I was thrilled when I started my bachelor’s studies in Industrial Engineering, but as semesters went by, my motivation and thereby my GPA decreased dramatically. I did not find any meaning in the courses, I could not carry any insight from my studies neither to my life, nor to what I was doing at work. No-one, including my parents, my friends, and myself thought I’d be able to complete my studies and earn my degree. I was cutting the classes all the time and felt increasingly detached from university.
Once, during a final exam, amongst all the students, I was the only asked to show my student card, I reluctantly did so. After my credentials on the card and on the exam paper were compared, I was asked “you did not attend the class at all?” I realized that the person who asked for my card was the professor and I did not even know how he looked like! I learned my lesson and went to the last session of a course called “Systems Thinking”, to do some intelligence gathering. The professor was very young. “I could have never guessed he is a professor,” I happily thought to myself. When the course was over and I was about to leave the class, I heard my name, “Professor! That’s the Arash Golnam you have been looking for!” said one of the students. Apparently the professor checked attendance and I was never there!
“Why didn’t you attend the course?” the professor asked. “I am working fulltime,” I responded. It was true, I was lucky enough to find a job in a car manufacturing company. My boss was very flexible he always gave me the chance to continue my studies, the problem was elsewhere; I did not like going to university. “Please do not reduce my grade because of my absences,” I almost begged and he kindly agreed. I was already in the fifth year of my studies (which should normally take four years), I had almost all my technical courses left and I could not afford failing another course.
The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge was the main text for the course. The more I read, the more it grew on me. For the first time, what I was reading was making sense, I could see potential applications for the concepts and the techniques in the book. By the time, I finished the book, I had a new and an exciting lens through which I could see the world otherwise. I received one of the highest grades of the class and more importantly, I could finally see some value in my studies. Not only did I complete my studies, but I also managed to become one of the top students in my last semesters.
The first article I co-authored had Systems Thinking as its core methodology won the “Best Paper Award” in an international conference and became one of the main reasons I ended up with a Ph.D. scholarship at EPFL. I met with my future employers while presenting my doctoral research in a systems thinking conference. During my tenure in the industry as a systems modeler, I got a chance to work with some of the most prodigious systems thinkers and I did a second master’s degree in System Dynamics. Furthermore, I believe my Systems Thinking course has been an important reason why the students voted me as one their favorite professors several times in the recent years in different universities.
I sometimes ask myself, what would have happened if I did not have a Systems Thinking course during my bachelor’s studies? Where would I be now? What would I be doing?
I believe the purpose of education is to create transformations in the learners, to help them enhance their mental models, refine their thought patterns and find meaning and motivation in their studies. In my opinion, trans-disciplinary courses such as Systems Thinking are timeless and timely remedies to the fragmented nature of our educational system. Such courses can dramatically enhance the way we perceive ourselves and our relationship to the world.
The result of teaching small parts of a large number of subjects is the passive reception of disconnected ideas not illuminated with any spark of vitality. Let the main ideas which are introduced in the child’s education be few and important and let them be known into every combination possible.
Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947)