Initial Publication Date: October 20, 2015

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"

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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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