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The Compassionate Systems Framework
By Jacob Martin, Director of Teaching and Learning

A collaborative project between IB Schools and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

As a leading International Baccalaureate(IB) World School, we are frequently asked to participate in the development of educational practice at IB schools. One of the most exciting recent projects ISZL is taking a leading role in is the development of a new set of classroom practices called "The Compassionate Systems Framework". This is a combination of systems thinking tools often used in the classroom (examples here) and the development of a compassionate mindset in students. We have been truly amazed by the results of some of the works we have done with teachers and students at our school and the project is becoming a global educational project with ISZL leading the way. The project stems from the work of Peter Senge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Over the course of this year I will write to you and keep you updated on the project as well as introducing you to some of the practices used in the classrooms. I would like to start by providing you with some background information to the project and its scope.

ISZL's Jacob Martin working with Professor Mette Böll and Peter Senge

Young people throughout different cultures and circumstances are confronted with the complex contradictions of the interconnected, interdependent systems in our world (e.g. climate change, human migration, terrorism, substance use, etc.). An essential question for the future of education is how do we help students to reflect on, deeply understand and respond mindfully and compassionately rather than just feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of these systems. With the growing interest in education in social and emotional learning (SEL) and mindfulness today, we feel it is especially timely to show how these can combine with skills in understanding systems and complexity to establish a cognitive and affective foundation for global citizenship and what we at ISZL call “International Mindedness.”

We are looking to developing the skillsets of a systems thinker with our students, through using a variety of systems thinking tools and practices: seeing deeper systemic structures underlying surface events, and how mental models and “artefacts” shape those structures. But, even for skilful systems thinkers, complex issues can easily be seen as something outside of ourselves, or something we understand intellectually but not emotionally. “Systems sensing” skills help to “sense into” the multiple experienced realities in any complex setting.

ISZL students involved in the project

Over time, these skills can combine to nurture a compassionate stance. One technique involves understanding the structural sources of problems that go beyond individual people or groups (avoiding a blame based culture). Another lies in staying “next to that other” and feeling with them how they feel yet with less internalisation of the other’s emotional state than can occur with empathy alone (and the consequent feelings of being overwhelmed or “emotionally high-jacked”) and yet also holding an intention for others’ well-being - which is why compassion is seen in many developmental traditions as a cultivated, refined state of being.

In this framework we deliberately cultivate compassion as an essentially attribute of the mind: to cultivate compassion is to be able to appreciate the systemic forces that influence people’s actions. It is the capacity to hold paradoxes - to see and sense the larger system with all its interdependence and interconnectedness and all the unintended consequences of human behaviour - without judgment but with real care for the system and everyone involved in it.

In a world where snap judgements and beliefs are often used to justify actions, where the media bubble we each inhabit is reinforcing stereotypes and beliefs, we are looking to provide our students with a way to see problems more deeply and to understand and find compassionate solutions to them.

Primary School teachers play a dice simulation as part of the research

 

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