Systems Thinking Controversy Continues- Senge Addresses Internet Conspiracy Theories


By Staff

Professionalism, civility, and decorum were met with internet conspiracy theories Tuesday night as School Board member Jeannie Metcalf led an attack on Systems Thinking advocate Dr. Peter Senge and school Superintendent Dr. Don Martin.  With a mix of incomprehensible statements and rude interruptions, Metcalf and a small group apparently assembled by the same, turned their backs on reality and let the conspiracy theories fly.

peter senge

Senge’s return visit to Winston-Salem was in response to WS/FC School Board members’ demands included in a motion adopted during their October 9th board meeting. That meeting saw an extended, heated discussion about Systems Thinking in general, and Senge specifically, and concluded with a vote to continue with Systems Thinking training, providing Peter Senge be excluded from any involvement in the training unless he came to personally address Board members’ concerns.

To that end, Senge participated in a public meeting held at the Education Building on December 4th. Board members Metcalf, Jane Goins, John Davenport, Jill Tackaberry, Marilyn Parker, and Elisabeth Motsinger were present as Senge gave a brief background of the development of the Systems Thinking (ST) model and his involvement with the educational applications of the model.

Gracious and soft-spoken, Senge spent about 20 minutes outlining his personal experiences and the growth of the Systems Thinking model from an engineering/invention model to one that has current application in business and education. He cited 3 main outcomes of Systems Thinking – that people become more reflective, ask tougher questions, and build a sense of vision and purpose. Senge explained that although he was the first Chair of the governing committee of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), the SoL Educational Partnership (SoLED) is an independent, self-governed, non-profit organization that developed “in parallel, with [Senge] really having nothing to do with it at all.”

The educational applications, Senge stated, were born out of educators who came in contact with the model and saw the benefits of schools who viewed themselves as learning organizations. The Waters foundation, another group which Senge stated he has no formal relationship with, took the lead in developing educational applications for the ST model. Senge mentioned a need to engage parents and to provide schools and teachers with an environment in which they could innovate as driving forces in the expansion of the model into education.

Senge and Dr. Martin quickly moved the meeting from the brief focus on Senge to an open discussion, where Board members and then the general public could ask Senge questions directly.

Jill Tackabery spoke up first. “I’m just going to cut to the chase,” she said, shaking her head. “This is (holding up a stack of papers) emails I’ve gotten. From what I have observed, most of this has come off of the internet,” and Tackabery proceeded to rattle off buzz words from the emails, “Systems Thinking is Communist, Buddhist, Socialist, Anti-Christian…” and asked Senge if he would address the concerns of those who had presented them.

Senge began by stating that there was nothing partisan about his work, adding “If I have any aspiration it is that our political system would work.” He explained that proponents of ST are “not prone to collectivism or central control,” and that “local control is almost always to be preferred to central control.”

He cautioned that the word collective not be equated with the concept of collectivism. Senge suggested a more appropriate way to look at the concept of developing “collective intelligence” would be how sports teams function. Individual skill is appreciated and developed within team members, but the team capacity is increased when those skills work together, with the cumulative effect of the individual members’ abilities and efforts resulting in a more competent and effective team.

The religious question appeared to almost hurt Senge. He stated that he grew up in a Christian home and has a deep interest in religion. “Religion has such a unifying role in humanity, that it should also divide us is a great tragedy,” Senge said. He continued that public schools, due to the fact that they are intended to be for all children, must be respectful of the different traditions present in our communities.

John Davenport spoke next. He asked a question of Senge that had been asked and answered in previous Board meetings – what is the objective of Systems Thinking and what results were available from other schools who were implementing it. Senge answered with three levels that could expect to see outcomes – the classroom, the management of the school, and the system leadership level. Davenport then said “Talk to me about Truth… does Systems Thinking challenge what [kids] think is true?”
Senge answered with an explanation that touched on the semantic difference between the words truth and reality. He stated that it is possible to support the natural inquisitiveness in children without indoctrinating their thinking. “There is a deeper understanding that can allow us to be better involved in bringing about the reality we want,” Senge said. That does not mean that children are creating “truth” but that they are aware of what is true, and are able to utilize that understanding to create a reality that has desired outcomes based on that truth. Senge used an example of three 6 year old boys who were continually fighting on the playground. The boys spontaneously utilized ST tools to determine how they could stop fighting. By understanding the principles at work, they were able to change their outcome, and create a different reality, or “truth”.


Jeannie Metcalf then took the floor. “I apologize. I’m on medicine, what little filter I usually have is gone,” she said. “I’m a little afraid of your coming. I’ve seen the change you’ve brought about in Don [Martin] and it’s not a pretty sight. It’s your fault Peter.” Metcalf continued, citing various internet sources as evidence of Senge’s desire to turn the world Buddhist, including an Indian newspaper article stated that “[Systems Thinking] is a Buddhist inspired learning system.” She also declared that to her, mental models (a ST tool) were the equivalent of meditating.

When Senge attempted to answer her concerns, she responded with “You could stand up there and say anything,” and that she didn’t need to hear his answers because she had spent hours with him. When Senge questioned when she had spent time with him, Metcalf replied “I have sat at your feet for hours, watching you on YouTube.”

Metcalf also read questions given to her by Buddy Collins. The prepared questions ranged from “what is a system citizen” to where Senge stood on Agenda 21 (a popular internet conspiracy theory harking back to the days of the John Birch Society.) Senge answered each question thoughtfully, explaining that he was against indoctrination, respected the idea that each child should be able to think for themselves, and that the intelligence of children should be nurtured as far as it can go, developing the individual in the contexts of the systems in which they operate.

Metcalf did not accept Senge’s responses, claiming that she still held her concerns and that all she really cares about is the kids. When she became belligerent with Senge over his motives, claiming to have an understanding of them because of her exposure to Senge’s ideas on the internet, Senge responded “Jeannie, if you’re concerned about the kids, spend time with the kids. You will not learn [about kids] from the internet.”

At this point, the meeting was opened to the public present. The room was occupied by a few journalists, around 10 local citizens, and 10 staff members, including assistant superintendents, the System’s attorney, and Communications staff. As the public began asking their questions, it quickly became obvious that Metcalf had lined up her speakers, a method she has previously referred to as a “play” from her “playbook.” The speakers had previously prepared questions, and asked them whether or not Senge had already provided the answers. In spite of the fact that the questions came from people spread across the room, the speakers referred to each other with familiarity, calling each other by name and playing off each other’s questions. One lady confirmed that the majority of the people in the room were from the local church that Metcalf and Goins attend.


The questions began with Jim Kinney asking if Systems Thinking was fully implemented, would it result in people who followed our nation’s “founding fathers” and “founding principles” or “enlightened global citizen[s]”. Senge answered that he hoped it would result in people who “deeply understand the wisdom and insight of the founding fathers and the relevance [of that] to how the world can work better today.” He then stated that “the illusion of values free education is a problem,” reminding those in the room that everyone has their own values, and brings them to everything they learn or do. Public education is to be respectful of all of the values and traditions in a community.

A woman, who gave her name only as Joan, started to speak as the members of the Board were being notified that they would have to move to the next room to participate in the Public Comment on the Superintendent search. She began to make statements about how the Board did not want to move forward with ST, to which Jane Goins responded, “That is not true. I made the motion myself to continue with the training, and we voted to do that.” Goins then began to walk toward the door, at which point Jodie Brunstetter, State Senator Pete Brunstetter’s wife, quickly approached Goins and literally got in her face as they briefly spoke.

An older man in blue jeans, who later identified himself as Goins’ husband and Lori Clark’s father, Tony Goins, stood as the other Board members were leaving, and addressed Senge. Tony Goins said “I’ve gone to the demonstrations, studied it, have read the same sheets these people have read, and I don’t see a connection to Socialism.” He continued on to say that he hoped that others’ “obstructionist viewpoint” wouldn’t prevent the training and model from going forward in our schools. Goins addressed the room as much as Senge as he said “I see this as a system to improve teaching, not a social or political system. I don’t know why these people see a conspiracy here. I don’t see that at all.”


Lori Goins Clark, the rumored replacement of Chairman Donny Lambeth, asked Dr. Martin, “What are the tools that are currently being used by the teachers? It’s all a bit nebulous.” Superintendent Martin then reiterated what he has said in previous Board discussion on the issue, giving specific examples of visuals, graphic organizers and models used in ST.
David Singletary then asked Dr. Senge, “with all due respect,” why a business model was being applied to education. In rather circular logic, Singletary stated that businesses continue to state that the education system is producing unqualified workers, and yet the education system still produces unqualified workers. He then stated that “we’re talking psychotherapy here,” with ST, and that “instead of allowing teachers to teach, we introduce a system that is redundant.”
Senge responded that ST emphasizes the capability of teachers and allows them to “bring something innovative into the classroom.” ST also builds a different kind of partnership between the teacher and the administration. Senge stated “Whenever rules grow, it’s usually because trust has been eroded. We use rules to compensate for a loss of trust.” Implementing ST allows for teachers and administrators to reinstitute trust.

Two educators spoke as the numbers in the room dwindled to a handful. Neither of the ladies is currently participating in the ST training, but one stated, “I feel compelled as an educator to speak. We live in a world filled with systems…we would not be doing right by our kids to not teach them to understand how to operate within systems.” She also felt that there was a logical connection between Systems Thinking and the new Common Core, and that ST would be a helpful tool in the transition that is now occurring, allowing teachers to really teach students and not teach to the test.

The other educator agreed. She said that the “Common Core is predicated on 21st century skills – financial literacy, innovation, creativity, collaboration, and respect for other cultures. We have to teach our children to think. Think for themselves.”

The meeting closed 3 hours after it had begun, and well over the allotted time. It is unclear if Board members had their concerns addressed adequately enough to include Dr. Peter Senge in the training that will be provided for teachers and administrators in the Summer of 2013. Senge has graciously jumped through the hoops set by the Board, but whether or not that will be enough to satisfy them remains to be seen. However, regardless of the personal opinions of Board members, unless some further action is taken by the Board to amend or alter their previous decision, Systems Thinking training and implementation will continue in the WS/FC School System.


You can read CCD‘s  initial coverage of this controversy HERE and HERE.