Strategies for teaching about feedback loops

We will be teaching and trying 3 of these 4 strategies for teaching about feedback loops in the Th/Fr morning workshop at the 2021 Earth Educators' Rendezvous. As of 4/15/2021, the program is set up for Living Loops,  Mutual Alignment Analogy, and Causal Loop Diagrams.  If we can't find a way to give an adequate feel for Living Loops in Zoom, we may swap in Loopies instead.

Kinesthetic learning:  Living Loops:  

This fun and illuminating approach was pioneered by Linda Booth Sweeney and John Sterman (Meadows, et al, 2016; Sweeney & Meadows, 1995).  In a face-to-face situation, participants stand in groups of 3 to 6, and join hands in a circle. We think we have a way to approximate this functionality using the "pin" function of Zoom.   Each person has a label, saying "same" or "opposite."  The rule of the activity is that each person will receive a signal with their right hand, and send a signal to the next person with their left hand. If their label says "same" they will send the same signal that they received; if their label says "opposite," they will send the opposite signal to the next person. The leader of the group initiates the loop by raising his/her hand a few inches.   If the next person is a "same," she will also raise her hand by a few inches, but if she is an "opposite,"  she will lower her hand by this amount.  In a loop of all "sames,"  the hands go up and up and up in the kind of relentless escalation characteristic of reinforcing loops.  With a different combination of "sames" and "opposites," the hands cycle up and down, up and down, in the equilibrium-centered behavior characteristic of balancing feedback loops.  Small groups will discuss what students can learn from this activity, and how the abstract activity can be made Earth System specific by labeling the nodes.

  • Meadows, D., Sweeney, L. B., & Mehers, G. M. (2016). The Climate Change Playbook:  22 Systems Thinking Games for More Effective Communications about Climate Change. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • Sweeney, L. B., & Meadows, D. (1995). The Systems Thinking Playbook:  Exercises to Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Mutual alignment analogies:  

One of the most common strategies that textbooks and popular media use to explain feedback loops is by analogy:  "it's like a thermostat," or "it's like an interest-bearing bank account."  Research and experience have shown that analogy is, indeed, a powerful tool for human learning.  In the most common form of learning by analogy, the learner is familiar with one situation or phenomenon and is trying to understand a less well-understood situation or phenomenon.  If the learner can create an analogic structural mapping between the source analog and the target analog, then understandings from a familiar or explorable situation can be transferred to the unfamiliar situation.   But there is another mechanism for learning from analogy that is less well known, but potentially more powerful, and particularly germane to the geosciences.  In the mutual alignment analogy approach, learners work with two or more situations or "cases" that are analogous in deep ways, in ways that have to do with underlying mechanisms and processes rather than surficial attributes and entities. Circumstances--or a well-designed instructional sequence--leads learners to perceive the analogical structural mapping between the cases, and to articulate the generalized "schema" that the cases have in common. Research has shown that "extracting the schema" in this way leads to understanding which is less likely to lie inert, and is more likely to be activated in problem-solving.  At the workshop, we will share one example of a student activity based on mutual alignment analogy, and have workshop participants work in small groups to craft similar activities for other geoscience topics.

Causal Loop Diagrams:  

There is a reason that these things are called "loops," and visualizations foreground their loop-ness or cyclic structure in a way that verbal descriptions cannot.  Causal loop diagrams depict variables with text nodes and the causal relationships between variables as arrows.  Arrows indicate the direction of causality or influence, and whether the relationship is proportional or inverse.  The arrangement of nodes and arrows on the space of the paper or screen  foregrounds the relationships between parts of the system.   As with other forms of visualizations, learners benefit from creating their own visualization more so than simply viewing visualizations made by others. For this workshop we will use the simplest possible graphic language of hand-drawn nodes and arrows, using the whiteboard function of Zoom. Workshop participants will collaborate to craft prompts that will require learners to express their understanding of a feedback loop diagrammatically, building on examples provided by the workshop facilitators, and then use that understanding for explanation or prediction.