05 Feb

"Placing a system in a strait-jacket of constancy can cause fragility to evolve."

C. S. Holling as cited in: Meadows, D. H., & Wright, D. (2015). Thinking in systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.

THE MEAT (The Main Idea)

While I've never been in a straitjacket myself, movies do a good job of portraying its effectiveness. I can recall a few scenes where the long sleeves of the straitjacket pull a person's arms around them and tie behind their back to constrict their ability to move. An immediate mental image of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs comes to mind (picture citation: 7,622 walmart images, stock photos, 3D objects, & vectors. Shutterstock. (n.d.). https://www.shutterstock.com/search/walmart). 

This cinematic description, as chilling as it may be, serves as a compelling metaphor for Holling's forewarning against rigidity. The straitjacket becomes a symbolic lens through which we can see a system tightly bound, much like Hannibal in a straitjacket, severely limiting its freedom to move and adapt. Constancy devoid of the ability to change can cause systems to become delicate and weak. The system, much like the prisoner in a straitjacket, loses the ability to navigate necessary actions when faced with unknowns or changes. 

So let's continue to peel back the layers of this metaphorical straitjacket and uncover deeper insight into the delicate balance between rigidity and adaptability and the necessity of resilience in systems. 

THE CHEESE (Added Depth) 

When we explore more deeply and extend the concept of a system being placed in a straitjacket, we have to bring the metaphor back to design and purpose. A straitjacket seeks to not only protect the confined person but also to shield others from being potentially harmed. In this dual role lies an analogy for systems we construct in many areas in life. 

Consider the traditional organizations or schools. We put systems in place to help the flow of work, protect people, and safeguard against harmful threats. Sometimes, these created systems then turn into policies. However, herein lies the paradox - the very systems designed for protection can, if overly rigid now create tension and weaken structures over time. 

Consider the well-intentioned introduction of standardized testing in educational systems. Initially implemented to ensure a fair assessment to measure student knowledge and skill, has now metamorphosed into a rigid system prioritizing standardized scores over holistic learning experiences. The unintended consequences ripple through classrooms, where teachers, driven by fear of low student scores, divert valuable teaching time towards teaching test-taking strategies. This shift not only narrows the curriculum but also comprises the teaching of critical thinking, creativity, and time to explore other dynamic teaching approaches. Numerous studies show the negative impact of standardized testing on education. The United States, once a global contender in mathematics, has witnessed a steady decline in international rankings since the inception of standardized testing policies. The repercussions extend beyond subject rankings, with a significant reduction in time allocated to teaching social studies and science in elementary schools. 

Policies intended to enhance educational outcomes have inadvertently led to the narrowing of the educational experience. This is just one example of how well-intentioned policies can inadvertently leave systems in straitjackets, resulting in the fragility of the educational experience. As we reflect on these unintended consequences, we are prompted to question whether our educational systems adequately prepare students for the challenges of our current modern world. It beckons us to reevaluate and recalibrate our approaches, ensuring that the protective systems we construct do not inadvertently compromise the resilience and adaptability essential for a robust and dynamic educational experience.

THE OLIVES (A Surprising Element) 

As our journey unfolds, it's essential to recognize that individuals vary in their relationship with structure and systems. For some, the absence of structured frameworks can induce anxiety and uncertainty (that's true for me). Conversely, an excess of rigid systems can feel constricting, triggering a different kind of distress (as true for my son). The key, as our quote alludes to, lies in finding that balance between order and flexibility. 

So let's talk about cattle presses. It's a critical component of cattle management systems designed with the primary focus of safety for both the animals and the humans handling them. Imagine it, the cow is led into the contraption and it squeezes the sides of the cow rendering it temporarily immovable (essentially a straitjacket for cows). While this may sound uncomfortable to us, for the cattle, it becomes a haven. In the embrace of this device, cows feel secure, and it creates a calming environment for them. 

Now, for my twist, let me introduce you to Dr. Temple Grandin. A distinguished scientist with autism, she often struggled in social situations and endured paralyzing anxiety. She observed how cattle would calm their massive bodies in the cattle press and contemplated whether the same principles could apply to her own struggles. And she did. When she put herself in the cattle press, she felt relief from her anxiety. She went on to create her version of a human press. While the notion of the straitjacket may conjure images of constraint and limitation, in this context, it becomes a picture of compassion and security. This human press provided Dr. Temple Grandin with the ability to repair herself and provide resiliency. 

Herein lies the profound insight - systems, whether designed for testing students or cattle management, necessitate management not only for productivity and stability but also for resilience. Dr. Grandin's journey serves as a powerful reminder that the measure of a system's effectiveness extends beyond its immediate functions. It's about its capacity to repair itself, adapt in the face of challenges, and provide safety for those in its care. In the balance between order and flexibility, the concept of resilience emerges. In a nutshell, systems need the flexibility to change when the opportunity presents itself. 

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