Experiencing Systemic Thinking

Craig Mosher, Social Work Program, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, USA
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This activity is intended to assist students in experiencing the nature of social and natural systems through observing and commenting upon a natural system and a social system.

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Learning Goals

  1. Experience the power and utility of systemic thinking in understanding both natural and social systems - including concepts such as:interdependence, multiple causation, the importance of context, etc.
  2. To draw images of the observed systems.
  3. To explain the similarities and differences among the natural and social systems observed.

Context for Use

This is a class in Human Behavior in the Social Environment; a theory class for second year social work majors. Class size ranges from 8 - 32. Class meets for 90 minutes.

Description and Teaching Materials

In small groups students will go outside and observe a natural system such as a garden, yard, grove of trees, river, patch of prairie, etc. They will answer a series of questions on a form distributed in class.

Then they will observe a social system such as a club meeting, a group of people at dinner, a classroom of students, a meeting, a sports contest with spectators, an individual alone or a couple, etc.; again making notes in answer to questions provided.

The class will then come back together to process the experience, comparing and contrasting the two types of systems and looking for themes such as: interdependence, multiple causation of problems, context of observations, energy flows and communication patterns, system goals and how system is organized to meet its goals, etc.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Students will write a 2 page reflection paper on the experience, explaining how the systems worked that they observed.

References and Resources

van Wormer, K., Besthorn, FH, & Keefe, T. (2007). Human behavior and the social environment: Macro Level. New York: Oxford University Press.