Saturday, January 10, 2009

5.1 Seeing Systems in Stories

A brief article describing teaching systems thinking to children illuminated the connection between story and systems thinking for me. Once I began to see the stories as systems, I had a better sense of how they worked for change. In “Understanding How Systems Work Through Children’s Stories” Linda Booth Sweeney (then a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) asserted that, “The ability to think systemically requires a healthy dose of imagination, that is, to imagine possible futures, to think in terms of ‘what ifs,’ and to visualize and sense connections and interdependencies that aren’t obvious.” (Sweeney, 2001, p. 56) She cultivates these qualities in her students by providing questions to help them try on different points of view when considering a story. In this way they recognize a different significance to events and characters in the text. The children play with their impressions of these parts of the story as well as the more abstract elements such as potential consequences and alternative endings. They hypothesize about what would happen next and why and explore the relationships between the different conclusions.

To me, a story is a great illustration of a system. It’s the articulation of the relationships between multidimensional parts, such as characters, events, and emotions. Changing a story is like changing a system. A particular meaning emerges from a particular arrangement of the parts. If we substitute one of those parts for something (or someone) else or alter the relationships among them the meaning of the story will be affected.

But the meaning made of the story doesn’t reside solely in the text. In a sense, we bring a story with us to each new story (or experience, or new person etc) that we encounter.* Our existing story guides us in making sense of the new one. Changes to our internal stories facilitate making different meaning of the stories we encounter. Similarly, if we change the story of what we’ve observed, we are expressing a different significance for it as well. The same process, of using a story to make sense of new information, operates in groups and organizations as these corporate entities make sense of themselves and their relationships.

In my approach to the evangelical Christian story, the internal and external stories operate in a dynamic relationship where each influences the other. The authorized version of the story fosters an internal story about the meaning of the feminine. For some women life experience challenges this internal story. Sharing personal stories with other women verifies that the official story doesn’t fit women’s lives. This recognition prompts the development of new internal stories for women derived from their faith and experience. Talking in small groups also contributes to the development of new personal versions of the external story and supports women’s expression of this other point of view. The sharing of women’s personal stories in a broader audience prompts reflection on both the internal and external stories about the feminine. In my vision, this reflection supports the inclusion of women’s point of view in the external story and revises the internal story seeded in the community.

*In systems thinking these stories are referred to as mental models. “They are the maps we apply to our future explorations, drawn from our experience of what seemed successful on our past journey….Our mental models belong to us, but they do need to change and evolve with new experience, and we may need to refine them when we enter unfamiliar territory.” (O’Connor & McDermott, 1997, p. 63)

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