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ILLNESS versus WELLNESS: Systems thinking in education


I listened to Krista Tipett’s On Being program, The Evolution of Medicine.  In the program, she interviews Mark Hyman, Jeff Gordon and Penny George about the transformation underway in how “functional” and “mind-body” medicine looks at the illness/wellness duality.  Her interview reveals a fascinating conversation with three innovative thinkers who reframe the health and wellness dialogue.  Each question Tippett asks the panel peels away another layer of understanding  how the illness/wellness duality is treated in traditional medicine.

As I listened to their thinking, I kept thinking about their ideas in relation to education of young people, preparing them to be citizens of the 21st Century who can solve complex problems.  They need to be systems thinkers, looking at mind-body problems as ecosystems of interrelated ideas.

Food isn’t just energy, it is actually information. (Hyman)

Hyman makes the case for moving away from a siloed approach to teaching and learning in medical school (secondary school), to a more holistic or systems approach to teaching and learning.  The functioning of the human body cannot just be isolated into a set of independently operating organs and organ systems, but instead it needs to be understood as an ecosystem of interdependent parts.  For example, in a patient with cardiac disease traditional medicine treats the cardiac symptoms while functional medicine, a more holistic approach, treats the whole human being, mind and all aspects of the body.

All three speakers move from talking about disease to talking about wellness.

Disease arises out of the imbalance of the system.  (Hyman)

Some of the ingredients for healthy humans are:

  • right food
  • right balance of hormones
  • right amount of sleep
  • exercise
  • connection
  • meaning
  • purpose

These ingredients speak to the relationship between the social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of human life.

One important question they discuss is: how do you change human behavior?  Behavior is hard to change unless people have a reason and then are self-motivated.  Hyman discusses his work with Rick Warren’s church that resulted in the The Daniel Plan, a comprehensive diet for leading a healthy life.  Behavior can change, but it requires a enormous and sustained commitment.

The ideas expressed in The Evolution of Medicine are ripe for designing curricula for secondary school students that are interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, that will help them become more effective systems thinkers.  As educators, we have a responsibility to move our design principles from being siloed to becoming more collaborative.

How might we design curricula that support 21st century skill development, and most importantly, systems thinking using relevant and meaningful topics that connect students to challenging problems that matter to them?



3 comments on “ILLNESS versus WELLNESS: Systems thinking in education

  1. Thanks for writing about this. I’d not listed to that broadcast yet, so just did. The Daniel Plan piece struck me, too, for the reasons you list, but also because Hyman talked about the importance of “community” in that effort. The whole community bought it and made the chance together. As a teacher, I think a lot about that community piece. As I talk to colleagues about what they want more of in their work, often it is the chance to talk to other teachers about their students in common. I think this reflects the teachers’ intuitive understanding that teaching “in community” allows us to better serve and know our students. When we can share efforts, goals, information, problems, etc, it can be transformative.

    And, in general the mindset shift from avoiding disease and seeking wellness is such a powerful one. Even in terms of motivation for exercise, research has shown that having folks ask “what would a healthy person to today?” can get folks off the couch and moving far better than other tactics. What if students always asked themselves “what would a curious person do next?” as they sat in classrooms or moved through their studies?

    Anyway, thanks for posting! Thought provoking material over this holiday break!


    • Thanks for reading the post Anna! I too thought there was a great deal to reflect on in this On Being piece. I would love to take it a step further. More when we return. Must fit with a lot of your work.



    • Anna:

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response to my post. I appreciate that you devoted time to reading it and then sharing your thoughts with me. As someone who has one foot the healthcare world and another foot in secondary education world, I value your thoughts about these ideas.


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