Critical Thinking

Teaching Students About Systems Thinking

These strategies guide students to explore the interconnected parts of complex systems like the human body, governments, and ecosystems.

January 12, 2024
Otto Steininger / Ikon Images

Our world is interconnected and complex. As a result, our students need to move beyond fragmented ways of thinking, which look at problems in isolation or focus on short-term solutions. By developing our students to be systems thinkers, we can enable them to see patterns and organize their learning both inside and outside of school.

Let’s break this idea down by first describing what we mean by a system. Generally speaking, a system is a group of interconnected elements that are organized for a function or a purpose. System elements, or parts, may be physical or intangible things.

Importantly, system parts are interdependent. A change in one element can produce change within the entire system. This means systems are nonlinear. When consequences occur, they’re not isolated. They ripple through a system. Systems we encounter daily include the human body, cities, governments, social networks, and the Earth’s climate.

To give a narrative example, in Dr. Seuss’s well-known book The Lorax, the parts of the system are things like the water, air, Truffula Fruits, Brown Bar-ba-loots, and Humming-Fish, as well as the Once-ler’s greed and desire for economic growth above all else. Imagine if the Once-ler had truly understood how his behaviors impacted the Truffula Tree ecosystem, including the sustainability of his own Thneed production. His inability to think holistically led not only to a range of negative environmental consequences, but also to the collapse of his own business. 

In a global issue such as plastic pollution, system parts may include crude oil production, plastic manufacturing, companies, consumers, wastewater, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Systems thinking helps students manage complexity

Systems thinking is a mindset as well as a set of tools that enables students to recognize and understand relationships and interconnectedness. It’s an ability to toggle between the parts and the whole of a system to understand how interactions produce negative or positive behaviors. 

Systems thinking supports our students to understand the complexity of the world and manage its uncertainty, especially in a time of increased globalization; it is an essential component of critical thinking that teachers can apply across the curriculum. For example, using systems thinking, students can do the following:

  • Chart character development in a piece of literature with behavior-over-time graphs
  • Map nonlinear causes and consequences of historical or political conflicts
  • Understand the relationships between parts of a cell, as well as between cells, organs, and body systems
  • Analyze and take action on real-world issues, such as global warming, poverty, or overfishing

Teachers, curriculum coordinators, and school leaders can also use systems thinking tools, such as Agency by Design’s Mapping Systems protocol, to better understand the way parts of our educational system connect to produce positive or negative outcomes for students, such as lower attendance, higher referrals to learning interventions, or increased mental health issues.   

Fostering systems thinking as critical thinking

There are a number of ways teachers can facilitate systems thinking in the classroom. By slightly shifting how we interact with students—our questions or thinking prompts—we can promote “thinking in systems.”

Question with intention: Knowing we want to move away from “A leads to B” linear thinking, we can intentionally ask questions that encourage students to reflect on multiple parts of a system and how they connect. Instead of asking, “What caused this?” which communicates that there is a single cause, we can instead ask, “What factors contributed to this?” allowing students to search for multiple causes and nonlinear relationships.

Take a helicopter view: Toggling between the details and the big picture is an important systems thinking skill and one of the habits of a systems thinker. When looking at a situation, event, or particular issue, encourage students to discuss systems as a whole. For example, in the classroom we may create a circle, where each student represents a system part and makes connections with a ball of string. Students name how they connect to another system part as they toss the ball of string to one another, with each student retaining some of the string as they pass the ball around. At the end, students can see the interconnectedness of parts by gently tugging on the yarn and seeing who is affected.

Encourage pattern recognition: We want students to see the web of interconnections within systems and recognize how systems connect to other systems. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, we saw how health systems impacted transportation and the economy, leading to certain goods being unavailable. By asking, “What’s this got to do with that?” we nudge students to go both deep and wide in an investigation.

Strategies for Teaching systems thinking

Many strategies for systems thinking encourage students to visualize and create “system pictures.” Because of the high degree of interaction within systems, many strategies invite students to map connections in nonlinear ways. Here are some concrete strategies we can use in the classroom.

Connected circles: In this strategy, a circle represents a particular system, and the parts of the system are written around the outside. Using a case study such as an article, video, or real-life experience, students chart connections across the parts of the circle, writing the relationship between parts on the connector line. A connected circles template can be modified for any system that students will explore.

Systems models: After researching a system such as a tropical rainforest or coral reef, students create a systems model using divergent physical materials, e.g. Lego, magnetic tiles, wooden blocks, paper, cotton balls, shells, stones, etc. After making representations of the system and its parts, students annotate the model with sticky notes, arrows, etc. to show relationships between them. This may also include inputs and outputs of the system. For example, sunlight and carbon dioxide go into the rainforest (inputs), and oxygen and water vapor come out (outputs).

Games and simulations: Matthew Farber has written extensively about the use of constructionist gaming to promote thinking about complex systems. He shows how making and thinking come together to allow students to play with systems. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop also writes about the role of digital learning to promote understanding of systemic causes in young children. 

By inviting students to play with and explore systems thinking tools, we enable them to see structures and patterns within and across the content areas. Such engagements can empower students to find solutions to local, global, and intercultural issues that may have previously seemed unsolvable.

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