WINSTON-SALEM — Conflict is brewing in over a controversial teaching method now being employed in some local schools.
The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education is bitterly divided over the method known as “systems thinking.” Some say the method subjects students to a socialist political agenda, while others — including Superintendent Don Martin — claim it is simply another instructional tool teachers have employed successfully in the classroom.
“Systems thinking” is the brainchild of Peter Senge, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who emphasizes a global vision in his speeches and writings. Senge is also the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning Institute.
According to its website, one of SoL’s many guiding principles is the belief that “all human beings are born with an innate, lifelong desire and ability to learn, which should be enhanced by all organizations.”
In a video explaining his views on education, Senge said the “purpose of education is to prepare kids to become global citizens. … We’ve got to realize that kids are growing deeply concerned about the conditions of the world — about energy, food, waste, poverty.”
An article authored by the WSFCS communications department quotes Senge as saying that “people unfamiliar with systems thinking might be put off by the word ‘systems’ because it might sound a bit industrial.”
However, the approach “can make both students and teachers feel more connected and respected,” with students saying, “they appreciate feeling as if the teachers listen to them.”
The article goes on to say that systems thinking comes with a “sibling — sustainability” — adding it “covers more than just the importance of establishing ecological and economic systems that can remain healthy over time.”
Systems thinking — which Martin emphasizes is not part of the school district’s curriculum — was introduced to WSFCS as part of a $300,000 federal Race to the Top grant.
According to the WSFCS article, board member Elisabeth Motsinger — a Democrat running for the 5th U.S. Congressional District seat currently held by incumbent Rep. Virginia Foxx — went to Arizona in a group of about 20, including teachers and principals, to attend Camp Snowball, where Senge is an annual speaker. According to its website, Camp Snowball is a “multi-faceted learning event that features practical systems thinking and sustainability education workshops for adults and students.”
Systems thinking was addressed at the Oct. 9 WSFCS board meeting. Some teachers spoke out about how they have applied systems thinking successfully in their classrooms. But those testimonies were followed by a tense discussion among board members.
“The problem is it’s not education. It’s social science that has been rejected,” said board member Buddy Collins, a vocal opponent of systems thinking.
“I can tell you there is no socialistic world view to try and manipulate students into some type of collective groupthink,” Martin replied.
Motsinger was equally adamant in her support of both Senge and systems thinking.
“I want to point out that the people who have been involved in systems thinking do not have a shared political point of view,” Motsinger said. “I’m hearing a lot of assumptions about Mr. Senge that are not based in any real experience I’ve had with him. I think Peter would be very disturbed to have anybody say that he’s trying to tell anyone how to think when I actually think his life’s work has been about teaching people how to do their own thinking.”
But other board members were not convinced.
“You’ve loaded us up with good stuff so we don’t see the bad stuff,” said board member Jeannie Metcalf. “I will never support anything that has to do with systems thinking or anything that has to do with Peter Senge. In all his writings he says there is no truth. But I believe in truth.”
The board did pass a motion requiring Senge to elaborate his views on systems thinking either in person or in a video conference, even though the district will continue employing systems thinking on a purely volunteer basis.
The debate over systems thinking carried over onto the local airwaves, as Collins and Martin made a joint appearance on a Winston-Salem radio station explaining their respective points of view.
Martin emphasized the fact that schools volunteer to participate in systems thinking.
“It is not a curriculum,” Martin said. “It’s a tool box for the teachers.”
Collins was undeterred in his opposition. His major concern is systems thinking’s ties to the so-called Common Core Curriculum, which he says is part of a national curriculum movement.
“There has been an effort to create a national curriculum, which is tied to a world curriculum,” Collins said. “We don’t need to be linking our school system with a New Age socialist and his political agenda.”
In later phone interviews with Carolina Journal, Martin, Motsinger, and Collins held firm in their respective views on systems thinking.
Martin will wrap up his 40-year career in education when he retires June 30. Indeed, he’s seen many trends in education over the years. He sees nothing sinister in systems thinking.
“From my standpoint, it’s a way of keeping kids engaged and interested instead of sitting there passively listening and doing a lot of worksheets,” Martin told CJ. “It’s gotten all mixed up into a theoretical, sinister side, like a New Age, New World Order type of thing.”
“Teachers have found systems thinking to be a very good way of having children do deeper thinking and to actually think about their thinking,” Motsinger said. “It really seems to reach children of different ages and abilities.”
Collins remains steadfast in his opposition to systems thinking. His major concern is that systems thinking symbolizes efforts to wrest control of curriculum from local school systems and boards of education.
“Never before have we had that level of political agenda has been laced into our curriculum,” Collins told CJ. “That’s the scary part. When there’s a national curriculum or an international curriculum, parents and local boards — people that should be designing education — are left out.”
Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.