Teaching Systems Thinking

This page was developed by Hannah Scherer, Virginia Tech

You probably already teach about systems, but do your students develop into systems thinkers? What if they could apply skills they learn in your class to understanding other complex systems? As with any complex topic in the classroom, careful planning of how you teach about systems will go a long way in getting your students to where you want them to be.

What is systems thinking?

Many of the challenges we now face as a society require complex solutions that are sustainable, cross disciplinary boundaries and take into account multiple perspectives. These challenges can be addressed in undergraduate courses by considering systems of varying scale and complexity. In her seminal work Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows (2008) defines a system as

"a set of elements that is coherently organized and interconnected in a pattern or structure that produces a characteristic set of behaviors" (p. 188).

Viewed in this way, a systems thinking approach can be used either conceptually (e.g. Meadows, 2008) or through modeling based on quantitative data (e.g. Ford, 2009). The InTeGrate Rubric stipulates that courses or modules will develop:

"students' ability and propensity to use systems thinking in considering natural systems, human systems, and their interactions."

In planning courses or modules that meet this expectation, it is useful to consider what we actually mean by systems thinking. The InTeGrate rubric also articulates some characteristics of a "systems thinker" that all courses/ modules should work towards. A systems thinker:

  • "understands basic interactions among the spheres (atmo-, hydro-, geo-, cryo, anthropo-, bio-)"
  • "[understands] the difference between open and closed systems"
  • "habitually anticipates that a perturbation in one sphere may have effects throughout Earth's system"
  • "is able to identify multiple causal factors that could influence a single observation or outcome"

"[Students] may also have the ability to use the concepts of:

  • positive (reinforcing) and negative (countervailing) feedback loops,
  • flux,
  • reservoir,
  • residence time,
  • lag (delay), and
  • limit (threshold),
in explaining the behavior of natural systems, human systems, and linked human/environment systems.

How can you strengthen teaching of systems thinking in your course?

Teaching systems thinking effectively does not always come easily! It requires instructors to provide opportunities for students to wrestle with complex, open-ended ideas in a manner that is effectively scaffolded. If you are looking for specific systems related classroom activities or further reading, see the classroom activity/ course design ideas and resources section below. Here are some guidelines to get you started thinking more holistically about teaching systems thinking in a course or unit: (click on each link to jump down to more detailed information):

Consider how systems thinking is used in your (inter)disciplinary context

Many disciplines use systems thinking, but don't all approach it in the same manner. While there are central concepts (see above) in investigating systems, some more complex systems concepts, such as chaotic behavior, may be central to one application, but peripheral in others. It is important to step back and articulate how you approach investigating systems in your particular (sub)discipline so that you have a clear idea of the systems concepts that are essential for your students to understand. If you teach an interdisciplinary course and/or team teach, understanding how different disciplines approach systems will help you determine what is of particular importance for that course.Explore further: Effective strategies
for interdisciplinary teaching

Ask yourself:

  • What are some key interactions among the spheres that my discipline deals with?
  • How do human and natural systems interact in my field?
  • What is the system that is central to my work (or this course/ activity)? What are the boundaries of this system? Is it open or closed?
  • What observations, tools or approaches do people use to study this system?
  • What systems thinking concepts are the most important in understanding this system?

Now that you have answered these questions, you can start to describe what the most important systems concepts are that will guide your lesson or course. Take a moment to organize the ideas you developed into a list of central systems concepts that are specific to this lesson/ course. Note that the complexity/ depth of the concepts should be an appropriate scope and scale for your particular instructional context.

Define learning goals related to both content and process (systems thinking)

Planning a good course or activity begins with the end in mind. Knowing where you want your students to end up will help you plan for how to get them there. When teaching systems thinking, your goals will include related content-specific concepts (e.g. depositional environments) and systems concepts (e.g. reservoir/ stock). Defining both types of goals will allow you to design activities that not only teach the content, but also help students to become systems thinkers.Explore further: Developing assessments
that align with your learning goals

  • Use the guidelines on the developing Learning Goals page to define systems thinking learning goals. If you need a place to start, try answering the questions in the previous section.
  • Systems concepts may already be embedded in your content learning goals. For example, "describe how mining activities can influence water quality" is also about interactions between the anthro-, geo-, and hydro- spheres. In this case, you could add another learning goal, such as "distinguish a system from a bunch of stuff." Or, you could combine both content and systems thinking and end up with something like "create a diagram for a given mining operation showing the interactions among the Earth's spheres."

You should now have a list of measurable learning goals that include information about what you expect the students to be able to do with their newly acquired systems thinking skills. Now is also a good time to think about how you will assess these learning goals and plan for when and how you will communicate the learning goals to your students.

Scaffold systems thinking concepts along with content

Scaffolding is the way that educators provide support for student learning. In the same way that throwing someone into the deep end is not an effective way to teach someone to swim, asking students to do complex tasks or comprehend difficult material without developing prerequisite skills and/or knowledge can lead to frustration and loss of motivation. This is particularly true when dealing with complex systems. For example, if your students do not understand how elements in a system are interconnected, it will be difficult for them to consider the effects of perturbations on the system. Scaffolding student development of mental models of the system under consideration can be a big help (Sell, Herbert, Stuessy, & Schielack, 2006). As experts, it can be difficult to plan for scaffolding because you may not even think about the "basics" anymore; it is probably second nature to think about the interconnections in a system you are very familiar with. Taking the time to plan for how you will scaffold content knowledge and systems thinking concepts throughout your activities and course will provide opportunities for greater student success.

A good approach to thinking about scaffolding is to start with your learning goals and work backwards. For a given learning goal, list the supporting concepts or skills that are implicated in that goal. Then for each of those items, list the supporting concepts or skills. Keep going until you are confident that your students have the prerequisite knowledge or skills at that level.

Using our example from the learning goals section above, you might end up with something like this:

  • Learning goal: create a diagram for a given mining operation showing the interactions among the Earth's spheres.
  • Supporting concepts
    • a system is made up of elements and interconnections
    • conceptual diagrams illustrate relationships among various elements
    • the Earth's spheres interact
      • Earth spheres are
        • biosphere
        • anthroposphere
        • hydrosphere
        • etc.
    • e.g. hydraulic gold mining operations
      • increased sediment load in rivers leads to silting up downstream
        • sediment load = bedload, suspended load, dissolved load
        • deposition of sediment depends on kinetic energy and particle size
          • kinetic energy is the energy something has due to it's motion

Now that you have unpacked these ideas a bit, you can start to plan for how you will build this scaffolding into your lesson or course. Use your brainstorming to help you decide where you need to start and how new ideas will build on prior knowledge and skills. If you are developing a course, this is a good time to think about the syllabus. If you are designing a lesson or activity, consider what the students will do at each stage and what resources they might need to be able to reach the learning goals you have developed.

Incorporate the use of systems language explicitly

In the same way that it is important to make geoscientific thinking explicit, it is also essential that you expose students to systems thinking language and concepts. For example, many systems concepts are embedded in explanations of how things work, but students may not recognize that they are describing a system. Emphasizing the more general concepts and terminology (e.g. flux and reservoir) while discussing a particular system (e.g. stream discharge into a lake) can help students recognize and apply systems concepts when they encounter a new system. Metacognitive strategies will also help students become more aware of their emerging systems thinking abilities.

Ask yourself:

  • What systems concepts are embedded in my learning goals? (see above)
  • Is there terminology in my discipline that is really a different name for a basic systems concept?
  • Where are good points in my lesson to stop and talk about systems concepts?
  • Are there other systems I can bring into my course to help students apply systems thinking in a new context?
  • Are expectations for use of systems language and concepts included in expectations and rubrics for projects and assignments?
    • For example, explicitly ask students to account for initial and boundary conditions in their descriptions of a system (Raia, 2008).

With the answers to these questions, you can now incorporate systems language more explicitly into your lesson or course. Revise or develop student materials, lecture slides, etc. to strengthen your use of systems language and add new opportunities for them to connect what they are learning about systems to prior knowledge and/ or other systems.

Identify potential points of confusion and plan for how you will address them

If you've done all of the things described above, then you are in great shape! You've done the hard work of thinking carefully about how you will help students become systems thinkers and planned an excellent activity or course. In an ideal world, you can now just go and teach it. But, as you know if you've taught before, reality is a different story. Students bring a wide range of strengths, challenges, knowledge and skills to your course and, therefore, will all experience your activity or course differently. Anticipating which concepts or tasks may be challenging for some of your students and developing strategies for how you will help these students can help you feel more confident with trying something new and make the class go more smoothly.

  • Consider these points of confusion from the research on teaching systems thinking:
    • Students are challenged to consider the dynamics of a system as a whole (Raia, 2005).
    • Students tend to retain a "centralized approach to complexity" in which they evoke a unique central cause to explain systems behavior even when their content knowledge increases (Raia, 2005, p. 305).
    • Concepts such as the idea that small perturbations can have a large effect on systems behavior can be counterintuitive (Casti, 1994) and conflict with lived experience of students.
    • "People harbor deep-seated resistance toward ideas describing various phenomena in terms of self-organization, stochastic, and decentralized processes" (Feltovich, Spiro, & Coulson, 1989; Resnick, 1994, 1996; Wilensky, 1997, Wilensky & Resnick, 1999 as summarized by Jacobson & Wilensky, 2006, p. 14).
  • Give your activity to a non expert for a trial run and get their detailed feedback on what they struggled with.
  • Try something out in your class and see what happens. Take good notes for next time. Remember, humility is a great thing in the classroom. If it doesn't go well, involve your students in making it better.
  • Incorporate opportunities for students to engage in metacognition and use their responses to help figure out common challenges to anticipate next time.

Now that you have some feedback on how others experienced the lesson or course, revisit your plan and make the necessary revisions. You may also plan for supplementary materials if not all of your students have the same challenges or make notes for how you will explain a concept if you need to. The more resources you have in your back pocket, the better you will be able to work with students in the moment when they are struggling.

Looking for classroom activity/ course design ideas?

There are many excellent resource collections that house ideas for specific classroom activities as well as describe general approaches to teaching systems concepts and designing courses that focus on earth system science. Many of these can be adapted to your particular subject matter. Here are a few to get you started:

Want to learn more?


Casti, J. L. (1994). Complexification:Explaining a paradoxical world through the science of surprise. New York: Harper Collins.

Ford, A. (2009). Modeling the Environment, Second Edition. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Jacobson, M. J., & Wilensky, U. (2006). Complex Systems in Education: Scientific and Educational Importance and Implications for the Learning Sciences. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(1), 11-34. doi: 10.2307/25473506

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A primer (D. Wright Ed.). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Raia, F. (2005). Students' Understanding of Complex Dynamic Systems. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53(3), 297-308.

Raia, F. (2008). Causality in Complex Dynamic Systems: A Challenge in Earth Systems Science Education. Journal of Geoscience Education, 56(1), 81-91.

Sell, K. S., Herbert, B. E., Stuessy, C. L., & Schielack, J. (2006). Supporting Student Conceptual Model Development of Complex Earth Systems Through the Use of Multiple Representations and Inquiry. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54(3), 396-407.

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