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Title: Systems Thinking
Authors: Cabrera, Derek Anthony
Keywords: education
systems thinking
public health
distinction making
perspective taking
organizing systems
Issue Date: 21-Apr-2006
Abstract: This research set out to clarify the construct of systems thinking and to define it as a conceptual framework apart from systems science, systems theory, systems methods, and other perceived synonyms. Greater clarity in the systems thinking construct will assist any one of the many current implementation efforts in which systems thinking is being applied in both scientific disciplines and practical fields. One case of this is the application of systems thinking in public health. The challenges associated with this effort are generalizeable to any of the other fields in which systems thinking is being applied. The ambiguities of the systems thinking construct are central to the challenges people face in understanding and implementing systems thinking. This exploratory empirical research used structured conceptualization methodology, which mixes qualitative methods with multivariate statistical methods, to investigate the challenges of implementing systems thinking in an applied context. The analysis shows that: (1) the literature reveals that significant ambiguities exist about what constitutes systems thinking and that practitioners are adopting these ambiguities, (2) the methodological review reveals that there are a disproportionate number of descriptive studies and significantly fewer empirical studies and that there are construct validity problems regarding systems thinking in the few existing empirical designs, (3) the results of statistical tests and descriptive statistics across a range of studies show that the aggregate participant sorts in this study are reliable to a high degree, (4) additional statistical tests show low significance in participant ratings and may indicate that the systems thinking construct is sufficiently vague and that participants had difficulty differentiating between clusters with respect to importance, and (5) 25% of clusters representing 48% of the total statements have to do with learning more about systems thinking through educational initiatives, suggesting that participants are unclear about many aspects of systems thinking. These findings suggest the need for further development and research on four fronts: theoretical, implementational, empirical, and educational. A theory of systems thinking is offered as a first step in these efforts and as a conceptual framework for educational practice. Future research is required to test this theory of systems thinking.
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