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Cognitive Science in Learning and Engagement

One of the most interesting parts of my involvement in the University of Wisconsin Extension’s ThinkWater School has been the opportunity to observe the workings of a system’s engineering approach that accounts for the need for conceptual thinking as a pre-condition for problem-solving. We can all come up with examples of policymaking based on shallow, one-dimensional considerations that are often the equivalent of “kicking the can down the road”. Our governance process can seem ad hoc, piecemeal, chaotic, and overly politicized.

In our current era, it is hard to imagine getting the politics out of policy deliberations, but it is possible to imagine enlarging the deliberative toolkit of those placed in key places in the governance sphere. This is where the systems thinking approach used in the ThinkWater School helps those involved in local water issues make distinctions among the concerns they face, appreciate the natural and human systems they face, recognize important relationships among those concerns and systems, and develop perspectives on ways the concerns might be addressed.

This work, supported by the US Department of Agriculture’s ThinkWater Campaign, relies on a method developed by Derek Cabera ( ). The motivation behind this approach is to confront and correct the “mismatch” between how people think systems work and how they actually do in the real world. This can be an eye-opener for those primarily rooted in technical expertise, but is also helpful in understanding how to approach various stakeholders in complex policy situations.  

My current efforts are focused on developing a blend of IF-style exploration and systems thinking identification of concerns that may be helpful in public engagement settings around water issues.

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