A renaissance in education is already here, but, as they say in the tech world, it is not evenly distributed, and its deeper nature is obscured by diverse and seemingly disconnected guiding ideas, like project-based learning, social and emotional learning, mindfulness, whole-child learning, design thinking, systems thinking, trauma-informed classrooms, flipped classrooms and learner-centered pedagogy.
The Center for Systems Awareness (CSA) exists to advance systems change in education based on the idea that profound inter-connectedness sits behind all these ideas and connects them.

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THE CENTER

The Center for Systems Awareness honors the mind-heart-body system of the learner, the social reality of relationships, family and community that is the context for all learning, and responds to the need to engage learners of all ages in fostering systemic well-being at all levels, from the individual to the larger systems of institutions, society, economy and ecology.

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We support and connect local communities in diverse settings developing a 'compassionate systems' approach to education that connects capacity building and community building to research and practice. This larger budding global community of compassionate systems practitioners, in turn, is part of a wider effort to come to a deeper understanding of the subtle aspects of systems awareness needed for sustaining deep change over time.

 

Our History

The Center for Systems Awareness grew out of the former Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), an independent non-profit organization founded in 1997, which itself grew out of the MIT Center for Organizational Learning originally founded in 1990. With the aim of fostering learning communities for systemic change, these communities gave rise to collaborations like the SoL Sustainability Consortium in 1997 and the Global Sustainable Food Lab, which today represents over fifty of the world’s largest food companies and NGOs working together to bring sustainable agriculture into the mainstream food system. The Center for Systems Awareness builds on this decades long work in the field of systems thinking and organizational learning.

Today is time for another step, one that focuses more directly on the quality of awareness – individually and collectively – that underlies our actions. It is out of this vision that we founded The Center for Systems Awareness.

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OUR PURPOSE

  • centers on reconnecting with and cultivating our truest nature as interconnected individual humans, born out of life on this planet as unique expressions of nature’s innate creative capacity. This is what we relate to as the personal, emotional, individual system – the system of self
  • focuses on developing our capacity for connectedness with one another and to intentionally shape and nurture more generative and relational social fields and spaces. This is what we relate to as system of self and other
  • revolves around understanding and nurturing interdependence as nature’s organizing principle to support biological and social well-being. This is what we relate to as systems of self and larger societal and ecological realities

 

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Throughout the history of our work, we have seen cultivating awareness as crucial to deep change. All systems operate the way they do because of how we work – how we think, act, and inter-relate. Many of us, most of the time, operate within an illusion of separateness, what Albert Einstein called “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.” When we see problems in the world, we see them as separate from ourselves. When we seek to bring about change, we see that which we are trying to change as separate from those of us trying to create the change. When we seek to lead, we see ourselves as leaders separate from those being led. An important mentor David Bohm, himself a protégée of Einstein’s, said all our problems start with 'fragmentation.' Unable to see the whole of things, we try to fix pieces – like trying to "re-assemble the fragments of a shattered mirror" in Bohm’s words – and, in so doing, often make matters worse.

Our journey of the past decades has taught us that without cultivating a deeper awareness of wholeness little is likely to change. It has taught us that surprisingly many people in the world understand this and, as a result, feel increasingly pessimistic about business-as-usual approaches to our deepest problems. And, it has taught us that this cultivation can and must happen in the midst of engagement with these problems. This is no time for monastic retreat but a new monastic order. In Margaret Wheatley’s words, we seek “warriors of the heart” who are equally engaged in the world and in their own cultivation – as two facets of the same journey.

For example, this means cultivating a keen sense of the quality of the relational space or “social field” in complex change settings. This sensibility is hard to express in words, but it is akin to the cultivated ear of a master musician, who can sense when things are out of tune and has learned how to pay attention so as to nurture the quality of the field. In complex change settings, this means attending to how we ‘show up,’ to our own listening and to our underlying emotional tensions or disconnects.

One of our research goals is to elevate this understanding from tacit to more explicit knowledge, which is why cultivating more generative social fields is a transcendent research domain cutting across all our projects

The Center for Systems Awareness focuses today on education because, in a sense, all our major challenges today are “educational” in the broadest sense. In particular, we focus on work with schools and with organizations that work with children and young people outside school. This idea of “school” writ large is crucial because school is the only major institution with a fifty-plus year time horizon - that is, a time horizon commensurate with the deep changes our societies face. This is also because systems thinking is often easier for children and young people who are closer to the innate systems awareness that we all possess but which tends to atrophy as we get older if not cultivated. We are not seeking to ‘fix” education, but honor it as a core “upstream” institution with unique potential to either perpetuate or shift the Industrial Age DNA of separation and exploitation that shapes all modern societies.

MANDALA for SYSTEMS CHANGE

The most fundamental aspect of the mandala for systems change is to model how to connect research and practice within four interrelated fields. Based on ancient ideas from diverse spiritual and developmental traditions, tempered by experience of the past few decades from a multitude of change initiatives, we have come to organize all our projects around “the mandala for systems change.”

Mandalas, in general, are an ancient way of representing a holistic perspective, such as the Native American ‘medicine wheels’ and Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas – a model to “hold the whole,” which is essential to systems level change processes.

The mandala for systems change serves two particular functions.

First, it identifies a set of interconnected domains crucial for organic, self-sustaining, long-term change – research, practice, capacity building, and community building, each embodying a distinctive set of questions:

  • What are we seeking to accomplish? (Practice)
  • What are we seeking to learn, especially that can benefit others beyond ourselves? (Research)
  • How do we need to learn and grow, individually and collectively, to be successful? (Capacity building)
  • Who is the “we” – how do we engage the stakeholders in the larger system we are seeking to influence and what is the quality of the relational space we create? (Community building)

 

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Second, the mandala identifies the space in the center that honors all these dimensions and holds them in a dynamic creative tension, symbolizing the substrate from which systemic change can grow.

In complex change projects, the mandala becomes a fractal for how each student, teacher, school administrator, and network member assumes responsibility for all four imperatives. For example, it is natural among any group of pragmatically oriented change leaders that the practice imperative dominates. But, solving practical problems, no matter how effective, may have little impact beyond the people and settings directly involved. The research imperative aims to broaden that impact by identifying and sharing tools, processes and insights that can benefit others. Similarly, the focus on practical outcomes can often lead people to neglect the subtler developmental processes whereby people, individually and collectively, develop capacities to more reliably produce such outcomes in the future. Last, all learning is learned by somebody. Paying attention to who is and who is not included gives a window into the larger system one seeks to influence in the longer-term – and to voices yet to be effectively integrated.

The mandala for systems change guides all our change initiatives and education projects. For example, we always focus on change on multiple levels: classroom, school, school district, and the larger community . A blind-spot of many education interventions is to focus on new curricula or pedagogy and neglect nurturing a school culture and climate to be more open to such ongoing innovations. The result is often a small number of enthusiastic teachers but little larger change. Likewise, engaging parents, families and the larger community beyond the school is crucial for shaping an environment in which the new approaches can continue to grow and unfold. At each system level, from classroom to community, from teams to large institutions, all four elements of the mandala need to be attended to.

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UN Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals developed by the United Nations are central to The Center of Systems Awareness’ own mission and work.  In the words of leadership author and professor Steen Hildebrandt, “The world goals, the UN 17 global sustainability goals, is the biggest leadership challenge that has ever existed. And it's the biggest possibility for a better world, for all humans.

With growing strength and seriousness, we're being reminded of what the astronauts saw and experienced – that everything on our globe is interconnected. Whenever anyone tries to run their own show – the individual family, the individual business, the individual nation managing on its own – it's often the globe that is suffering the consequences. The United Nations has been criticized for a lot of different things. However, it constantly holds a place for almost 200 countries to meet and communicate. The UN General Assembly decided in unity in September 2015 to set 17 goals for a sustainable global development. As imperfect as they may be, they represent a great leap forward for the development of the planet because the countries of the world, the businesses, the municipalities, the districts and so on in the future can be managed and led in different ways than has happened.” 

 

Professor Steen Hildebrandt

Danish author on leadership & Center for Systems Awareness Practitioner Partner

SNAPSHOTS | from the Systems Awareness Landscape

CRESTONE | CO

The pristine natural settings for the Center for Systems Awareness retreat in September 2018.

From the Center for Systems Awareness retreat in September 2018 where a small, international group of partners came together to learn about social fields and the profound interconnectedness from nature in pristine natural settings in the Rocky Mountains on the Sacred Land Sanctuary.

From the Center for Systems Awareness retreat in September 2018 where a small, international group of partners came together to learn about social fields and the profound interconnectedness from nature in pristine natural settings in the Rocky Mountains on the Sacred Land Sanctuary.

DALAI LAMA and PETER

In Vancouver 2014 – in conversation about global compassion and the faith of Humanity.

In Vancouver 2014, His Holiness and Peter in conversation about global compassion and the faith of Humanity.

In Vancouver 2014, His Holiness and Peter in conversation about global compassion and the faith of Humanity. His Holiness had forgotten to bring his cap to protect him from the spotlights, so a cloth served the purpose instead.

SINGAPORE 2016

In these times of profound imbalance and disruption, why are we not seeing education as a vehicle for regenerating democracy and civilization?

In these times of profound imbalance and disruption, why are we not seeing education as a vehicle for regenerating democracy
and civilization?

Hudson River

View from Garrison Institute overlooking the river and the military academy West Point.

View from Garrison Institute overlooking the river and the military academy West Point.

View from Garrison Institute overlooking the river and the military academy West Point.

GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY GOALS

Steen Hildebrandt and Mette – how compassionate systems can foster global citizenship.

Advisor to the Center, Steen Hildebrandt and Mette in conversation with the local school board, teachers and leadership.

Advisor to the Center, Steen Hildebrandt and Mette in conversation with the local school board, teachers and leadership around how compassionate systems can foster global citizenship.

BOGOR | INDONESIA

A partner in the Indonesia HUB – the Wadah Foundation – invited us to visit with an after school program they are funding,

Inthe Indonesia HUB – the Wadah Foundation funds an after school program led by amazing Kiswanti who has dedicated her life to help children in rural and poor areas have access to books.

One of the partners in the Indonesia HUB – the Wadah Foundation, invited us to visit with an after school program they are funding, which is led by amazing Kiswanti who has dedicated her life to help children in rural and poor areas have access to books.

Claire Petitmengin visits MIT

Deeper understanding of master educators experiences through the process of micro-phenomenological inquiry.

The generative social fields initiative have worked with Clarie Petitmengin to gain a deeper understanding of master educators experiences through the process of micro-phenomenological inquiry.

The generative social fields initiative have worked with Clarie Petitmengin to gain a deeper understanding of master educators experiences through the process of micro-phenomenological inquiry.

COMPASSIONATE SYSTEMS in the making

A series of design meetings at MIT including Daniel Goleman and Mark Greenberg along with IB educators from many parts of the world.

The compassionate systems framework came out of a series of design meetings at MIT with an amazing team including Daniel Goleman and Mark Greenberg along with IB educators from many parts of the world.

The compassionate systems framework came out of a series of design meetings at MIT with an amazing team including Daniel Goleman and Mark Greenberg along with IB educators from many parts of the world.

event in Gentofte | DENMARK

Youth coach Gustav & teacher Jacob watching student ambassadors sharing their work with the global development goals.

Youth coach Gustav and compassionate systems teacher Jacob are proudly watching as their student ambassadors are sharing how they work with the global development goals to an international audience participating on video link.

Youth coach Gustav and compassionate systems teacher Jacob are proudly watching as their student ambassadors are sharing how they work with the global development goals to an international audience participating on video link.

the GLOBE in MONTERREY

The old Iron mill where VIA Education invited us to host a session in Mexico.

The old Iron mill in Monterrey – Mexico, where our friends from VIA Education invited us to host a session.

The old Iron mill in Monterrey – Mexico, where our friends from VIA Education invited us to host a session.

WALDEN POND

Learning journey to the site of Henry Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond.

Learning journey to the site of Henry Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond – "Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?" He asks from across the centuries.

Learning journey to the site of Henry Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond – "Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?" He asks from across the centuries.

Garrison Institute | NY

Educators and researchers came together to explore what it is that happens when social fields become generative.

The first meeting for the generative social fields initiative was held at Garrison Institute where a group of educators and researchers came together to explore what it is that happens when social fields become generative.

The first meeting for the generative social fields initiative was held at Garrison Institute where a group of educators and researchers came together to explore what it is that happens when social fields become generative.

Conversations over beer

Michael Stubberup in conversation with Peter celebrating the very first Introduction to Compassionate Systems workshop at MIT.

Advisory board member and friend of the Center Michael Stubberup in conversation with Peter celebrating the very first Introduction to Compassionate Systems workshop at MIT.

Advisory board member and friend of the Center Michael Stubberup in conversation with Peter celebrating the very first Introduction to Compassionate Systems workshop at MIT.

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LEXICON

Below we define some of the key terms that situate and ground the Center for Systems Awareness’ theory and practice. In our Resources section, you can find additional readings and resources.