Systems thinking sounds complicated, but has a simple definition: “A big-picture view of the whole.” This way of thinking belongs in your classroom.

Virginia Anderson and Lauren Johnson, authors of “Systems Thinking Basics,” defined systems thinking, which has become a popular business style of management. Business leaders study the functions of each part of their company and the way that the different components interact. That information is used to create an efficient system. As systems thinking becomes a skill that employers are looking for in their companies, it has become important for schools to teach it.

Systems thinking isn’t relegated to the business world. This approach encourages thinking about problems and solutions within a larger context. Everything on our planet is part of an ecosystem, and there are many factors within that ecosystem that need to be considered before we can understand the cause of a problem or the potential consequences of a solution.

systems thinkingThink of it this way–you have a headache, so you take acetaminophen (or whatever medication you choose). Some time passes, and the headache is gone. If you look at this cause and effect out of context, you might conclude that the headache was caused by a lack of acetaminophen as it was alleviated by taking acetaminophen. But because the human body is a complex system, we know that there are many factors that can cause a headache, and acetaminophen simply hides the symptoms of that headache. Headaches are obviously not caused by an acetaminophen deficiency, and taking too much acetaminophen can actually harm your body. As this simple example shows, looking at problems and solutions and causes and effects without the context of systems thinking can cause major misunderstandings, incorrect conclusions, and unintentional consequences.

Systems thinking differs from the traditional classroom approach to learning, so it can be difficult to know where to start. These five suggestions can help.

1. Taking the First Step

The first step for educators, according to LeiLani Cauthen in “Leadership Versus the Classroom, A Paradigm Shift,” is to embrace “Systems Leadership.” She sees systems thinking as the solution to the lack of an efficient technology systems transition by schools. “What is happening right now nationwide in the transition to digital by schools is considerable confusion, overlap, and inefficiency at the software and content level,” she observes. Taking the first step in incorporating systems thinking in the classroom is working to create a unified technology system for all schools in the district and training the school staff to connect with the technology in educating students, according to Cauthen.

2. Identify Systems

systems thinkingMaking systems thinking easy to understand begins with helping students to identify just what “systems” are. The Harvard Project Zero Agency by Design research team defines a system as “a collection of parts that have some influence on one another and the whole.” Tatum Omari, a kindergarten teacher, reports an effective method for his class was to first show them a collection of crayons which were part of a system, the art workstation in the classroom, in comparison to just a bunch of crayons on a desk. The students were then able to see the “systems’ throughout the classroom and school — the library, the cafeteria, the activity center. Omari also taught his students that systems can be a series of actions, not just physical properties. A great example he used was talking to students after having a substitute teacher about that teacher’s system, how it worked that day, how they adapted to it, and what made it easy, or difficult, to adjust to.

3. Get Students Engaged

Systems thinking is an approach that engages students as more active learners in an environment their teachers provided. This was done in a junior high in Tucson, Arizona, where flexible scheduling permitted science teachers to help their students learn how to use scientific information in relation to other subjects. An example was a mock trial that was held to teach the workings of the legal system, but the students dealt with a case involving a scientific subject.

4. Develop Models

systems thinkingProjects can be used to encourage students to take results of research to create a design and a model of a specific solution. This implementation of systems thinking was used in a classroom to design a new state park. Students studied information in many areas such as politics, geography, park management, recreation, and community theory, and designed a park within a budget. The work was done on a computer to compose the design and track the financial aspects of the project. Rather than just creating a park, students had to think about the park system, including its geography, visitors, and location to design something that would be worthy of a state park designation. Considering any one of these items exclusively in isolation would have made the design less effective.

4. Become a Facilitator

Teachers embracing the systems thinking tools move from behind the desk and interact with the students to facilitate learning. Two of the systems thinking tools which support this type of learning are STELLA, a modeling language that was developed by High Performance Systems for Macintosh, and Mosaikk/SimTek, an IBM-PC compatible collection of computer simulation software. Teachers without access to such technology can be creative in using more traditional systems, such as an historical event or a book, to teach how parts of a system relate. Studying Martin Luther King Jr. and his strides in changing the system for racial equality is one example.

Tackling a new way of thinking takes some study, preparation, and small steps, but success in achieving systems thinking will allow your students to thrive in a modern world of technology, work with others, and understand the “big picture.”

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