Mucking About with Systems

A quick blog, written in haste, by...

Gareth Thomson, Executive Director at the Alberta Council for Environmental Education (ACEE)

(Originally posted on November 12/2015 via the ACEE webpage)

I’ve always been interested in mucking about with systems.

For one thing, I’m pretty connected – as we all are – to a somewhat significant system, the one that gives us life. Call it what you will - Gaia, or Mother Earth, or the Biosphere – over seven billion of us naked apes make an impact on it.  As an educator I’m convinced that education - and resulting action - can reduce that impact and help ensure it all works out okay…

Like all of us, I strive to create a positive impact; probably the biggest impact I’ve ever created came from mucking about with systems. Over two decades ago I wrote to the Education Minister here in Alberta with some unflattering but genial comments on his proposed Elementary Science curriculum. Bless his heart, the man hooked me up with an enlightened bureaucrat, I assembled an advisory group (which the bureaucrat affectionately referred to as the ‘Environmental Mafia’), and together we cooked up a new scheme for some environmentally-themed units of study, which the Minister wrote into law in 1996.

That was damn near twenty years ago, and the curriculum hasn’t changed – which means that during this period over a million Alberta students have inched closer to environmental literacy during those crucial early grades. 


I’ve been an environmental educator during all those years, designing sweet little programs that fit neatly within the system, then moving to a new job with the Alberta Council for Environmental Education that – among other things - works closely with well over a hundred groups that all have their own sweet programs, trying to make Alberta, the world, and our environment better through education.

But here’s the thing. There are a lot of great programs in Alberta; if sweet environmental education programs solved environmental issues, we wouldn’t have those issues any more. Yet - we still do. Such programs are necessary, but not sufficient…

What to do? 

Last June I took myself off to the Banff Centre’s ‘Getting to Maybe’ Residency to see what else might be done about this. Early on, Chief Druid Frances Westley clouted me over the head with certain unalienable facts: I learned that our education programs are typical of changes WITHIN the system, while curriculum change is a great example of a change TO the system.  (the difference: if any program ends, the system merrily ‘snaps back’ to doing what it did pre-program; whereas when Alberta Education stepped back from its work, the system had changed and began to create students who knew more about the environment and how to take care of it…

The author (left) with Getting to Maybe author and Residency Chief Druid, Frances Westley

The author (left) with Getting to Maybe author and Residency Chief Druid, Frances Westley

Very cool. 

And that was only the beginning of it; after four weeks, I knew more. A lot more. I knew about Social Innovation, the theory and practice of solving complex problems. I knew how to create and use a Theory of Change.  I knew how to create Systems Maps showing the causal relationships between key stakeholders. I knew how to read the tea leaves created by such maps, figure out where best to exert ourselves to move the system, and how to engage those with more power than us (i.e. practically everyone) to help out.  I knew about Collective Impact, and the potential for working with other sectors on a common goal…

I was hooked.  Post-Residency I walked around ‘fixing people with a glittering eye’ like the Ancient Mariner, talking to anyone who would listen about the mysterious White Whale that is social innovation and systems change…(by the way, you could take this course too – click here to find out more).

Then it was time to move from theory to practice.  Our October 2015 ‘Summit to Advance Environmental and Energy Literacy’ brought together 120 passionate educators for a day, who considered this new approach and saw it was good. They helped create a Theory of Change, then used it as an organizer for subsequent conversations.  They liked what they saw in collective impact, asked ACEE to provide backbone support for their work, and offered to help - through sitting on a steering committee, or individual commitments, or through a myriad of action groups.  Bless their hearts, they even said ‘Hell, yes!” to mapping the complex systems within which we work, to help figure out how to intervene in those selfsame systems…

The author (gesticulating) in the company of 120 of Alberta’ best and brightest educators, at the Summit.

The author (gesticulating) in the company of 120 of Alberta’ best and brightest educators, at the Summit.

Exciting stuff! 

Through this, we hope to change the K-12 education system in Alberta; we’re also committed to using these same approaches to support Alberta’s pre-school children, through a multi-sectoral program we call Get Outside and Play.

So we’re launched, together, on this Noble Experiment.  I’m still mucking about with systems, but (thanks to the Residency) now have some theory and language for the work, and – Joy! – the company of friends and colleagues on the voyage.

Wish us luck with our travels. Better yet, let us know if you’d like to come along for the ride

Gareth Thomson
Executive Director
Alberta Council for Environmental Education