Shifting Mindsets Through Cultural Barriers: The Story of Rebuild

Working in systems thinking, we have the privilege of connecting with so many inspirational people. It’s these individuals and groups, with their extraordinary drive and passion for bettering the lives of others through systems thinking, that remind us each and every day what is possible.
Barbie and Peter Reynolds, both UK citizens living in Afghanistan, certainly fit this description. For over 45 years, they have dedicated their lives to working for a more peaceful and prosperous wellbeing in the nation of Afghanistan. Through their company, Rebuild Consultants, established in 2009, they use a systems thinking approach with teachers and leaders to build a brighter future for the Afghani people.
“We love this country. We love the people. There is huge potential and it starts with teaching people how to think,” Barbie says.
This is especially true in a country where not thinking through an issue fully or having the tools to problem-solve could have life-altering consequences.
“We see it all the time. Recently, a teacher of ours had a sore throat. She went to a doctor who said he thought it was a goiter. She sought a second opinion and that doctor diagnosed her with kidney failure. Of course, there is no correlation. However, kidneys can be sold and make people a lot of money here,” says Barbie. “Thankfully, she was able to think about these diagnoses rather than jump to the doctors’ incorrect conclusions.”
Young children are a particular focus for Rebuild Consultants, as they have seen that children are curious about the world around them, they take in the perspectives of others and the different elements of their environment — in other words, children are natural systems thinkers.
“Traditionally, a student’s identity in Afghanistan is tied to how “smart” they are. And smart essentially means how much they can memorize; in other words, it is rote-learning. Students go through their academic career memorizing facts and formulas without really learning. The present educational system and prevailing cultural mindset is antagonistic to questioning, innovative or critical thinking from differing perspectives.”
With schooling like this, much potential is lost.
“Peter and I attended a systems thinking Forum put on by the Waters Center a few years back. It was then that we realized – we need to focus on teachers. By starting with teachers and students we can begin to see a shift, and then, hopefully, business and government leaders will take notice and see the value a systems thinking mindset can bring and want to apply it to their work, policies and more,” says Barbie.
The group has seen tremendous success in their current work. Teachers are fueled with enthusiasm at the opportunity to learn in a different way and this passion and excitement carries through to their students.
In the spring of 2020, Waters Center Chief Learning Officer, Sheri Marlin, had the opportunity to speak at a Rebuild graduation for teachers who had completed systems thinking modules, including courses in the Thinking Tools Studio, that were translated from English to Dari.
“It was nothing short of awe-inspiring. I got to hear from teachers first-hand about the impact of their systems thinking learning,” Sheri recounts.
These accounts also spotlighted the important role that culture and cultural norms play in learning. One teacher shared how she had always been told what is “right” and “wrong,” but systems thinking has allowed her to look at issues objectively and come up with her own conclusions that are not deeply rooted in mental models of others.
Another spoke of how she has always been told not to share her perspective when it is different from others. But she has now found her voice and understands the value that differing perspectives can bring.
“We’ve really seen huge strides in awareness of self and others,” Barbie says. “There is a need – and desire – for systems thinking learning and we are determined to scale this work throughout the country. A culture based on citizens bringing positive and sustainable change in their own spheres of influence – in education, healthcare, business, the legal system, arts, media, politics, government and family – is within reach in Afghanistan.
Rebuild Consultants offers 35 training courses as a part of their social and emotional education and leadership and management options. For more information on Rebuild, visit or contact
View this video provided by Rebuild with one of their teachers, Zahra, describing her systems thinking experience.