Three Ways To Foster Education On Complexity Using Network Visualizations

Three Ways To Foster Education On Complexity Using Network Visualizations
There should be more focus on systems thinking in education, Roland Kupers argues convincingly in the Global Search for Education on the Huffington Post. As complexity always involves interconnectedness between components, I find network visualization particularly useful in my educational practice.
  • It creates systemic awareness, because users are forced to think about interrelationships: linear versus non-linear relations; coping with uncertainty; etc.
  • It counterbalances the urge to automatically take the reductionistic approach to problems and issues. In other words: next to analysis –quite literally: taking apart to study the components- it makes room for synthesis –zooming out to the constellation on the system level.
  • It provides a kickstart for introducing key concepts in a non-technical way.
  • It fosters dialogue between students, pupils or stakeholders.
Here, I provide three ways I find promising to explore further.


1. Promote Network Literacy in primary, secondary and tertiary education simultaneously

I am grateful to the NetSciEd-initiative for having coined the term Network Literacy, to promote the use of network science concepts in primary and secondary education. This could involve the creation of conceptual network visuals, drawn by hand. It could also entail creating more formal networks made with datasets and software. I am convinced this is an excellent way to build on young people’s innate capacities of exploration, wonder, creativity and sense of interconnectedness. However, I think it will take some effort to create leverage with teachers in our present day educational system. As Kupers points out, this system is characterized by high degrees of path dependency, with a firm basin of attraction in the reductionistic tradition. From my experience with education in the Netherlands, I agree with him. Therefore, I would also suggest promoting Network Literacy in tertiary educational curricula, to teach the teacher.


2. Use network visualization to integrate Network Literacy with 21st Century Skills in curricula

I see 21st Century Skills like creativity, critical thinking and effective cooperation getting more and more popular in designing new educational curricula. Through my experiments with network visualizations I discovered that they can help both students and professionals to work on these skills. I experimented with network visuals in professional education settings, e.g. with journalists and journalism students. This ‘Systemic journalism’ enabled them to create more angles and story ideas, fostered their willingness to share knowledge and enhanced a more future-oriented perspective. Imagine a class of journalism students, each researching municipal financial policy in relation to construction projects. In drawing network visuals of interconnected stakeholders, they applied creativity and critical thinking skills. In presenting and discussing their visuals, they tested basic network literacy skills as well as communication and problem solving skills. Kupers asks, “How can a student pose a question in a physics class, based on an insight gained in a poetry class?”. Using some kind of network visualization could help creating a non-technical common complexity language.


3. To enhance momentum, visualize the process of change in education itself

Kupers says, “the level of change required is both subtle and profound. In keeping with insights on how systems learn and change, it appears best to experiment widely, connecting and building on pockets of progress.” Identifying key innovators, hubs and other players in the educational network, and visualizing their interconnectedness can have a profound impact on the pace of change. In a similar context, I helped setting up an interactive graphic depicting a ‘city ecosystem of social initiatives’. Using software from Kumu, an overall view looks like this: Publishing a network visual like this not only helps spreading knowledge, but also triggers people to (inter)act. Further exploring these three paths to me looks like a promising strategy.

“The task of knowing is to swim in the complex”  -David Weinberger

Originally published May 16, 2016 on LinkedIn