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July 1, 2023 • 5 min read • Continuing the Conversation • Complex Systems
Synthesis Teams

COMPLEX SYSTEMS: Continuing the Conversation with Your Student

Skills that transcend any particular system.
Your student might spend five hours at Synthesis this month, or fifteen - either way, we don’t have enough time to make them an expert in Complex Systems. We don’t even have enough time to make them an expert in one complex system! What we can do is introduce them to the skills they’ll use when encountering such systems throughout their lives: confidence in the face of uncertainty; navigating complexity; recognizing meaningful patterns; thinking through intricate relationships.

You’ve heard “practice makes perfect” and repetition of these skills will strengthen them, but this month we recommend going a step further and practicing these skills in a variety of contexts. Try one of these activities at home focusing on one system in your lives, then try it again with another and see what similarities and differences your child spots - not in the components of the system, but in the relationships and dynamics between components. Complex systems are everywhere, so you won’t lack material - and you may be surprised at how complex even the simplest of systems can be when you really zoom in!
Try these:
❓ Map your environment.
Get a piece of paper and find a spot to sit undisturbed - anywhere from a quiet hiking trail to a seat in a busy coffee shop works for this activity. Use all five senses to identify the different “components” of that environment and sketch them. How do they interact? How are they connected? If you removed one piece, or added extra pieces, what might the impact to the overall ‘system’ be? Has your presence or activity impacted the system in any ways?
🤖 Build a model.
Choose a system and build a shoebox model explaining how it works. Concrete systems like the solar system or the human cardiovascular system are good starting points, but you can also try to model abstract systems like your country’s financial system or your local educational system. A model can’t include every piece of a complex system, so during the planning and building process try to identify the major components and relationships that are important to understanding how the system works. When the model is done, use it to explain the system to a friend or family member and see if they understand the system based on your model.
🧑🍳Go one layer up.
Pick a topic that your child makes choices about - for example, nutrition (what they eat and when) or education (what and how often they study). Put these individual actions inside a small circle in the center of a page, then draw a larger circle around it. What system is “one level up” from your child? How are these things influencing the decisions your child makes? For nutrition, this might be you as parents - what food do you buy or cook? What options are available to your child?

Continue going “one level up” for as many layers as you can. What’s the largest and most complex system at play here, and how much does it influence our choices as an individual?