Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

An Abundant Systems Framework in Higher Education

Athletic Training and Nursing students learn together in an IPE simulation at ACU.

An Abundant Systems mindset is about looking for connectedness. I like to think about this in terms of looking for opportunities to expand networks and ask questions that connect rather than compete. Questions like, in what ways do the goals of my University/College/Department align with the goals of community partners or others within my own system? How might we work together to achieve our shared goals? How might we help each other achieve even more if we work together?

In the EconTalk segment linked here, Teppo Felin talks about what he calls the fallacy of obviousness. In the talk and in his article in Aeon on the topic, Felin references the Selective Attention Task . In this task, people are told to count how many times a certain uniformed team passes a basketball. In doing so, subjects will focus so much on counting passes that they completely miss the person dressed as a gorilla who walks right through the frame of the video. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman talks about this experiment as highlighting that humans are “blind to the obvious” and even to our own blindness. But Felin has an alternative explanation. He says that it’s not that humans are blind to the obvious, but that obviousness is dependent upon what we find relevant for a particular question or task.

So, we notice the things that answer the questions that we are asking. Felin states that “there are not neutral observations. The world doesn’t tell us what is relevant. Instead, it responds to questions.” Felin argues that in our daily lives, just as in the experiment, we are bombarded by stimuli, so we have to screen out that stimuli that isn’t relevant, attending to what is “meaningful and useful.”

This idea of the fallacy of obviousness is important when thinking about higher education. In Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From he talks about the idea of the adjacent possible. He says, “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” The idea is that at any moment the world is “capable of extraordinary change” and that the “strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries.” In the same vein, Ed Catmull’s Unmade Future in Creativity, Inc. is “a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens.”

Putting all of these pieces together makes me wonder if there is a strange and beautiful truth for higher education in an adjacent possible or unmade future that we’re missing because we’re asking the wrong questions.

Considering the Abundant Systems framework and the incredible benefits that using it has brought to my College, my proposal is that we begin to focus on questions of connection. Connection is a central tenet of learning. Learning is not just an act of the mind. It is also an act of the heart. This mindset requires courage, because it is often stepping into a way of thinking that may be new for your institution. As Seth Godin says in his blog post Toward Abundant Systems, “The more people who know something, the more it can be worth, because knowledge permits interoperability and forward motion. Knowledge creates more productivity, more connection and then, more knowledge.”

One of my favorite outcomes of adopting the Abundant Systems mindset has been the development of our College Interprofessional Education Initiative. As we piloted the IPE Initiative this past academic year, we served approximately 250 students through experiential learning and curricular activities across Allied Health and Teacher Education programs in the College and the School of Nursing. The IPE Initiative provided students with expanded opportunities to build skills in teamwork, communication and flexible problem solving to increase world readiness. These are transformative outcomes that grew out of asking questions about potential for connectedness.

What if, in higher education leadership, instead of asking questions like, “How do we use technology to teach students more economically?” or “How do we increase efficiencies to lower the cost of education?” we asked, “How do we best promote growth and discovery? What are our shared goals? How do we best build relationships across units that nurture students in their growth and discovery? What partnerships might we build in our communities to increase transformational learning opportunities?” I believe the answers to the second group of questions would likely also result in the efficiencies we seek in the first group.

Is it possible that there is a gorilla in our midst that we are not seeing because we need to ask different questions? If we start asking questions about connection rather than competition in higher education, I wonder what strange and beautiful truths we would discover. For me, the IPE Initiative is a perfect example of this. What else is waiting out there for us to discover?

Catmull, E. E., & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, Inc. : overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. New York : Random House, [2014].

Felin, Teppo (retrieved 2018). The fallacy of obviousness. Aeon Essays.https://aeon.co/essays/are-humans-really-blind-to-the-gorilla-on-the-basketball-court

JOHNSON, S. (2010). WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM THE NATURAL HISTORY OF INNOVATION. Riverhead Books.

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