “If it was
a good reinforcing loop, we wouldn’t have all these problems.”10

I have shown this video of the three boys’ system of mean words and hurt
feelings to many groups, and people find it pretty amazing. First, they are
struck by the conceptual sophistication of six-year-old boys examining ways
to intervene in a system and looking for high-leverage changes. Second, they
express surprise at the emotional maturity of the boys’ ability to step back
from a situation—where their abilities for emotional control are clearly being
challenged—and analyze their options. Last, they see that these children have
transformed a situation filled with complex emotions of blame and anger into
one where they are working together to find a solution—the very sort of
teamwork SEL educators aspire to foster.

What fewer notice in this video is the subtle shift in understanding of how to
really bring about systemic change. Obviously someone (like a teacher) could
try to step in and stop the boys’ fights by just telling them they need to
change their behavior. But the leverage, as the boys realize, lies in changing
the whole process of mutually reinforcing perceptions and actions. To do so,
they must learn how to reflect on that whole, surface and test their
assumptions, identify and try different options, see what happens, and
continue the learning process. This is a sophisticated process of mutual
learning, involving shifts in how they perceive and behave, enabled by a
sense of mutuality of responsibility for a complex situation. Yet, you can feel
from watching the video how all of this understanding of deep change arises
naturally for these children. Regardless of whether people watching the video
fully appreciate what they are seeing, the relevance is not lost on them.
Invariably, someone will comment, “Can we take this video to Washington
and show members of Congress?”

Seeing the deep learning evident in the video, people often ask if this would
also be true for more typical kids, not just gifted learners, which most assume
to be the case for these three. I then point out that there is nothing special
about the three boys, other than the “specialness” of all children. Notably, the
school these three attend is in a quite poor urban setting, with a high
percentage of free- and reduced-lunch students.

When older students learn how to appreciate higher levels of social

complexity, it not only deepens their understanding, but also heightens their
empathy in the context of very real societal issues, a quality sadly missing all
too often today. A few years back, we were visiting a middle school in
Arizona and a group of eighth grade students were sharing with us their
yearend project. Having practiced all year with the Habits of a Systems
Thinker, they were invited to pick a controversial issue that they would be
wiling to look at using one of the habits, “changes perspectives to increase
understanding.” As it turned out, many picked the controversial new anti-
illegal-alien law that required people to carry IDs with proof of citizenship,
and sanctioned police to stop people on the streets to ask for identification.
Now, the school had a high percentage of Hispanic students, so this is a very
real issue for the students, not just for the Hispanic kids but also the Anglo
kids, who cared about their Hispanic friends and their families.

As the group of us listened to the students share their insights from the
project, many were struck by how many students traced a similar arc in their
thinking. Virtually all said that when they first started the project, they knew
exactly how they felt about the law. They knew what was wrong and what
was right. They had very strong opinions. Then, they went out and
interviewed many different people and began to see the issue as more
complex than they had initially realized. By the end, they still had opinions,
but they could see that there were other points of view. They realized that
people could have strong feelings that differed from their own and not be

At the end, the group of visitors was quite moved by what they had heard. It
was clear that these young people had truly confronted the complexity of a
very difficult issue. As we walked out, the first comment I heard was, “Isn’t
this what democracy is supposed to be all about? Society faces genuinely
complex issues. We can all stake out our view and defend it to the death, use
it as a stick to beat whoever doesn’t agree with us. Or, we can recognize the
legitimacy of different points of view and try to appreciate how people come
to them, not just vilify or demonize them for disagreeing with us. We may
not agree with one another but we can respect and learn from one another.”
This evoked a powerful idea I had heard many years ago from the legendary
educator Deborah Meier, “If kids don’t learn democracy in school, where will
they learn it?”

The Habits of a Systems Thinker

As an observer and helper to the master educators who have been advancing
this work for over two decades now, from my view, there is no more
important discovery than what we are learning about students’ innate systems
intelligence. It is apparently present from our very early years, and, if
nurtured, can develop to surprising scope and depth for older students. But
the key to this progression are developmentally appropriate tools that enable
students to articulate and develop their systems intelligence—whether
through simple visual tools like the reinforcing feedback loop used by the
six-year-olds or the software to build dynamic simulation models in middle
and high school. There is a natural interplay between tools and skills. As the
old saying goes, “You need hammers to build houses but also to build
carpenters.” Without usable tools, this innate systems intelligence lays
fallow, much like our innate musical intelligence would if children were
never given musical instruments.

Of course, it is actually worse—because by the second or third grade, these

children would otherwise begin to be immersed in the traditional academic
process of separate, disconnected subjects and the pressure of performing on
assignments given by the teacher, rather than understanding the challenges of
real life. Like all intelligence, systems intelligence must be developed or it
will atrophy. So, it is little wonder that, for most children, there would be less
and less evidence of this innate systems intelligence the further students go
through traditional schooling.

This is why one of the major breakthroughs of the last 20 years is the
development of a whole suite of these basic tools, created by innovative
teachers across the pre-K–12 curriculum.11 Recently, educators have been
organizing these tools around the 13 Habits of a Systems Thinker mentioned
above—with different tools for developing each habit. Here are the ones
illustrated in the stories above, plus the entire set.12

Habits of a Systems Thinker

• Recognizes the importance of time delays when exploring cause and effect
relationships (e.g., the middle school science students looking at the short-
and longer-term consequences of alternative trail systems in the new state

• Finds where unintended consequences emerge (e.g., when the middle school
science students saw the possible sideeffects of a trail that generated more
foot traffic but also went close to a native burying ground)

• Changes perspectives to increase understanding (e.g., the graduating eighth

graders and their exploration of controversial issues in their


• Identifies the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships (e.g.,
the little boys with the “mean words–hurt feelings” reinforcing process)

• Recognizes that a system’s structure generates its behavior. (e.g., the high
school students’ simulation models to understand how drugs interact with the
immune system)

• Uses understanding of system structure to identify higher-leverage actions

(e.g., the changes the young boys were using their “mean words–hurt
feelings” diagram to think through)

• Surfaces and tests assumptions (evident in the young boys, middle school
science class, and the graduating eighth graders)

• Checks results and changes actions if needed: successive approximation

(e.g., the young boys trying out different interventions “the next time a fight
breaks out”)

• Seeks to understand the big picture (all of these examples)

Seeks to understand the big picture

Observes how elements within systems change over time,

generating patterns and trends Recognizes that a system’s
structure generates its behavior

Identifies the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships

Habits of a Systems Thinker

Changes perspectives to increase understanding
Surfaces and tests assumptions
Sugar Vitamins
Considers an issue fully and resists the urge to come to a quick conclusion

Super Star

Considers how mental models affect current reality and the future
Uses understanding of system structure to identify possible leverage actions
Considers both short and longterm consequences of actions


Donut Shop

Finds where unintended consequences emerge Recognizes the impact of time delays when exploring

and effect relationships Checks results and changes actions if needed: “successive approximation”

©2010 Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation www.watersfoundation.org

The Habits of a Systems Thinker are helping educators bring a coherent

overall framework to a field that has had many pioneers in various school
settings. We are now witnessing that ideas like seeing the big picture,
identifying circles of causality, understanding how the structure of a system
produces its behavior, and recognizing the benefits of looking at problems
from different perspectives can help educators focus on deeper thinking skills
across virtually all curricula and ages.

Just as important are the attitudinal consequences of cultivating systems

intelligence. Consistently, teachers and students report a great sense of
efficacy—in particular, the feeling that they can have influence in difficult
situations where they previously felt powerless. For example, when I finally
met one of the young boys from the “mean words–hurt feelings” video about
a year after it was filmed, I asked him, “How are you three getting along
now?” He responded, “Oh. We’re best friends now.”

Ultimately, what could be at stake is our collective efficacy, our ability to

face the daunting issues we now confront as a society and species. For me,
the work of the education innovators in SEL and systems over the past two
decades is a wellspring of hope in a time when it is easy to despair. As a
species, human beings are not particularly fast relative to other species.
We’re not particularly strong. You might ask, well, how did we make it this
far from an evolutionary perspective? I believe one of the reasons we have
survived as long as we have is our innate systems intelligence and our
capacity to collaborate, our appreciation for what it takes to get things done
together and for building community. The sort of education we are describing
here builds on these innate capacities and shows how they could truly benefit
today’s students and society.

—Peter Senge

Part Five The Potential Partnership Between SEL and

Systems Education
Peter Senge and Daniel Goleman
The more we understand the process of developing systems intelligence, the
more we see the close connections between understanding self, understanding
other, and understanding the larger systems to which we all belong. This
suggests great potential for partnership between SEL educators and systems
educators. We are in the beginning stages of understanding how truly
connected these three intelligences actually are, and the synergies that can
potentially develop in their integration.

For instance, SEL and systems thinking have unique synergy when it comes
to enhancing personal decision-making, the fifth objective of SEL programs
—and what every parent wants for their child. The self-awareness and self-
management tools SEL offers, much research shows, enhance cognitive
efficiency of all kinds: If a child can calm her disturbing emotions, she can
think about systems more clearly. And the empathy and social tools of SEL
open students to the perspectives and feelings of others, so they can better
take the other person into account. Combine that with the systems insights
that allow a more comprehensive understanding of human dynamics, and
you’ve got the constructs and tools for better interpersonal decision-making
—whether it’s how to handle a bully, or what to do about not getting invited
to the prom.

As another example, we discussed how cultivating caring among students and

in the school as a whole is an important new step for SEL. But our capacity to
care and our systemic awareness are interconnected. In some very
fundamental sense, all ethics are based on awareness of the consequences of
actions. If I can see no effect of my actions on another, I see no ethical
choices. For instance, recall the example of Peter’s very young son being
unaware of the consequences of his actions in a relationship with a friend.
Consequently, he did not perceive this to be a matter of the ethics of his own
behavior. We are seeing that the more kids are steeped in systems thinking,
the more they express their innate predisposition to care at a larger and larger
scale, whether it is in measuring how water is used in their school in a water-
scarce region, or sharing the food from their school garden with their family.

In our experience, the blind spot in how we approach ethics is awareness.

Einstein expressed beautifully this connection between caring and cultivating
systemic intelligence:

A human being is a part of a

whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and
space. He experiences himself,
his thoughts and feelings, as
something separated from the
rest—a kind of optical delusion
of his consciousness... Our task
must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of
compassion to embrace all living
creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.13
A second potential area of synergy could

be a rethinking of children’s cognitive development and potential. The

findings of the past ten years or so, especially the work with young children,
raise some big questions for the established views of the “cognitive ladder,”
which places skills like synthesis at the top, with the presumption that this is
what students will learn in college or graduate school. Perhaps some more
enlightened educators might see synthesis as a cognitive capability for
advanced high school students. But what, then, do we make of the six-year-
old boys and their “mean words–hurt feelings” reinforcing feedback loop, or
countless other examples we now have of very young children grasping
complexity, even among preschoolers?
We suspect the standard cognitive ladder, as most educators know it today, is
shaped more than we can see by the reductionist bias of the western theory of
knowledge. This is a theory that fragments, breaking complex subjects into
smaller and smaller pieces. It is why, literally, an “expert” in modern society
is someone who knows a lot about a little. With reductionism comes a natural
bias toward analysis over synthesis, studying the pieces in isolation or
analyzing subjects within arbitrary academic boundaries, like the separation
of math from social studies or economics from psychology. This bias toward
fragmentation and analysis is evident in the typical progression embedded in
standard curricula toward more and more narrowly defined subjects, which
progression continues right through college.

But if we start with a view that everything in the universe is interdependent—

fundamental in a field like quantum physics—and that all humans have this
innate systems intelligence, then we would have a different cognitive ladder.
It would be more of a spiral. You would start with the idea that real thinking
involves understanding both interdependence as well as elements
individually: synthesis and analysis. You would then integrate movement
along these two dimensions with a developmental progression over time. For
synthesis, this might mean progressing from a “felt sense” of
interdependence, such as the embodied systemic intelligence of riding a
bicycle over an uneven surface with people all around you, to more and more
complex abstract representations or models.

For example, the simple feedback loop of the six-year-olds naturally gives
way to more complex system diagrams for pre-teenagers and teenagers
around “relationship drama” and the interacting effects of gender stereotypes,
peer groups, and personal anxieties.14 By their mid-teens, students are
capable of constructing and analyzing quite complex models, like Diana
Fisher’s high school students with their simulations of drug and alcohol
addiction. So, this spiral would recognize analysis and synthesis as
complementary cognitive modalities from the earliest years and progress
through stages of increasingly elaborated representations of dynamic
complexity (number of variables, interconnections, and increasingly complex
causal dynamics with multiple time delays) and increasingly sophisticated
understanding of social complexity (for example, recognizing diversity of
stakeholders and their concerns).
But integrated with this spiral of cognitive abilities should be a second spiral
woven of emotional abilities. For example, with the simple model of fights
on the playground, the young boys are displaying and developing their ability
for empathy and social awareness. And the eighthgraders’ exploration of the
illegal alien law takes this emotional maturity to a new level of empathy for
those who they had seen as inflicting pain on loved ones. Working on such a
new theory of cognitive-emotional development would be a great
collaborative task for the SEL and systems educators.

We believe we are at the very beginning of rethinking our views of human

development in a more integrative way: cognitive (frontal brain/ lobes),
emotional (mammalian brain and limbic system), spiritual and energetic
(which could be embedded in the whole mind-body system functioning rather
than particular circuits). Again and again, we find one of the most powerful
experiences of SEL and systems educators everywhere is seeing that the
genuine potential of students far exceeds what the current mainstream
education system, with its emphases on purely cognitive development and
analysis over synthesis, is designed to produce. In that sense, it is a system of
“dumbing down” these innate capabilities.

It is useful to remember that in the factory model we have inherited through

the Industrial Age, school was never about tapping and cultivating this innate
potential. It was never about growing human beings—it was designed to train
factory workers en masse. Though almost everything has changed in the
reality for our students since this model was first implemented almost 200
years ago, the basic design of school has only been adjusted incrementally,
not fundamentally. We still have fixed grades (Grade 1, Grade 2, and so on
right to Grade 12) that most students move through en masse, with rigid
curricula guidelines, and expert teachers who are supposed to endorse them.15
We are now standing at the edge of such a fundamental innovation, and
through the combined lenses of the SEL and systems work, seeing how this
innovation could occur.

A third important synergy between SEL and systems thinking has to do with
transforming pedagogy and the culture of school. For example, a key to
making such a spiral view of cognitiveemotional development practical in
educational settings is profound respect. You don’t try to teach kids
something that has no meaning to them, something that does not connect in
any way with their lives. But unfortunately, that’s still the modus operandi
for 80-90% of school curricula. In contrast, students at every level find SEL
compelling because it helps them deal directly with the issues that matter
most to them: bullying, friendships, getting along, and the like. Similarly, for
the three boys, their fights on the playground constituted one of the biggest
issues in their lives at that point in their development. Imagine trying to
“teach” them the same lessons about reinforcing feedback loops and systemic
change through an academic lesson!

A common discovery is that neither effective SEL nor effective systems

education can be accomplished by traditional pedagogy, where teachers stand
in front of classes and deliver information. When either is done well, there is
a natural emphasis on experience-based lessons, and on project-based
learning, action learning, and cooperative learning, with students getting
deeply engaged in matters that are important in their lives and taking
responsibility for their own learning. These are all familiar instructional
strategies to most educators, and can be effective across ages and diverse
academic content. Yet, they are still the exception rather than the norm, in
large part because educators know the concepts but are not adept at their
practice, or because the constraints of most school cultures inhibit them in
building these capacities.

We believe a wonderful joint project would be for leaders in SEL and

education innovation to work on a common set of pedagogical principles,

• Respect the learner’s reality and processes of understanding.

• Focus on issues that are real to the learner.

• Allow students to build their own models, construct and test their own ways
of making sense of problems.

• Work and learn together.

• Keep the focus on action and thinking, how do I or we need to act or behave
differently, not just think differently.

• Build students’ ability to be

responsible for their own learning.
• Encourage peer dynamics where students help one another learn.

• Recognize teachers as designers, facilitators, and decision-makers (more

than “curriculum deliverers”). This requires that teachers have strong content
knowledge, continually being advanced through robust peer-learning

Focusing on real innovation in pedagogy does not preclude attention to skills,

curriculum, or standards. Rather, it builds more effective strategies for
accomplishing overarching educational goals— just as Dan was pointing out
in the connection of SEL with academic performance.

But these pedagogical principles are only half the story. Though
commendable, they won’t be followed widely and effectively until they are
paired with implementation principles.

Roger Weissberg, the founding director of the Collaborative for Academic,

Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has often said that the most
important—but also most neglected— aspect of SEL is its implementation. In
the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Education ordered that a program called
SEAL (“Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning”) be started in schools
there in 2003.16 This was a top-down mandate, and not every head of school
or teaching staff was necessarily keen on the program, nor was there a
standard curriculum. Perhaps no surprise, a study of the program’s
effectiveness found that on average, SEAL didn’t really help kids that much.
However, there was a great deal of variation in outcomes, with some schools
having very positive results, even though others had poor outcomes.

And a major factor in the program’s success seemed to be how it was

implemented. It’s not just having an outstanding curriculum that makes SEL
succeed, but having all those involved understand, embody, and teach it
effectively. It’s changing the culture of the school.

Beyond the programs themselves, bringing SEL into a school requires

helping teachers prepare well, so they can embody what it is they’re going to
teach. We should also involve parents to the greatest extent we can—the best
SEL programs all have a component for parents.

There’s a natural two-way flow between classroom and home. Children who
learn a technique for, say, self-management, will often bring the school
lesson home to the family—as in, “Mommy, you’re starting to get upset, why
don’t you take some deep breaths.” Such reports from home are common
because the wall between school and home is somewhat of a fiction. A child
lives in her whole world, not in walled-off parts. And what she learns in one
place she brings to the other naturally whenever and wherever it applies.

One of the best practices in SEL is involving parents as much as possible.

That way what children learn in school gets reinforced and supported by the
people who matter to them the most: their families.

A simple rule of thumb is the more you’re really innovating, the more you’re
stretching the norm, the more you must involve parents—for two
fundamental reasons. One is that parents can either get very threatened or
they can become be really engaged. The second is that kids don’t live in
school. To be really respectful of the world of the child, you must reach out.
Whether or not you realize it, you are really not educating kids, you are
educating families.

The roots of our problems with

implementation run deep, starting with the academic training of educators,
who learn theory in college and graduate schools, which they are then
supposed to “implement” in practice. But this fragmented view contradicts
how we all learn. We did not learn to walk by first listening to lessons, nor
did we first take in lectures on gyroscopic motion in order to learn bicycle
riding. Our learning unfolded in a continual iteration between thinking and
acting. This fragmentation of theory and implementation tends to render
implementation a kind of messy stepchild compared to the more elegant work
of theory—a view poked at by Douglas MacArthur, the famous U.S. Army
general when he said, “Strategy is for amateurs. Logistics is for

Implementation is hard. For example, most everyone espouses making

education more meaningful, engaging, and deeper for all students. Though
we agree, these goals remain elusive because too few recognize the depth of
changes needed in order to achieve them.

The necessary understanding starts with recognizing that systemic change is a

personal journey. The teachers who successfully instruct in these ways
usually go through deep processes of learning and change themselves. Most
have internalized their models of teaching from how they were taught. Most
have strong images of the “teacher as lecturer.” Many even have strong
attachments to their skills in that mode. Letting go of older instructional
styles, no matter how comfortable, in favor of strategies that work better for
the learners is not easy.

And they can’t do it by themselves. To sustain change, you must build

effective leadership ecologies at multiple levels. Teachers need to be
embedded in communities that help each other. We need to make sure we
don’t just offer one- or two-day “drive-by training” for teachers and then
wish them luck, but instead encourage truly strong peer networks that
transform the culture of a school through ongoing collaboration, risktaking,
and innovation on a day-to-day basis. Strong, active engagement and support
by the principal and other “building leaders” is also crucial. In fact, today
most of the experts we know in teacher development typically will not work
with teachers in isolation, but insist on capacity building for principals and
teachers in parallel, so that the teachers and administrators are cocreating an
environment for ongoing collaboration and innovation. The same can be said
for district or system leadership, which sets the context in terms of overall
aims, structures and processes for ongoing innovation.17

Ultimately, this supportive environment needs to extend beyond school, to

parents and to the public. School is a complex system with a very intricate
stakeholder environment—much more so than for a business. It is unrealistic
to think that educators can transform schools alone, and we have seen the
evidence in countless disappointing “educational reform” efforts. But most
educators are not necessarily skillful in how to engage diverse external
stakeholders. Once we recognize this, we can work on it, and many of the
same tools for social, emotional, and systems intelligence will help.

From our experience, businesses have been on a steep learning curve

regarding systemic change, and the lessons they have been learning can also
guide leaders (at all levels) in education. For example, there’s been a steadily
growing awareness in business around the difference between commitment
and compliance. If you “tell them to do it,” the implementation success is
very spotty. But most of the time, that’s still the way leaders operate in
education, like the SEAL program in the UK. The “leaders” identify a needed
change, then roll it out through the system. Teachers attend a PD
(professional development) course and then they’re supposed to implement
the change. Following this approach, you get compliance at best, often

We often find that educators agree intellectually with the problems of

compliancebased strategies yet do the opposite of what they espouse. There is
a lot of lip service paid to “teacher leaders” and not forcing things on people,
but that’s not what is done. And when you ask, “Why do you stick to the top-
down model?” people often voice basic assumptions, like, “Well, they [the
teachers] won’t do it if we don’t,” or “We don’t have time for a slower
process,” or “Well, you know, we’ve got a union here” (implying that the
expected union resistance justifies the top-down approach).

A guiding idea in both personal

psychology and organizational learning is that when there are persistent gaps
between what’s espoused and what’s done, you will almost always find that
being shaped by deep assumptions, which often contradict espoused views.
Frequently, nobody is testing these assumptions. Education researcher
Michael Fullan succinctly names one of these assumptions when he says,
“Most everyone espouses that ‘all kids can learn,’ but we are less ready to say
‘all teachers can learn.’”

Here is where system leaders in education could really take a page from the
six-year-old boys, as they are stuck in a reinforcing vicious cycle that they
seem unable to break. Once we believe that teachers will not change, we
follow top-down models that guarantee low implementation success, and
generate further evidence to support our belief.

Image Source: Peter Senge

Like the boys, if system leaders could simply draw this loop and begin to talk
seriously about it, it would help to bring these implicit assumptions to the
surface and to let them think together about “how to break the reinforcing

In our experience, the real work of change starts with having honest
conversations about our mental models. Until you surface the view that, ”We
don’t really trust the teachers,” this assumption remains invisible, and
therefore un-testable. But of course, having such conversations requires high
levels of social and emotional intelligence as well. We often wonder how
many of the educators who espouse SEL recognize that the journey starts
with them, and that successful implementation will require deep work in their
own teams.

In most settings, change leaders also need to let go of the belief that
“everyone has to do it this way.” In any challenging change process, you
have to let people move at different paces to some degree. You will almost
always find people who do really want to move in the new direction—for
example, teachers who have been doing SEL or systems-type activities in the
classroom all along. Now they’ve got permission and will naturally be
enthusiastic. And then there are those who really don’t get it and will either
do nothing (noncompliance) or do the bare minimum so they don’t lose their
jobs. In between are people who are open to a new way but need help, either
because they worry about not being competent with new approaches, or they
tried something like this before and it didn’t work, and so on.

Effective change leaders focus on supporting those already committed while

simultaneously leveraging their engagement with those who are open but not
moving very fast. They learn to let go of trying to convince those who are
unconvinced and trust that the process, if it starts to build momentum, will
gradually reach these folks in one way or another. We have often found that,
three years later, some of the most enthused change leaders come from
among the initially unconvinced—for example, people who have a healthy
skepticism from many failed change efforts in the past but really do care
about changes that could truly benefit students.

The key is building momentum with those ready to change—the natural

leaders in the system at multiple levels. You need to be good at finding these
people and allowing them to step to the front. And, you need to have enough
time to let the whole process build engagement through tangible success and
improved outcomes. We have always found that the best sales people for new
pedagogical practices are the teachers themselves—especially when they can
show results in what their students are accomplishing. This usually translates
into lots of informal working sessions among peer groups where teachers
discuss student work and share their new practices. You will then hear a
teacher say, “That student was such a behavioral problem when I had him.
How did you reach him?” Or, “That student did what? I would have never
expected that level of clarity from her.” At that point, many skeptics start to
get off the fence.

We can hear you saying, “But all this will take time, and we’re under so
much pressure to transform student performance overnight.” This is
absolutely understandable, and it is why we emphasized the multi-
stakeholder context and leadership from multiple levels. We’re learning that
once there’s enough leadership in the classroom, in the school, in the school
system, and you’ve begun to engage the parents and larger community, real
momentum starts to build. It’s necessary to have what Michael Fullan calls
“high-leverage capacity building strategies” for teachers and administrators.
There also need to be clear milestones along the journey, using examples of
student success to foster emotional salience in concert with more quantifiable
indicators of academic progress.

None of this is easy, but it is happening. The reason it can be done, we

believe, is that, ultimately, social, emotional, and systems intelligence are
innate. Once people see that there are practical strategies for making
progress, and that many students’ academic as well as personal development
benefits, many questions and reservations become less problematic.

CASEL has already established wellgrounded best practice guidelines for

implementing SEL. These include:

• Institute a shared SEL vision with all stakeholders.

• Create a SEL-related resource and needs inventory.

• Flesh out a multi-year plan for SEL that outlines how the vision will be
achieved and measure progress over time.
• Offer ongoing professional
development for staff.
• Implement evidence-based SEL programs.

• Incorporate school-wide policies and activities to advance the social,

emotional, and academic education of all students.

• Use clear data to enhance practice.18

The same guidelines can be adapted to include systems learning. And we

might add to these with the following:

• Build healthy leadership ecologies that blend leadership in classrooms,

schools, system and community.

• Continually ask, “How must I and my team change?”

• Be biased toward commitment over compliance.
• Emphasize voluntarism at every step.

• Respect adults’ professionalism, capacity to learn, learning process, and


• Go slow to go fast: Allow momentum to build from those ready to lead.

• Engage the board and community members in the process, so that they too
can feel they are co-creating an environment for ongoing innovation.

• Build responsibility for change among all key stakeholders.

In our minds, there is a major opportunity for the SEL and systems
movements to work more closely in these ongoing cultural transformation
processes. Both networks have been growing rapidly for over 20 years now.
The SEL network now penetrates a large number of school systems, and the
systems thinking network has expanded from one predominantly of teachers
and schools, to a network of school systems, with an emphasis in large urban
districts where many of the toughest challenges in American schools reside.

Combined, the SEL and systems thinking networks are probably already
conservatively, 1-5% of schools and students. If we allied with other related
movements for basic innovation in school, the reach would be still greater.
We know from studies of change that 10-20% seriously practicing a new
approach and showing the benefits can constitute a critical mass. We are not
that far away. Working together, we could reach a real tipping point within a

As a critical mass builds, it will be clear that these networks are crucial for
today’s students. Understanding how self, other, and larger systems are
fundamentally interconnected makes each more comprehensible and
compelling. This will make it easier for educators who are concerned about
one to naturally be concerned about the others. It will make it easier to
demystify the whole picture for parents and citizens at large. More and more
businesses already understand that they need people who can think for
themselves, are self-motivated, self-directed learners, and who can work
effectively in teams, especially in confronting truly complex problems. They
just need to have their faith restored that schools can actually be effective in
developing such capacities.

Perhaps most important, the kids get it. It’s acknowledging their innate
intelligence. When the SEL and systems work are done artfully, they become
vehicles to really engage students and build their confidence to think for
themselves across diverse curricula. Plus, if we go back to what we said at
the outset that, ultimately, what is at stake is our collective capacity to face
the daunting issues we now confront as a species—that is, the students’
shared future. The core dilemma of the Anthropocene Age centers on
learning how to understand the systemic consequences of our own actions at
a global scale. This work reminds us that the real challenge is not about
becoming smarter or more clever in the mostly non-systemic ways of
thinking that have enabled the accelerated change of the Industrial Age—but
in tapping and developing our deeper intelligences of self, other, and system
at a time when we really need them.

We must remember that for the first time in human history, children grow up
today in the world. By the age of seven or eight, kids are quite aware of the
larger environmental and social problems in the world. They can connect the
dots. They know these issues will shape the world in which they will live.
What they are most lacking is a sense that their schools also know, and can
help them prepare to be able to do something about these issues.

This was made powerfully evident to Peter and many others a few years back
at a regional gathering of the SoL (Society for Organizational Learning)
Education Partnership. That day, an audience of approximately 250 adults
heard a series of students present their sustainability projects. Included was a
project presented by a 12-year-old, who described the wind turbine she and
her classmates had gotten built at their middle school. Her presentation took
about three minutes.

The project started with class sessions during which their science teacher
discussed energy and the need to move more rapidly to renewable energy
sources. The student and four of her classmates talked with the teacher about
what they could do, and that is when the wind turbine idea was born. They
enlisted parents to help them sort out the different engineering and
investment options, eventually presenting their idea to the school principal,
then the mayor of the local town. The student noted, “I was worried that our
presentation did not go too well with the mayor—she really didn’t say
anything when we presented our ideas.” But they were later called back for a
second presentation to the mayor and members of the town council. The
student closed her remarkable account with a photograph of the vertical wind
turbine now standing in front of the school.

Having by now captured the undivided attention of the mostly stunned

audience, the 12-year old faced them directly, all 75 pounds of fierce
determination and calmly said, “We children are often hearing ‘You are the
future.’ We don’t agree with that. We don’t have that much time. We need to
make changes now. We kids are ready, are you?”19

—Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge

1. Hasenkamp, Wendy, et al. “Mind Wandering and Attention During

Focused Meditation.” NeuroImage 59, no. 1 (2012): 750-760. The study
found that the longer volunteers had been practitioners of mental exercises
like this, the greater the connectivity in key attention circuitry.
2. Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden
Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2012. Print.

3. Mischel, Walter. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-control. New

York: Little, Brown. 2014. Print.

4. Moffitt, Terrie E. et al. “A Gradient of Childhood SelfControl Predicts

Health, Wealth, and Public Safety.” Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences 108, no. 7:2693-98.

5. For more on the secure mode, see BennettGoleman, Tara. Mind

Whispering. San Francisco: Harper One, 2013. Print.

6. See www.mindandlife.org.

7. See www.ccmodelingsystems.com/student-projectshighlights.html and

www.ccmodelingsystems.com/ student-projects-videos.html.

8. See www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharmacokinetics.

9. See Diana Fisher’s “Modeling Dynamic Systems, third edition,” and

“Lessons in Mathematics: a Dynamic Approach,” both available from
ISeeSystems at www.iseesystems.com/store/ k12.aspx. The former
introduces students to constructing dynamic simulation models. The latter is a
pioneering demonstration of how to teach a range of high school math
(including calculus) from a systems perspective, emphasizing intuitive
understanding of dynamics as a foundation for technical mastery.

10. The video can be seen at www.watersfoundation.


11. These visual tools for the early years also work well with children who
are English language learners or otherwise struggling with their linguistic
skills. This is consistent with growing research on the power of visual tools
for English language learners. See Marzano, Robert, et al. Classroom
Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student
Achievement. 2nd ed. Alexandria: Association for Supervision & Curriculum
Development, 2012. Print.
12. See www.watersfoundation.org.
13. See www.lettersofnote.com/2011/11/delusion.html.

14. Hovmand, Peter. Community Based System Dynamics. New York:

Springer, 2014. Print.

15. Senge, Peter, et al. Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth
Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About
Education. New York: Crown Business, 2012. Print.

16. Humphrey, Neil. Social and Emotional Learning: A Critical Appraisal.

London: SAGE Publications, 2013. Print.

17. This systems view of leadership is developed in more depth in a report to

the Hewlett Foundation. See Senge, Peter, et al. “Developmental Stories:
Lesson from Systemic Change for Success in Implementing the New
Common Core Standards.” Web. 6 May 2012. The article can be found here:

18. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. 2013

CASEL Guide: Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs:
Preschool and Elementary School Edition. 2013. PDF file.

19. See Leader to Leader, June 2012.

Daniel Goleman is the author of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence,
called one of the 25 most influential business management books by
Time Magazine. He is
co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in

Peter M. Senge, Ph.D.

is a Senior Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology; founding
Chair of SoL, the Society for Organizational Learning; and the author of the
widely acclaimed book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the
Learning Organization.

For more information, visit: http://soledpartnership.org/ systems-thinking-