1 December 2021

AUN-EEC: Going in Circles? Learning From Feedback Loops

AUN Writer Team

By Janesza Kaye Santos, AUN Intern

The ASEAN University Network Ecological Education and Culture (AUN-EEC) held its webinar on Best Practices in Ecological Education and Culture entitled "Going around in Circles? Learning from Feedback Loops" last November 17, 2021, via Zoom Conference. AUN-EEC Thematic Networks attended the event, as well faculty, students, and practitioners across the ASEAN region. Dr. Asunta Cuyegkeng, Executive Director of AUN-EEC, delivered her opening remarks and gave an overview of how the webinar will serve as a platform and provide tools for teaching, learning, and understanding the complex relations that affect the people's daily lives. This was followed by the keynote speech of Dr. Charlotte Kendra Gotangco Gonzales, Director of the Ateneo Institute of Sustainability and Associate Professor of the Department of Environmental Science in Ateneo de Manila University, where she presented the importance of Systems Thinking in various fields. 

As the workshop webinar intends to introduce systems thinking as an approach to learning and teaching and focus on the feedback loops and its usage, Dr. Gonzales emphasized that one of the essential tools of the systems thinking is being able to think in terms of interconnections through feedback loops. For example, she discussed the importance of teachers' feedback in improving students' performance in school. When teachers communicate with the students about their performance, the students could pinpoint how they can improve, and this process does not have to end. The continuous feedback-improvement process can in the long run enhance student performance. 

Feedback in the context of systems thinking is not just about reactions where a stimulus influences a decision or change, but it also allows us to think about the direction of such change. Additionally, systems thinking is defined as an understanding of how a system's structure determines its behavior and how it affects and is influenced by other systems. Dr. Gonzales explained that in this case, the system structure is viewed as the underlying pattern of interactions between the system's components. Therefore, the overall behavior of a system is a product of the structure's feedback mechanism, and the feedback loop is one of the tools in systems thinking for analyzing and communicating system activity. 

Dr. Gonzales also emphasized that in systems thinking, the goal is to think in loops or cycles rather than linearly, especially recognizing that the system's structure can be more complex, and other factors can influence decisions in the system. Aside from feedback loops, she also mentioned the other tools that can be used in systems thinking (e.g., Influence diagrams to express feedback structure in a system). Furthermore, the loops also have various effects. Dr. Gonzales mentioned that reinforcing loops (overall positive) amplify the impact of a stimulus, pushing it further in the same direction of change, and balancing loops (overall negative) act to negate outside perturbations, regulating the change. A standard example for understanding a reinforcing loop is the dynamic relationship between births and population. The more births there, the bigger the population, and the bigger the population, the more the births. The variables births and population reinforce, or increase, each other. An example of a balancing loop would be the relationship between population and deaths. The more population there is, the more the deaths, but the more deaths there are, the lesser the population becomes.

Dr. Gonzales concluded the session by explaining how the feedback loops can be helpful, especially when trying to understand behaviors and trends, diagnose if we are caught in unproductive patterns, discern how to correct them, and lastly, reinforce desirable effects. This is also apparent in Ecological Education. It helps in discerning connections in socio-ecological systems, articulating the broader impacts of our lifestyles, and reflecting on what behavior and changes to reinforce and regulate and how it should be done. Towards the end of the speech, Dr. Gonzales emphasized that systems thinking makes a difference, especially regarding higher order thinking like critical thinking, discussions, and drawing connections. Finally, it is also significant, especially in terms of interconnections, elaboration of cause and effects, and communication. 

The webinar also featured breakout sessions where participants were able to explore feedback loops on various topics: basic ecology, urban green spaces and wellbeing, mass public transport and air quality, traffic and obesity, and anxiety and depression. The platform used was Loopy (https://ncase.me/loopy), a free website where users can make feedback loops. Participants then shared about their experience of exploring feedback loops before the program closed.