Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Archive for the ‘Seeing Systems’ Category

How Do We Raise A Generation of Circular Economy Natives?

A circular economy is “all about closing resource loops,” shifting away from linear “take-make-waste” modes of production and consumption to closed loops that produce no waste and facilitate reuse. It’s also about mimicking natural systems, a shift that makes systems – rather than bullet points –the context for defining and solving complex problems, and for fostering more effective learning and design.


Yet, even though we are immersed in natural systems, most of us weren’t explicitly taught the skills to see and understand them. We weren’t taught to see systems of closed-loop cause and effect relationships, or for that matter, to look to nature as a model for our economy (though nature is indeed the ultimate circular economy).

How do we raise a generation of young people who are circular economy natives, who naturally look to close loops to create positive impacts on health, ecosystems, materials, energy, value, and society?

In this session, we’ll look upstream, to seven emerging trends in education, communication and cognitive science. We’ll “connect the dots” among these trends and examine the valuable contributions each has to make in our efforts to educate for a circular economy.

If you’re interested in these questions, join me on November 21, for a 45-minute discussion, part of this year’s Disruptive Innovation Festival.

NOTE:  The title of this talk was inspired by John Sterman’s ground-breaking paper: “Learning in an about Complex Systems.”

If you missed the session, it will be up on the Disruptive Innovation Festival for 30 days so please do check it out.


Linda BS - social media banners 16.11.002


Why “think about systems”?

Over time, we humans have come up with ways to organize and make sense of phenomena.

We see an object that provides light and warmth, and we give that object a name:  the Sun.  Then we observe that the sun appears over the horizon in one direction at first light and disappears in the opposite direction as it gets dark. We’ve identified a behavior of that object, and we name that behavior, sunrise and sunset or, if you’re Buckminster Fuller, you name that behavior sunsight and sunclipse.

We now recognize a pattern, in this case a cycle that repeats each day, although we see variations in this pattern over the course of the year as day length varies, as does the location of sunrise and sunset.

To understand why these changes occur, we need to shift our perspective, from objects to interrelationships, from parts to patterns.   Eventually, we come to understand that the behavior of the Sun and the behavior of Earth are intertwined, and that these two objects, the Sun and Earth, are part of a system, together with other objects such as the Moon that each have their own behaviors and interactions. These interrelationships cause a lot of the phenomena we experience, including day and night, seasons, tides, eclipses, and in the past century, interference with radio communication!

Here’s the good news:  There is a growing recognition — by planetary scientists, organizational and civic leaders, wildlife biologists, educators and more — that the objects, people, places, events, nature we study, manage, write about or design are parts of complex systems. Studying systems can help us to understand the whole set of interrelationships rather than just the parts, and to analyze how changing one or a set of parts, or changing the pattern of the parts, can have far-reaching and sometimes unexpected consequences in other parts of the system.  Great examples of applied systems thinking here and here.

More good news: Children of all ages can understand systems.  In kindergarten-2 they can identify parts of how they work together, and in grades 3-5, they can understand that the whole can carry out functions that the individual parts cannot and look at the interaction among the parts.  In grades 6-8, students can begin to explore how systems interact with other systems.

To try your hand at “thinking about systems”, take a look at the PBS Learning Media systems literacy site and walk yourself through the Teaching About Systems module or the Understanding Dynamic Systems module, designed for high school students.  You can also check out the Waters Foundation and the Creative Learning Exchange for other great systems learning opportunities.


*Throughout his life, Buckminster Fuller urged people of all ages to pay attention to their language. The use of the words “sunrise” and “sunset” were of particular concern to him:   “The most important thing to teach your children is that the sun does not rise and set. It is the Earth that revolves around the sun. Then teach them the concepts of North, South, East and West, and that they relate to where they happen to be on the planet’s surface at that time. Everything else will follow.” (Critical Path)

Turtles + Systems + Fourth Grade = Magic

Yesterday, I did a school visit for a local fourth grade class. The kids rolled in after a lunchtime recess, a jumble of shiny cheeks and sweaty brows.  They were at the tail end of a unit on ecology and ecosystems, the best part of which was the daily antics of “Toast” and “Oreo”, the two Blanding’s turtles the class have been faithfully feeding, weighing and caring for the past few months.  My job was to extend their understanding of “systems”.*

What follows are the highlights of my visit with this class and their remarkable teacher.  I hope you’ll feel the same sense of excitement and promise I felt when the bell rang at the end of the day.

Here’s the hour-long workshop, in three short acts:

Act 1:  Ways we Make Sense of and Talk About our World.   

Act 2:  “What are these Things called Systems?” (and “Why should I care about them?”)

Act 3:  Taking it home.

ACT 1: Ways we Make Sense of and Talk About our World

The word wall behind me was covered with words like producers, decomposers, invertebrates, habitat and more.   Over time, I explained, we’ve come up with words to organize and make sense of our world.   The words on their word wall are good for understand WHAT something is or what role it plays. They are useful for categorizing and organizing.  

What if we want to understand WHY something changes, for instance:  Why did the elk population explode, or get really, really big?  Or why did the sea otter populations go down so much over the past two years? You can’t answer those questions focusing on the sea otter, or the moose alone.    To answer that question you have to look at sea otters, for instance, in relation to the orcas, sea lions, herring, bald eagles, sea urchins, kelp forest, fishermen and more.  What set of interrelationships might be influencing or driving the change we’re interested in?

Ok. So the stage was set.  If they wanted to know why things changed, they needed to understand the parts and be curious about the relationships between the parts.

ACT 2:  What are these things called “Systems”? (and “Why should I care about them?”)

The relationship between parts.  That matters.  They got that.  But why?

To get into that question, I asked the class:  If you cut a cow in half, do you get two cows?

They LOVED this because they ALL KNEW THE ANSWER.

“OF course not! “ they shouted in unison, blissfully forgetting to raise their hands.  Well, why not, I wondered.

Their answers were superb:

“If you cut a cow in half, you don’t get two wholes.  Each part does have all the parts it needs to work.”

“You can’t put the bum in the front and the mouth in the back.  The parts have to be together in a certain way.”

“If you don’t have all the parts connected to each other, the cow can’t eat, it can’t digest food and it can’t live.”

I congratulated them on how much they already knew about systems.  I was struck by how much intuitive knowledge they had about but how few opportunities they had to put that intuitive systems understanding to use.  They now had a good idea that systems are sets of things – organs, animals, members of a family, students in a classroom, species in an ocean, whatever – that are interconnected in such a way that they produce their own behavior. We added the word “living” because unlike a mechanical system – like a car or computer – living systems change over time.

Having established that the cow can’t be cut in half because it was a system, we looked the difference between a heap (in this case, a pile of laundry) and the another system, the human body.  (You can see a the PBS Learning Media version of that discussion here).  Then we had a pop quiz (like this one), but with lots of colorful pictures.  The best part of this discussion was their unanimous conclusion that a kindergarten soccer team was a heap, but a 4th grade soccer team was a system!

As a quick reminder that “systems” is not a new idea, one of the students did a very spirited reading of a lesser known Aesop’s Fable, “The Belly and The Members.”   Such silly idea for the hands and the mouth to starve the belly, right?  Why?  Because they’re all connected!!  What happens to one part affects them all.

To get a felt sense for the idea that “systems are made up interrelationships, (or sets of cause and effect relationships), we then played the What Good is a Wolf Game, a systems thinking playkit similar to this.

The class had all read my Highlights Magazine article —Bringing back the wolves: Yellowstone National Park is Thriving, Thanks to a Long-feared Carnivore— so they were prepped for this question:

What happened after the wolves were removed from Yelllowstone in 1926?  What happened when they were returned almost 70 year later? In groups of five, they explored “how this influences that” (or cause-and-effect) interrelationships among the wolf, elk, beaver, decomposers, yellow warblers, aspen trees, bald eagles, cut-throat trout, and ranchers.  For a moment I wondered if the colorful, bendable wikki sticks would prove to be too much of a distraction, but after they were told they could each take home a few, they settled down on got to work.

There was some necessary sorting out between food webs, where the links represent energy exchange, and causal loop diagrams, where the connections represent how more or less of this, for instance, wolves, effects “that’’ (for instance, the elk population).

They poked and prodded, linked and unlinking the different cards, and in the process, all the groups eventually revealed a closed loop between the wolves and the elk.

We talked about the two basic closed loops of interconnection that make up systems:  balancing (as they saw in predator prey relationships) and reinforcing (as in population growth).  When I asked them to draw simple line graphs to show the changing behaviors in these causal loops, one fourth grade boy jumped out of his seat to show me what would happen in a closed birth/population loop (if there no major plagues or tragedies).

What’s really interesting, is that these different kinds of systems share some similarities, and they can act in surprisingly similar ways.   We talked about how we might see a pattern called escalation show up between two rival soda companies, and then read about a similar pattern of escalation between countries.  Or the ups and downs they noticed in a predator prey relationship might be similar to the ups and downs the experiences with friends at school.

Act 3:  Act 3:  Taking it home.

To wrap up, we had one more pop quiz.  I showed them this picture (from Nancy Roberts) and asked: Has your room ever looked this like this?

We talked about what happens next:  Messy room à Mom unhappy — > Clean up Room à Mom happy.

One little girl yelled out:  But then my room gets messy again!

We talked about seeing situations or events in straight lines vs. closed loops.  Sometimes, a straight line of a causes b doesn’t tell the whole story.  When we connect the dots and close the loop, we see an up-and-down pattern of happy/frustration, clean/messy.  I encouraged the kids to created the loop with a parent at home, and then come up with a new way, based on the big picture.

The wolf game helped the kids to see that patterns of connection that make up systems.  We talked about other ways to make systems visible.  If we can learn to make these interconnections visible (on the back of a napkin, in a connection circle or causal loop diagram, in a complex systems model), we can better understand the system, we can understand the behaviors they produce, and in some instances, if we change the pattern of connection, we maybe even change them.

We ended with a quick game of thumb wrestling to leave them with the thought if they can see interconnections, they can work with them better.  Just as they were about to leave, a group standing near the turtles exploded with the excitement:  “Toast is eating the snail!”  “She’s the predator, like the wolf…” and “… snail was the prey.”  The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

All that in an hour with a fire alarm thrown in for good measure.  As I debriefed with the teacher at the end of the day, she was excited by the connection she saw between the systems conversation and her graphing unit in math  the following week.  She got how the study of systems could her her students to bridge the disciplinary boundaries of her classes.  I’ll be pointing her to the CLE’s Shape of Change, resources on the Waters Foundation website and PBS Learning Media’s systems literacy pilot.  She’s already talking about ways to bring “systems” in more explicitly to all of the fourth grade classes.  School-wide support is needed and there are other hurdles but for now, this is good grogress.


*Now that “Systems and Systems models” is one of the Next Generation Science standards, the interest in systems dynamic/systems thinking materials are increasing.  Under the NGSS guidelines, the Systems and Systems Models cross-cutting concept expects children in grades 3-5 to:

“…understand that a system is a group of related parts that make up a whole and can carry out functions its individual parts cannot. They can also describe a system in terms of its components and their interactions.

**Thank you to Nancy Roberts for sharing these messy room-clean room drawings.