Like the spread of a celebrity “selfie” photo on Twitter or the ups and downs of a person challenged to maintain personal fitness, trends are part of daily life and our changing world. We hear about them, see them in newspapers and feel them personally.
Examples of trending questions:
“Is this a one time thing, or have we seen it surface before?”
“Does that data show a trend or just a snapshot caused by extenuating circumstances?”
“After we launch this project, will we experience an implementation dip?”
”Did you notice how many “likes” I received on my Facebook post in such a short time?”
An important habit of a systems thinker is observing how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends. The ability to see and make visible those trends helps people communicate viewpoints about how and why things change.
Trends can also be perceived in different ways, depending on one’s perspective. For example, a parent may view her teenage daughter’s repeated efforts to become more independent as rebellious behavior. If not shared and discussed, these two different views of the same behavior can cause conflict and confusion. The act of making choices without parent advice or approval can be perceived as rising rebellion, yet from a teenager’s point of view, the same pattern shows rising independence and movement toward adulthood.
Behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs) are simple tools that illustrate patterns and trends. Basically, a BOTG can show, through a quick drawing of a graph, how something changes over time. Time is always on the “x” or horizontal axis and the element that is changing is on the “y” or vertical axis. Click here to learn more about this tool.
BOTGs can show changes using hard, numerical data or using general, perceptual impressions. In either case, one might ask when viewing a change over time, “Is the trend growing or declining, leveling off or oscillating?” The shape of the change then becomes the story of the change. When individuals create BOTGs they not only visually describe the nature of the change but they also “outline” the rationale for the shape of the pattern or trend over time. For example, a story of a graph might go like this: “In the beginning, the line goes up because…and then levels off because… and eventually goes back down because…”
|An Early Learning Example|
One of the most powerful examples of how BOTGs help people see and understand patterns and trends comes from a preschool class of 4 year olds. The class was reading a series of picture book stories and making simple graphs of changes over time in elements such as level of happiness or fear of main characters., or changes in the number of animals or amount of plants in a garden. After the teacher read each story aloud, the class together would draw a BOTG of a key change and closed with a discussion about the graph. The teacher would then hang the graph on a classroom wall.
After a few weeks following this routine, a child looked at the series of graphs that had been drawn from different books and noticed that some of the trend lines were similar. She noticed several up-and-down lines showing that the level of change was sometimes going up and sometimes going down from several different stories. She proudly pointed out this similarity and named those stories that had up-and-down graphs “crown stories.” The graphs looked like a queen’s crown and that clever label helped categorize a pattern.
That young girl’s revelation inspired the thinking of her classmates as they started naming other similarly looking graphs as “slides,” “stairs,” “tables” and “valleys.” Now when reading stories, the 4 year olds actively listen for patterns and name them accordingly. Because the children have internalized the understanding that change can have shape and pattern, they use their own labels to identify the generic nature of patterns and trends they see and experience. Are we trending toward a generation of systems thinkers? Let’s hope so!
What trends are important for you to pay attention to as you strive to achieve goals or desired outcomes?
What types of trends do you tend to notice?
How might these tendencies create blind spots that limit your ability to recognize other important patterns and trends?
How can you actively listen to what’s happening in the stories you’re experiencing?
How does your perspective influence the ways you see change? How can you become open to other perspectives that may help you see patterns in different ways?
If you work with young people, what trends are important for them to be able to identify and understand? How might you facilitate that understanding?