Training of trainers – NFL and interactive methods in Youth work – ACHIEVE

Lesson 5 – Holistic Teaching and Learning 3 – Knowledge of whole systems – text

text lesson

Earlier this century ecologists who focused on the study of animal and plant communities observed networks of relationships – the web of life. They found a new way of thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, connectedness and context – SYSTEMS THINKING.

Systems thinking involves several shifts from mechanistic, reductionistic thinking:

Shift from the parts to the whole:

According to the systems view a living system has essential properties which none of the parts have. They arise from the interactions and relationships between the parts. These properties are destroyed when the system is dissected, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements.

For example, energy and matter move in cycles through an ecosystem; all substances are continually recycled. The food chains that ecologists originally talked about are really food webs. They are networks, and there are cycles within those networks, which are feedback loops. All these are properties that can only be understood if you observe the whole ecosystem. If you split it into a number of species and make a list of those, you will never discover that there are these cyclical patterns that interconnect them.

Shift from analysis to context:

The shift from the parts to the whole is not easy because we have all been conditioned by our upbringing, our education, to think in terms of parts. The whole enterprise of Western philosophical thought has been mechanistic and reductionist, concentrating on the parts.

The great shock of twentieth century science has been that living systems cannot be understood by this method of analysis. This doesn’t mean that we have to give up analysis. It’s still very useful in many ways, but it is limited.

In the systems approach, the properties of the parts can be understood only from the organization of the whole. In order to understand something, you don’t take it apart; you put it into a larger context.

Only then will you understand, for example, why a bird has certain colors. If you know something about evolution, you will know how these colors originated and evolved. You will understand the properties within the context of the environment of this animal and within its evolutionary context.

So, system thinking is ‘contextual’, and this is the opposite of analytical thinking. Analysis means taking something apart in order to understand it; systems thinking means putting it into the context of a larger whole.

Shift from objects to relationships:

In the l920s physicists discovered that ultimately there are no parts. What we call a ‘part’ is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships. It is of course very useful to define parts, but this definition is often arbitrary and approximate and needs to be flexible.

Therefore, the shift from the parts to the whole can also be seen as a shift from objects to relationships. In the mechanistic view, the world is seen as a collection of objects, and the relationships between them are secondary. In the systems view, we realize that the objects themselves – the organisms in an ecosystem or the people in a community -are networks of relationships, embedded in larger networks. For the systems thinker, the relationships are primary, the objects are secondary.

Shift from hierarchies to networks:

A striking property of living systems is their tendency to form multileveled structures of systems within systems. Let’s take our own organism as an example. At the smallest level we have cells, and each cell is a living system. These cells combine to form tissues, the tissues form organs. The whole organism is a network of all these relationships. Then the organism as a whole exists within societal relationships, within social systems, and within ecosystems.

At each level, we have systems that are integrated wholes while at the same time being parts of larger wholes. Throughout the living world, we find living systems within other living systems.

Since the early days of ecology, these multileveled arrangements have been called hierarchies, a misleading term derived from human hierarchies with a fairly rigid structure of domination and control – quite unlike the multileveled order found in nature.

Since living systems at all levels are networks, we must visualize the web of life as living systems (networks) interacting in network fashion with other systems (networks).

In other words, the web of life consists of networks within networks.

Shift from structure to process:

All the systems concepts discussed so far can be seen as different aspects of one great strand of systemic thinking, which we may call contextual thinking. Contextual thinking means thinking in terms of connectedness, context and relationships.

There is another strand in systems thinking that is of equal importance. This second strand is process thinking. In the mechanistic framework of Cartesian science, there are fundamental structures, and then there are forces and mechanisms through which these interact, thus giving rise to processes.

In systems science every structure is seen as the manifestation of underlying processes. Structure and process always go together; they are two sides of the same coin. Systems thinking is always process thinking.

Reference – Capra, F: From the Parts to the Whole, in The Education Network Australian Education Network, Winter 1995

Adapted from – Holistic Education Network of Tasmania, Australia –


The training program “Training of Trainers” is an educational product that is currently missing in the partner countries – Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania. Due to the early stage of development of the youth sector and youth work in these countries the educational materials aimed at non-formal learning are still limited and insufficient. The lack of adequate educational framework for training of youth workers in the field of formal education leads to inefficient use of the capacity of professionals.

This course fills a gap in the youth sector, namely the need of methodologies for the preparation of trainers, who are able to train youth workers. This course will set the basis for the preparation of teams of trainers of youth workers. The course will serve the goal of development of youth work in the participating countries and other interested parties. A large number of youth workers can be trained according to the methodology at national and international level to use and promote non-formal learning as a tool to enhance the realization of young people in the labor market and increase their social cohesion.

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