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What You Should Know About Systems Thinking

Systems thinking helps students think about perspectives, cause and effect, and gain deeper understanding of a complex world. Image: BartCo/iStockPhoto.com.

Systems thinking helps students think about perspectives, cause and effect, and gain deeper understanding of a complex world. Image: BartCo/iStockPhoto.com.

The room hummed with giggles and mutters of “one, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war,” as a few dozen educators thumb-wrestled their way through a presentation on systems thinking.

Sound strange? Imagine, then, doing it with your students to illustrate how preconceived notions can influence actions. Instructor Joan Yates, project manager for systems thinking in the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson, Arizona, asked the teachers to thumb-wrestle for one minute with the goal of getting the most pins as possible.

Most took that to mean the goal was to win. After all, a game requires a winner – right? In systems thinking, the answer is: Not necessarily. Yates pointed out that her instructions were to get the most pins; to actually get the most, the participants should have cooperated and taken turns getting pins, without a winner.

The exercise is just one example of how teachers can introduce systems thinking concepts to students. It’s an approach that incorporates instructional tools to enhance learning about literature, history, current events, and science, and uses exercises to train students to think differently.

In a nutshell, Yates says, systems thinking considers the relationship between the parts of a system, and the “dynamics those relationships produce.” A system can be anything – a novel, a historical event, a culture, a scientific formula. All are made up of different pieces that form the “system.” In systems thinking, you look at the whole of something, the individual parts of that whole, how those parts make the “whole” what it is, and how one action to a piece of the system can affect the entire thing.

Change those habits

Systems thinking in education helps develop students who can understand the value of other opinions, and see things from a different perspective, Yates says. Introducing mental modeling, which is ingrained assumptions that ultimately influence how we see things and what we do, can be a good place to start.

The thumb-wrestling exercise, and others, such as asking students to fold their hands or cross their arms in the opposite way they normally do or walk up stairs starting with the opposite leg, encourages students to throw off their own mental models. They have to step out of their comfort zones and try new ways of looking at things.

Yates says it’s important to take time to do these physical activities because the more senses that are engaged, the more likely someone will retain the material and really get out of those comfort zones. “It shocks people,” Yates says. “It discombobulates people enough that they physically feel. It gets them on more than one level. You increase the likelihood that someone will retain it, the more senses you engage.”

Systems thinkers also develop certain “habits,” or ways of approaching problems and situations. The Waters Foundation, which supports systems thinking in schools, has 13 habits. If you use some of the systems thinking lessons and tools, students will start to develop these habits, but you can introduce them specifically.

The habits of systems thinkers include: considering long and short-term consequences of actions (such as, if you have money, thinking both about what happens if you spend it immediately and if you put it in the bank); recognizing there might be unintended consequences to your actions; identifying the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships (the bee buzzing around the flower is a system, where the bee needs the flower and the flower needs the bee); and looking at things from different angles and perspectives.

Tools for teaching

Practicing systems thinking in schools can be a big or small thing. In Yates’ Arizona district, systems thinking is integrated into all the classrooms, beginning in kindergarten. But there are a number of tools individual teachers can use to give their students the benefits of a systems thinking approach.

Useful for literature and social studies classes in particular is the “ladder of inference.” It helps students understand how they and others get to certain conclusions or form certain opinions (their own mental models). Literally a ladder, it starts at the bottom rung with what you know about yourself and works up: first you notice certain things, then you add your own meanings to what’s around you, then you develop beliefs based on those meanings, and finally, you doing something because of your beliefs. It’s a reinforcing loop, since the beliefs you develop are based on your personal experiences, and your beliefs affect what you notice about things and the meanings you apply.

Use that ladder to analyze why a character does something. Take any character – say, Huck Finn – and start with what you know about him, what he does and notices in the story and how his experiences and background affect what he does. It’s a great way for students to understand how cultural and other experiences shape a character and why they might behave peculiarly, Yates says. Social studies teachers also can use this to study a character in history.

A behavior over time graph is another systems tool to increase understanding. Simple line graphs that can be used with kindergartners on up, they look at what is changing and how it is changing. In English class, students do this in response to reading by examining how a character or situation changed over the course of several chapters. In social studies, a current events teacher can use it to give students an understanding of how a world event unfolds. Take a newspaper article on a global issue and ask students to create a graph to illustrate the events in the story and what happened.

Creating a deeper understanding

Systems thinking isn’t just about the tools to help students see the world with a better lens; it also can give them a greater grasp of why things happen a certain way. Things are circular in systems thinking, and recognizing the complex nature of cause-and-effect relationships can help students understand why things happen.

One practice useful for students is called “fixes that fail.” Fixes that fail loops start with a problem and a solution to that problem. But rather than solving the problem, the solution creates an intended consequence, which reinforces the problem, perhaps making it even greater.

Students can use this to examine the Vietnam war, for instance, showing how the United States’ actions led to greater problems rather than solving the original one. Yates says many current and historical events can fit into fixes-that-fail loops. Teachers also can have students look at global events in which bad fixes were avoided.

Using systems thinking approaches in the classroom creates students who can see from another perspective and look deeper to why world events play out in certain ways. “If students develop those habits of thinking systemically, and they look at any global issue, they are going to ask different questions,” Yates says. “They are going to ask questions with a broader perspective.”

When students leave her Arizona school district, Yates says, she hopes they take this way of thinking into everything they do.

Author: Alexandra Moses


Discussion questions:


Do you use systems thinking in your classroom, and what benefits to students have you seen? How easy or difficult is it for them to throw off those mental models?