Systems-Based Learning Courses

For additional information and download links for each course, click on links in the right-hand box. >

All course materials on this website are FREE to educators for use with their own learners. No signups, no advertising, no strings.

Sample course contents

About Systems-Based Learning (SBL):

A fundamental problem with discipline-based curricula:

John Goodlad: “The division into subjects and periods encourages a segmented rather than an integrated view of knowledge.  Consequently, what students are asked to relate to in schooling becomes increasingly artificial, cut off from the human experiences subject matter is supposed to reflect.”  (A Place Called School, McGraw-Hill, 1984, p.266)

Peter M. Senge: “From a very early age, we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world.  This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price.  We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.”  (The Fifth Discipline, Currency Doubleday 1990, p.3)

In matters educational, the phrase “paradigm shift” is overworked. But when systems thinking replaces the 1893 core curriculum as the primary organizer of what’s taught, “paradigm shift” is appropriate.

In a complex world, making sense of reality is essential to human survival. From galaxies to atoms, from nations to individuals, everything is a system or system component. Because every human problem is a system problem, understanding how systems are put together and how they work is the indispensable foundation of an acceptable general educational curriculum. Study of systems ought to be a mandatory part of every learner's education.

Systems-Based Learning courses draw content from familiar school subjects and firsthand experience, so they're also "reality-based learning." Systems thinking rather than the academic disciplines helps learners construct comprehensive, efficient, productive mental models of phenomena.

Professional educators rather than commercial publishers are better positioned to lead in creating and maintaining curricula. Collaboration requires dialogue. We encourage users to:

  • assume responsibility for improving existing SBL activities,
  • suggest additional and alternative activities,
  • play active roles in “localizing” and otherwise adapting the materials, and
  • explore and capitalize on cross-cultural insights and perspectives.
See “Discussions and User Feedback” on website pages for each course.

Marion Brady comments:

On the challenge– Forget rocket science and brain surgery. Compared to educating—helping learners better align their mental models of reality with reality—both are relatively easy. Educating is inherently the most complex of all undertakings.

Aim– The main aim of educating is simple, and every learner needs to know exactly what it is–some version of, "making more sense of experience by understanding the sense-making process."

"Covering the content"– Forget this too. It hasn’t been possible since the Enlightenment, and the assumption that it should be done (or at least attempted) is naive and destructive. It’s best to see content for what it is–-dynamic, constantly changing, never equally appropriate for all students, and with the possible exception of a tiny fraction of it, not worth storing in memory. Choose from it what helps explain and elaborate the sense-making process. That process is the main content.

Textbooks – My brother and I have written two for Prentice-Hall, but consider textbooks a major obstacle to learning. If educators demanded that they be no more than, say, fifty pages long, improvement in the quality of American education would be almost instantaneous.

Pacing– The whole idea of a "pacing guide" is ridiculous, a futile attempt to standardize the un-standardizable. If you’re trying to help learners understand something really important, there’s no point in moving on to a second idea until they understand the first, even if that takes days, weeks, months. Systems-Based Learning courses deal with vital concepts, so don’t rush it. Take as long as it takes.

Teacher Role– The longer I taught, the less I said to students. I came to see myself as a co-learner and behaved accordingly, mostly just asking questions, always looking for ones so thought-provoking I could just wander around from group to group and say nothing at all, just listen and learn.

Class Organization– Writing these courses, my brother and I assumed that most of the work would be done in small groups. Learners learn a lot by "thinking out loud," and small groups maximize opportunities to do that. At the end of an activity, it’s often useful to let the groups "have at it" with each other, or pool their insights and conclusions.

Target Audience– These SBL courses were written with adolescents to adults in mind, so the language is simple even when the ideas aren’t. Because it focuses mostly on the real world and user experience of it, it automatically "adjusts" to different ability levels.

"Standards"– The usual subject-matter standards such as CCSS that states were pushed to adopt are suicide pills, reinforcing the worst aspects of traditional education–that the point of schooling is to "cover the material," that fragmenting knowledge is OK, that innovation and change aren’t necessary. If higher authority says standards have to be honored, know that there’s no legitimate standard that SBL can’t accommodate, that it’s just a matter of fitting it in where it makes the most sense.

"Accountability"– When you’re making judgments about complex performance, there’s no avoiding subjectivity (which is one of many good reasons for team teaching). Standardized tests devalue the very qualities and abilities most essential to individual and collective survival.

AcceptanceSystems-Based Learning will be rejected for mainstream use as long as the present thrust of "reform" (doing what we’ve always done, only longer and harder) continues. The most likely users are those working with learners either so far advanced or so far behind, their scores on standardized tests are of little concern.

Implementation - We think that, in about two hours a day, Introduction to Systems can do a better job of realizing the aims of a traditional liberal education than is now being done in five or six hours, and that the rest of the day should be used for doing what we say we think is of supreme importance but don’t actually do–help individual learners identify and pursue their interests and maximize their talents and abilities. Magnet school administrators should be particularly interested in instruction that decreases time spent on general study.

If you're interested in trying Introduction to Systems or any SBL course, contact us—we can help. We have some materials and suggestions for such things as pre- and post-evaluation, to gauge student growth in complex skills.