Teach Systems Thinking
This page draws on materials developed at the 2010 Cutting Edge workshop on Complex Systems and the 2012 InTeGrate workshops on Teaching the Methods of Geoscience and Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences.
Effective Strategies for Teaching Systems Thinking
Several effective strategies for teaching systems thinking have been identified by Cutting Edge and InTeGrate workshop participants, including using computer modeling, an inquiry-based approach, and role-playing. Other strategies include:
- Concept maps are a helpful way of seeing components of a system and information flows among components.
- See more about developing concept maps and an example activity, Using concept mapping to experientially introduce systems thinking.
- Using case studies as a way of exploring systems thinking
- Ethanol production (read about Bentley University's ethanol module)
- Effects on climate and trade due to melting sea ice in the Northwest Passage.
- View case study assignments about earthquakes, landslides, coastal management, and Superfund sites
- See more about pedagogies that use cases such as Interactive Case-based Learning, Teaching with the Case Method, and Using Socioscientific Issues-Based Instruction.
- STELLA is an easy-to-use modeling program that allows students to explore quantitative relationships. Faculty at the 2012 workshop found that:
- Using STELLA, quantitative relationships are applied rather than abstract and students can grasp the sign and the scale of these relationships without having to do complex math. This can help with math phobia.
- Working with STELLA provides a means to teach quantitatively, and in a way that can be applied to specific questions and processes.
- STELLA can be useful for introducing systems thinking to undergraduates and non-science majors (The use of STELLA as an experiment with freshman and sophomores resulted in the surprising outcome that students found it to be an empowering experience.)
- STELLA can be used in a scaffolded manner. For example, it can be used to introduce systems thinking and to prepare students for a more quantitative approach.
- Using Aldo Leopold's 'Odyssey', students can trace the journey of 'x' as the systems it encounters during its journey (such as the carbon cycle, trophic levels, hydrologic systems), having students diagram these systems as represented in Leopold's work.
- Read more about teaching complex systems with STELLA with links to activities such as Modeling the oceanic thermohaline circulation or Energy Balance Climate Model.
- Using Concept Mapping to Experientially Introduce Systems Thinking by Meghann Jarchow, University of South Dakota
- Exploring Easter Island Economics with Excel by Morris Coats, Nicholls State University
- How Can Models Be Used To Study Climate Change? by Ben Fackler-Adams, Skagit Valley College
- Exploring Sustainability through Water Cycle Connections by Tim Lutz, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Why Teach Systems Thinking?
Systems thinking is particularly well-suited to teaching about the complex challenges that lie at the intersection of Earth systems and human interactions. Topics such as climate change, energy, population dynamics and resource use benefit from a systems-based approach.
Additional reasons to incorporate systems thinking into your teaching include:
- Complex problems are multidimensional. Both the problem and the solutions cut across multiple disciplines and "spheres."
- Students tend to prefer simplified, black and white explanations which may be only partially accurate. A systems approach can introduce complexity in an elegant, conceptual way that students can appreciate.
- Systems thinking goes hand-in-hand with interdisciplinary teaching and learning.
- Systems thinking offers a means to blend natural systems with human, political, cultural or economic systems.
- Encouraging students to think from a systems point of view can encourage creative problem solving outside the usual discipline-based channels.
- A systems approach is useful for examining interdependencies. This is especially important for societal challenges where many variables are changing, which affects other variables. The interactions of these variables are key to predicting the future. This is all the more important when changes have the potential to trigger positive feedback mechanisms.
- Making informed decisions, as individuals and a society, requires an understanding of the complexity of the systems that make up our planet.
Opportunities to Strengthen Systems Thinking in Your Classroom
Systems thinking is prevalent across the curriculum, especially with regard to sustainability issues. Even if you don't explicitly call it systems thinking, you can always make connections and point them out to your students. Simple examples of systems (predator-prey relationships, ice-albedo feedback) can be taught in general education courses to underscore the prevalence of systems in everyday life. In upper-level courses, you can use systems thinking to teach mathematics and quantitative reasoning. And you can always work with other faculty in your department to integrate systems thinking across your curriculum, or with faculty in other departments to integrate systems thinking across campus.
Resources for Teaching Systems Thinking
- Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences includes teaching activities, assessment strategies, and more.
- Using an Earth System Approach is a guide for earth science educators to design courses and present concepts from a systems perspective.
- Systems Thinking & System Dynamics introduces several key concepts important to systems thinking and system dynamics that can be incorporated into an introductory geoscience course.
- Experiencing Systemic Thinking in an activity intended to assist students in understanding social and natural systems through observing and commenting upon a natural system and a social system.
- The Earth and Mind blog has many posts related to systems thinking.
- The Earth and Mind II special volume has a section about teaching systems, which includes 7 papers about aspects of teaching systems thinking in the geosciences, including complex systems, weather systems, geodynamic systems, modeling, and more.
- How Geoscientists Think and Learn Kastens, K. et al, (2009), How Geoscientists Think and Learn, Eos Trans. AGU, 90(31), 265.
- Box Diagrams to Assess Students' Systems Thinking about the Rock, Water and Carbon Cycles Sibley D. W., et al, Journal of Geoscience Education, v 55, no 2, p 138.
- Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update - by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis L. Meadows.
- Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System - by Donella Meadows. This article illustrates how a systems approach can be used to create societal change.
- Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows. Chelsea Green Publishing. This book describes how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life
- Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson.
- Linking Thinking - New Perspectives on Thinking and Learning for Sustainability - This handbook from the World Wildlife Federation was written as an introduction to systems thinking to help educators and students develop their own latent abilities to think relationally.
- The video The Man Who Stopped the Desert provides a good example of how complex systems operate.