Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Archive for the ‘“Systems thinking for kids”’ Category

All Systems Go! Becoming a “Systems-Smart” Generation

Illustration: Guy Billout, Art Direction, Milton Glaser. From "Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems" by L. Booth Sweeney

Illustration by Guy Billout

Try this: Find a young person between the ages of four and twenty-four. Show them a picture of a cow and ask, “If you cut a cow in half, do you get two cows?” Even the four-year-old will shout, “No way!” Children understand that a cow has certain parts—hearts, lungs, legs, brain, and more—that belong together and have to be arranged in a certain way for the cow to live. You cannot have the tail in the front and the nose in the back.

As adults, it is easy to miss this simple truth: a cow is a complex, living system, in the same way that the human body, a family, a classroom, a community, an organization, or an ocean is. A system is composed of parts and processes that interact over time—often in closed-loop patterns of cause and effect—to serve some purpose or function. Living systems, unlike a collection or “heap of stuff ,” share similar characteristics. In systems, it matters how the parts are arranged. at is why a cow cannot have the tail in the front and the nose in the back. And why a stomach does not work on its own, and the body does not work without a stomach. And systems often are connected to or nested within other systems (for instance, a person may be nested within a family, school, ecosystem, community, and nation).

Make the Shift: Systems Are the Context

Sounds simple, right? But here is the challenge: much of today’s education remains focused on discrete disciplines—for example, math, science, and English. Science is taught in one class. The bell rings. The student moves onto math and then, perhaps, to English—and never the twain shall meet. Such a fragmented approach reinforces the notion that knowledge is made up of many unrelated parts, leaving students well-trained to cope with obstacle-type or technical-based problems but less prepared to explore and understand complex systems issues. In medicine, for example, obstacle-type problems are those that can be clearly targeted and fixed, such as a broken arm or an acute disease, like appendicitis. A systems approach is more effective for chronic and complex diseases, such as diabetes, where the interaction of factors—lifestyle, family history, environment, etc.—also plays a role.

Issues such as climate change, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict are matters not only of science, but also of geography, economics, philosophy, and history. They cut across several disciplines and are best understood when these domains are addressed together. Students and adults must be able to see such important issues as systems— elements interacting and affecting one another. In the case of climate change, a systems view shows the link between politics, policy (for example, legislation related to carbon emissions and deforestation), the natural sciences (particularly forests, which help stabilize the climate by absorbing heat-trap- ping emissions from factories and vehicles), and a person’s own consumption habits. Without a systems view, the complexity can be daunting, and the result is often policy resistance or, worse yet, polarization and political paralysis.

The excerpt above is from an article I recently wrote for World Watch Institute’s 2017 State of the World Report. For the complete article, click here.

Thank you to Draper L. Kauffman Jr., author of Systems I: An Introduction to Systems Thinking, for your inspired cow question, posed now over 30 years ago.

Illustration: Guy Billout, Art Direction, Milton Glaser. From “Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems” by L. Booth Sweeney

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.








Why Bucky, and why now?

I’ve finished the manuscript for a children’s biography about Buckminster Fuller, and now I wait.  The editors in New York City and beyond are chewing him over, deciding if today’s middle school kids will find “Bucky” — most famous for his geodesic domes —  interesting, compelling, worth their time.

Bucky and his Fly's Eye Dome and Dymaxion Car

I, of course, will talk to anyone and everyone about Bucky (I’ve written about him here).  Somehow I managed to weave him into a conversation with the cashier at the grocery store the other day.  My kids think I’ve lost it.  I now call my dog “Bucky” despite the fact that his name is Rugby.  The walls of my office are plastered with sketches of Bucky inventions:  a fly’s eye dome, a 4D tower delivered by zepplin, rowing needles, a mechanical jellyfish.

So, why am I so hooked?

For me, a twenty-year plus systems educator, one of the most compelling connections is Bucky’s focus on synergy.

Over forty years ago, Bucky popularized the term, reminding audiences around the world that synergy was “… the only word in our language that means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviors of any of the system’s separate parts or any sub-assembly of the system’s parts. There is nothing in the chemistry of a toenail that predicts the existence of a human being” (Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969, p. 78). One of the many benefits of understanding and even designing for synergy, is the opportunity to get off that problem solving treadmill, where our “solutions” often only create more problems or make the original problem worse. (See more benefits here).

Looking back at myself as a student forty years ago, my curriculum was for the most part compartmentalized: science was taught in one class, math in another, English in yet another, and never the twain shall meet. Such a fragmented approach reinforced the notion that knowledge was made up of many unrelated parts, leaving me with little opportunity to see recurring patterns of behavior across subjects and disciplines, to look for synergies, or for that matter, to think or talk about “whole systems.”

My teachers were preparing me for a world in which “new technologies” like the computer were just beginning to play a role, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the middle-aged gentleman teaching “computer science” was desperately trying to stay one step ahead of his eager students. With the shock of the gas crisis in the 1970s, came a nascent awareness of the relationship between non-renewable resources and population growth (what we call carrying capacity today).

It was a world that author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes as being “characterized by one overarching feature—and that was division. That world was divided-up, chopped-up place, and whether you were a country or a company, your threats and opportunities in the cold war system tended to grow out of who you were divided from. Appropriately, this cold war system was symbolized by a single word—wall, the Berlin Wall.” (Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11, 2002, p. 3).

Today, our world has shifted.  We’ve gone from an international system built around division and walls to a system increasingly built around integration and webs, a shift Friedman aptly describes here:

“The globalization system is different. It also has one overarching feature and that is integration. The world has become an increasingly interwoven place, and today whether you are a company or a country, your threats and opportunities increasingly derive from who you are connected to. This globalization system is also characterized by a single word –web, the World Wide Web.” (Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes, pp. 3–4).

Today’s children are growing up in a world of webs and networks, of increasing interdependence and multiculturalism, of shrinking global borders, and of even more limited natural resources. For students of today, nothing exists in isolation. More and more of the pressing challenges children see in the headlines—global warming, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, institutional malfeasance, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict—are generated by complex human systems.

Bucky's early sketches of a light-weight aluminum 4D tower, just one of many examples of Bucky's efforts to "do more with less"

Indeed our lives are embedded in systems.

Here’s the wake-up call: Many of us were not explicitly taught skills related to understanding synergy, or for that matter, the behaviors and dynamics of complex systems. That means we tend to see events, parts and fragments when we are in fact, embedded within and surrounded by interconnected systems.  There’s now a lot of research out there, including my own, that deep misconceptions about the dynamics of complex systems persist, even among highly educated adults. Here’s the short version:  when faced with dynamically complex systems—with multiple feedbacks, time delays, nonlinearities, and accumulations—performance is suboptimal, at best.

What to do? Facing a similar question, Buckminster Fuller once said: “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

The good news is, new tools and new frameworks are coming.  Here are just a few examples (send me more if you have them):

Camp SnowballA summer “camp” experience that brings together students, parents, educators, and business and community leaders to build everyone’s capacity around systems thinking, sustainability and leading in the 21st century.

WorldLink:  An innovative media, education and civic engagement organization dedicated to cultivating a generation of “design scientists” who can creatively respond to the most pressing issues of our time. See NOURISH (using public TV and school curriculum to explore food and food systems).

The GeoDome:  Using immersive projection design to understand and have a tangible experience of the planet as a living system.

Quest to Learn: A game-based public school in New York City (brainchild of Katie Salen and team) and in particular it’s “need to know” approach to building twenty-first century skills like systems thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration, time management and identity formation.

PBS Learning Media:  I’m working with PBS now to integrate systems literacy tools and concepts into digital media for both educators and students.  The pilot will be available in the fall. Exciting!

Student-created simulations of complex systems, game-based learning, portable “learning” domes, repurposed digital media — Bucky, I think, would be delighted by these ways of making invisible connections, visible.

Synergy is just one reason I’ve fallen head over heals for Bucky, that stocky, gentle genius with the owl eyes and coke-bottle glasses.    Read my book about him (when it comes out) and you’ll have fun discovering the other 9 reasons why Bucky is truly a troubadour for our times.