Teaching Systems Thinking
Pedagogic guidance for teaching systems thinking
Teaching about systems thinking and complex systems were explored at a 2010 On the Cutting Edge workshop, which resulted in the creation of a set of web pages about Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences. This module contains descriptions of promising pedagogies, a collection of activities that teach complex systems and strategies for assessing student understanding.
Using an Earth System Approach is a guide for earth science educators to design courses and present concepts from a systems perspective.
Why use a systems approach for tackling societal challenges?
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.
- Complex problems are multi-dimensional. 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.
Hallmarks of systems thinking
Systems thinking is the study of complexity and the relationships and interactions among components of a system. Systems thinking is often introduced with the phrase, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
- Key components of systems thinking:
- Boundaries separate a system from other systems and from the rest of the universe.
A closed system does not allow free transfer of energy or matter across the boundary (such as the amount of water in the Earth system). An open system, such as the amount of water in a watershed, allows input or output across the boundary.
- A system has multiple interacting parts which are interrelated.
- Reservoirs provide storage of a material, such as carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere.
- Matter or energy can be exchanged among components of the system.
- A system can undergo feedback which alters the rate of change. Positive feedback amplifies the change while negative feedback abates the change. For a useful discussion on the conflicting definitions of positive and negative feedback, see the Earth and Mind blog post, Going Negative on Negative Feedback.
- The components of a system can create emergent properties, wherein a pattern, complex behavior, or structure is the result of collective activities of the individual components. Examples of emergent behavior are the flight patterns of a flock of birds or the pricing of stocks by the open market. In both cases the behavior is determined by the group and not with any individual.
- Systems can undergo non-linear change over time, where the magnitude of the response is not proportional to the magnitude of the input.
- A tipping point is a threshold where the system cannot return to the starting point, even with the removal of the forces that pushed the system past the tipping point.
- Resilience is the tendency of a system to return to or remain within stable conditions, despite a change in forces acting upon the system.
- A system can be static (like a fixed rate mortgage) or dynamic (like an adjustable rate mortgage).
- See more about what constitutes a complex system from On the Cutting Edge.
- Thinking about systems is not dependent on the particular system studied.
- Systems thinking requires simplification of a real system.
Effective strategies for teaching systems thinking
The page Promising Pedagogical Approaches for Teaching Complex Systems presents several strategies for teaching systems thinking, including using computer modeling, an inquiry-based approach, and role-playing. These materials are from the 2010 On the Cutting Edge workshop.
- 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)
- Ecological chain-reaction as a result of using DDT in Borneo
- Ice-albedo effect from melting sea ice in the Northwest Passage.
- View case study assignments about earthquakes, landslides, coastal management, and Superfund sites
- 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.
Opportunities to strengthen systems thinking in the classroom
- Teaching systems thinking can be done without explicitly naming systems thinking; look for ways to cohesively frame topics that fall under the umbrella of systems thinking.
- Importance of experience - what can students do to experience how a system operates? There is a need to develop activities, games, field trips, or experiences that enable students to experience dynamic processes, networks in relationships, e.g. what is the relationship between the built environment and stream geomorphology?
- A systems approach could be integrated across the curriculum of a particular discipline.
- It is critical to differentiate between what is and is not systems thinking. Codify what is systems thinking is - and where there is divergence among opinions about what constitutes about systems thinking.
- 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.
- Systems thinking can be a way of teaching mathematics and quantitative reasoning.
- Teaching systems thinking is all the more effective when this approach is used across the curriculum, among many departments and throughout an institution.
Materials and Resources for Teaching Systems Thinking
See how other faculty are teaching systems thinking with these examples from a range of disciplines and learning environments.
Systems Thinking & System Dynamics - This page introduces several key concepts important to systems thinking and system dynamics that can be incorporated into an introductory geoscience course. The page links to further materials on teaching equilibrium, stability and behavior over time, feedback loops, and a Daisy World example. There is also an accompanying student activity.
Experiencing Systemic Thinking - This activity is intended to assist students in understanding social and natural systems through observing and commenting upon a natural system and a social system.
Relevant materials from InTeGrate participants
- Using Concept Mapping to Experientially Introduce Systems Thinking - Meghann Jarchow, University of South Dakota
- Exploring Easter Island Economics with Excel by Morris Coats, Nicholls State University
- Exploring Sustainability through Water Cycle Connectionsby Tim Lutz, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
- How Can Models Be Used To Study Climate Change? by Ben Fackler-Adams, Skagit Valley College
- Demonstrating why Sustainability is Complex, an essay by Cailin Huyck Orr, Washington State University - Pullman