Student Reflections on Systems Thinking: Selected Journal Entries 2017

During the Agronomy 375 class, students had a weekly assignment to journal any reflections they had on Systems Thinking. Below are highlights from the 2017 students’ journals.

+Conscious and Subconscious Decisions

In class last week, I found the discussion surrounding our conscious vs. subconscious choices very interesting. As we discussed, each of us made a number of conscious and subconscious choices in preparation for our presentations. Contemplating how we prepared for our presentations particularly, determining if we made decisions regarding preparation consciously, as well as determining the implications of each decision, made me ponder the entire presentation process from preparation to delivery and review. Never before had I stopped to consciously think about whether I should include one picture but not another, whether I should address one question one way or another, or whether I was walking to the front of the room in an appropriate manner. While I did consider the possibility of dressing up or not, after all it was a presentation never had I thought about identifying what cues the professor was giving, simply deciding that since it wasn’t implied the presentation was formal I shouldn’t have to dress up.

Through this reflection I began to wonder, in what other areas of my life am I unconscious of the underlying decisions I make, potentially every day? What goes unnoticed? The first, and most obvious answer to occur to me was the way I dress. I am not, and never have been what you could call a ‘glamorous’ girl. As a child I never frolicked in pink dresses, and I never played with Barbie’s, as a teenager I avoided anything shiny or sparkly and instead dressed more conservatively, often in flannels and jeans. Even today, years down the line, I usually wear relatively uninspiring outfits, either athletic clothes or jeans and t-shirts. I am more comfortable on a long hike in the great outdoors than a mall, and I still don’t really know how to work a curling iron. My lack of ‘girliness’ today is the product of one, it never occurring to me to try to be ‘girly’ and two, never seeing it as a priority and therefore, never putting in effort to change how I was. I have been shaped by my decisions early on in life, even though I never thought of them as conscious decisions.

However, then I began to think, was I self-inclined to avoid being ‘girly’ or was that the product of other influencers, namely, my mother. Much like myself and for as long as I can remember, my mother has dressed in a manner I would describe as practical. While slightly more eccentric than I, she chooses her clothes based on comfort and practicality rather than fashion. While beautiful in her own right, my mother never spends hours on her hair or make-up, and I’ve never seen her in heels. The decisions that dictate her appearance are purely her own, however, I grew up watching her and being influenced by her.

This brings me back to the original question, what goes unnoticed? At first, I thought of my own wardrobe choices when contemplating decisions I don’t consciously make, but down the rabbit hole I went until suddenly, I found myself contemplating all the aspects of my life my mother has influenced. While I am my own person and I make my own choices, I make my choices often subconsciously. Is what I choose subconsciously really my choice? Or is that choice really just a manifestation of the prior influences in my life? Food for thought.

+Mechanistic Medicine and the Health System

The idea of the Cartesian approach being used in our modern medical practices always used to be a logical solution in my eyes. By narrowing down the area of concern, in essence it would be easier to solve the “mechanical issues” causing disease or discomfort to the patient. I had a recent experience where my neck felt strained for several weeks. In order to confront the problem, I would focus on things such as my posture and my sleeping position. I would stretch daily, but I still could not pinpoint the exact origin of the pain. I decided to go into the clinic at my work to see if they had any suggestions to relieve my aches. Interestingly enough, the doctor on staff recommended that the soreness might also be related to my sleeping habits, stress levels, and nutrition. He suggested that I attempt to improve those aspects of my life as well as continue the previous provisions. This baffled me, as in today’s society I feel more than ever that the conceptual foundation of current medical practices is to view us as biological mechanisms. By treating people as machines, it eliminates the personalization of medical care. It allows treatments that are successful with one patient to be presumed it will work on another patient with the same illness. It erases an entire backstory for each patient. Instead, it allows medicine a shortcut to deal with each patient.

I do not blame the medical field for allowing this to happen. Mechanistic medicine was a great way to lead us to all of the discoveries that we have made today. It also allowed for students of medicine a pathway to learn such a dense subject. If the approach to medicine were changed to a holistic approach, the medical school process would have to be rewritten. The learning curve for the doctors already in place would be quite the challenge as well. The monetary value for such a transformation would be enormous just based on those two factors alone. Then there is the fact that people would still be having health conditions as the new medical foundation was being implemented. Would these people receive the mechanistic approach or the newer holistic approach that is still being learned by medical professionals? Personally, if someone said they were attempting a new approach to medicine on my body I would be skeptical. I would feel much more comfortable with receiving the old way of treatments than the new one. Expecting people to buy into a new medical approach would be naïve. I feel most of the general population would agree that their health is one of their main priorities in life. Such a drastic change in the medical approach to wellness could cause confusion or disapproval from the general public.

Healthcare prices could rise from the new approach, or they could fall drastically. Preventative care would cause less money to flow into our health care system because there would hypothetically be fewer injuries. The people benefiting right now from our medical system would take a financial hit from the change, causing support for the change in the approach to be limited. Altering an entire field would be difficult, but a systematic change is in order because the current system is hindering further advancements in levels of medicine.

+MPS and the Education System

In this week’s journal I would actually like to talk about our discussion on Vincent and the MPS district in general.  As you know, I feel that there are many changes that need to and should be taking place, starting from the ground up, and by that I mean starting at the elementary level. This is something that needs to be tackled right from the beginning, and I feel as if there is something missing. I am sure that the schools are trying their best to teach these kids with the resources that they have, though I think that some of the ways of teaching are very outdated and some of the stuff being taught could be taught better. Both my niece and cousin are in elementary school at the moment at a MPS school and from some of the homework I have tried to help them with, I can see where problems can be had. Some of the “methods” used to help these kids understand certain topics are not well thought out in my opinion. I can see why my cousin was struggling learning addition because I was having trouble with helping her finish her homework. If I was confused as a student who has taken math up to Calculus 3 then I could imagine how confused a 7-year-old child would be.

Some of these changes that have occurred to help the children learn, has made it harder for them to learn in my opinion. I know that many of these changes have been put in place trying to help the children. The thing that I see going on is that people are trying too much to “think outside the box”, in where they stray further away in improving learning. It is great to think outside the box in trying to reach these children and educate them, but there are limits too how far outside the box you should be reaching. I feel in many of these communities, especially in MPS there is a larger and larger proportion of children who grow up only speaking Spanish, so that is a large hurdle already for many students in the MPS district. You combine that with a large percentage of poverty and you have many student already struggling in learning to read and write in Spanish, but then to learn how to read, write, and speak in English. I find it very interesting because I have seen more of my friends who were in bilingual classes, further their education and go to college, while many of my classmates that weren’t in bilingual classes struggled and didn’t have much success in school.

I think systems thinking really should be used in the situation of trying to figure out the problems with the current education system and trying to find solutions to address these problems.  I think in this situation in particular, maybe the use of the “5 whys” could be helpful. I think asking the 5 whys in regards to why high school freshmen reading scores are very low could prove to be helpful. Some of those questions are going to be out of our control, like poverty for example, but others could be solvable to an extent, like improved teaching methods for example. MPS and many public school systems, particularly ones in the inner cities with high rates of poverty, have a long way to go, but we could make little changes now that will have greater impacts in the long run.

+The Food Industry and Scientific Research

This week we not only heard from an extremely interesting guest speaker, who talked extensively about her experiences as well as the healthcare system, but we also read two interesting articles about the food industry manipulating consumer perceptions of the health risks of fats versus sugars. Although we didn’t discuss them in class, I found these articles very interesting. In my previous classes we have touched on the fact that the food industry manipulates consumers by funding studies that often ‘conveniently’ find positive benefits, or at least no adverse effect, of their product. I find it interesting that such a complex system, like the food industry, skirts rules and regulations, as well as influences consumers by manipulating another system, the working scientific community.

As a science major we are taught how to conduct experiments and look at results objectively. We are also actively discouraged from inferring results based on anything other than objectively observed results. However, as was discussed in the two articles we read, experimental design and bias can skew results. This can lead to findings that are beneficial for benefactors, whoever funded the study; however, they are likely not truly accurate results. The article cited examples of studies which, for example, concluded that children that eat more candy weigh less, or that sugar is not tied to coronary heart disease. While these studies are reporting findings that may be backed by some form of evidence, they are likely not relaying the whole story, and or are presenting skewed results because of poor experiment design.

While theoretically the system that makes up the work of scientists and the scientific community, there should be checks and balances. Papers must be reviewed by panels of experts and then edited or revised accordingly. However, by manipulating key individuals within the system, the food industry in the 1960’s was able to circumvent these checks and balances. The result? A shifting of perception on what is considered ‘healthy’ food. By marketing that fats, and not sugars, lead to heart disease, and backing these claims with ‘scientific evidence,’ sugar could be marketed as a suitable alternative and, therefore, increase profits within the sugar industry.

While very clever on the part of the sugar industry, the alteration of perception in our nation to think that fats are inherently bad, completely shifted an entire system. Even in my own life I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “no don’t eat that, it has a lot of fat in it.” I realize that overconsuming fats can be harmful, and that there are healthy and unhealthy sources of fats, but eating no fat at all is also extremely unhealthy. One can walk through a grocery store and see numerous labels brightly advertising “Reduced Fat!” or “Fat Free!” Meanwhile, foods that contain cups of sugar fly under the radar. I think of my roommates who eat breakfast cereals nearly every morning, and what are these products primarily made of? Some form of grain and sugar. But generally no one complains about the sugar content. However, if I come home with a gallon of Whole milk it’s “I can’t believe you drink that, it has way too much fat in it.”

I find it exceptionally interesting that these perceptions of food and health were put in place by individuals before even my parents were born. These individuals manipulated a system, the food industry system, and created ideals that survived to influence generation after generation all the way to the present. If they could so strongly influence the food industry, what other systems do we interact with, potentially daily, are also being manipulated? For better or for worse.

+Meadows' Guidelines for Living in a World of Systems

Donella Meadows’ Guidelines for Living in a World of Systems 

  1. Get the beat of the system.
  2. Expose your mental models to the light of day.
  3. Honor, respect, and distribute information.
  4. Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts.
  5. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
  6. Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
  7. Go for the good of the whole.
  8. Listen to the wisdom of the system.
  9. Locate responsibility within the system.
  10. Stay humble—stay a learner.
  11. Celebrate complexity.
  12. Expand time horizons.
  13. Defy the disciplines.
  14. Expand the boundary of caring.
  15. Don’t erode the goal of goodness.


When reading through the Meadows textbook I found this list in the appendix. These guidelines seem a little complex and vague but to try to gain an understanding of how it works I decided to try and apply each guideline to my current role as a student.

  1. I’m not sure that there is one central beat of college as a system, or of UW-Madison as a system. Maybe the purpose is I would discover my personal beat of learning and participating in campus life? Ideally this would allow me to settle into a schedule where I’m giving my best effort to all the things I am a part of while also taking care of my personal health. Looking back I’m not entirely sure that I ever settled into a steady beat of college. Each year was so different and by the time I figured out my schedule it seemed like the year was over!
  2. I love this guideline. I have so many little plans and maps and ideas stuck in my head that I never write down or say out loud. How many of them am I dooming to fail by not even giving them a chance? I want to apply this guideline to my future self, future jobs, and future relationships. This allows for improvement in jobs- if people feel comfortable enough to voice their opinions and suggest methods of change the workplace functions better. If I personally write down my own plans for job future or personal goals or anything I’m bringing them to life a little bit.
  3. Information distribution is key. It’s interesting that honor and respect were added to the guidelines here. As a student I would be lost in my classes and major without the information that was distributed by professors, advisors, and fellow students. In my jobs, I like knowing what the goal of the day/week/month is and using that information to help me work to my best ability.
  4. Use language with care!!! This is really applicable now as I reflect on my class presentation last week. I was recorded saying “um” about 50 times in a 5 minute presentation. That reflects poorly on me and detracts from the information I’m trying to present. I wish that more of my classes in college had focused a little more on public speaking like this. I liked the constructive criticism that my classmates gave me and I became more aware of what makes a presenter confident and successful.
  5. In college, grades are quantifiable. Money in my savings is quantifiable. But the professional and academic connections I made are not quite as quantifiable. I would also argue that they’re more important than counting 1 college degree. I think as I look back on my experience I remember more things that just numbers in classes and hours I spent at a job. Many of my experiences are more important than the numbers behind them.
  6. I’m not exactly sure how to apply this guideline to my college experience. Maybe it relates to how I react to certain situations or outcomes? For example, if I received a bad grade I would put have a set schedule of things I do next to ensure I understand why I received that grade and prevent it from happening again.
  7. Go for the good of the whole. I totally agree with this rule. Often our society teaches us to focus entirely on ourself: our happiness, our goals, our welfare, and our problems. While this is important, I think it totally excludes and detracts from the aspect of community that is necessary for success. Ultimately my time spent studying as a student should focus on the good of the whole campus, city, or state and hopefully my research and learnings will better more than just me.
  8. Wisdom comes from experience. I love taking advice from people older than I, and this applies in the academic setting as well.
  9. Who holds responsibility? I definitely am responsible for my own actions and reactions. But also maybe I could apply this to locating who is responsible or holds power at a university or within a specific field? I definitely could have made more connections with professors and other mentors at UW-Madison.
  10. Stay a learner! I don’t want to lose this aspect of my personality. Right now, as I’m beginning my path towards organic and sustainable agriculture, I recognize that I have much to learn and I can’t wait to gain that knowledge through experience.
  11. Celebrating complexity is difficult for me. I especially struggle with wrapping my mind around the complexities of creating a life for myself in a new city with new friends and a new job and new patterns and habits. Creating and maintaining deep friendships is complex. Learning the intricacies of a new job is complex. But there can be joy in the learning process.
  12. I’m not quite sure what expanding time horizons means. Maybe it applies to allowing myself to change the timestamps on my goals? If I don’t accomplish something within the time period I had set there’s no harm in extending the time, right?
  13. Is this guideline similar to the saying “rules are meant to be broken”? I think I adhere to this in my life. I believe some rules can be safely broken.
  14. Looking back, I wish I would’ve expanded my boundaries of caring a little more in some places. Small homework assignments definitely fell very low on my list of things I cared about and thus I didn’t put as much effort in as I should’ve. I wish I had cared more to meet more professors in office house, make friends with more people in classes, or take more risks with scary opportunities.
  15. I think eroding the goal of goodness means forgetting the larger purpose of a system and narrowing our view to just a small portion of what we’re doing. When I lose sight of the larger goal of being a student (which was, I think, to earn a degree in something I care about that will help the world around me in some aspect) and only focus on the monotonous daily tasks that drag me down, I lose a little passion and drive to reach my goal.

I didn’t mean for my commentary on these guidelines to be extremely negative, but I do want to be honest in my reflections of my time as a student. As a whole, I’m happy with how far I’ve come, and I know I’m an entirely different person from when I began 4 years ago.