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

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.








Balaton Diary: A Letter to My Children

A week ago today, I attended the  Balaton meeting in Hungary.  For four days, I was immersed in heated discussions with scientists, modelers and researchers from around the world about the current and future state of our planet.   Now back home, I wrestle with other challenges:  how to get one kid to soccer, another to the orthodontist, while sitting still long enough to sew a stuffed bear with the third. 

To weave these two worlds together, and to make sense of the sometimes heady Balaton presentations, I decided to write home to my children about the days’ events.  I share with you here, one of those letters.   It is an honor to attend the Balaton meetings and to share these reflections with you.  Happy Reading.  

Momma’s in Hungary, Again!

Dear Jack, Teddy and Anna,

As I write to you, I’m looking out on the still, blue-grey waters of Lake Balaton.

This is the largest freshwater lake in Europe and it’s stocked with fish — grass carp, silver carp, marble carp, catfish, pike perch, and lots of different whitefishes. Once in a while, you might even see an eel.  So Jack, you need your fishing rod!

A view of Lake Balaton from Hotel Szemes

 I want to tell you about the meetings we’ve had here.  You might wonder:  what could 50 people from 23 countries, ranging in age from 22 to 82, all have in common?  And what could they possibly talk about for five days in a row!?

It’s actually simple.  We all really, really love life, and in particular, life on this planet.

In our own ways, each of the scientists, teachers, consultants, writers, modelers (I’ll explain that later), and students who come to the Balaton meeting, are passionate about helping the world see:

1.  itself as a living, interconnected system.

2. the need to take a long-term view, and

3. the power of focusing on positive change. 

Each morning, three or four Balaton members give presentations to the group. Then in the afternoon, we break out for “free” time, which might mean smaller presentations or meetings with different members, a walk along the lake, or even a volleyball game (these Balatoners are competitive!).

Growth on a Finite Planet? 

Dennis Meadows spoke on the first morning about the environment and the economy.  Funny how you often don’t hear those two words in the same sentence.  (Dennis  founded the Balaton Group with Dana Meadows more than 30 years ago.  If you’re curious, you can learn more about Balaton’s history). Dennis opened with this question: can we satisfy our growing needs – our need for goods and services — on a planet with limited resources?

It’s a good question.  If you look at three of his powerpoint slides (see below), you can see the point Dennis is making:  consumption, population and our ecological footprint (our demands on nature) are all increasing. Yet our planet’s resources, such as oil, are limited.

In his talk, Dennis reminded us that we live on a planet that is controlled by balancing feedback loops. We’ve talked about these loops before. Remember that conversation about predator-and-prey relationships?  Wolves and elk, or hawks and mice?  It’s the relationship that control the size of both animal populations, keeping both in check so one population doesn’t become too small or too large.

These controls (or balancing feedback loops) are everywhere in nature.  If a palm tree grows beyond its normal height, it will simply topple over, ending the growth of the tree. When these controls no longer function in the life of cells, for instance, the result is cancer, an endless multiplying of cells.

If you think about it, where are the balancing feedback loops in your life? You play hard in a soccer game and then you rest and you’re ready for the next game.  That would be a good example.  What if you didn’t rest though?  Eventually, you’d be so low in energy you wouldn’t be able to play.

That’s what Dennis is saying is happening to our planet.  But of course the consequences of the planet not being able to bounce much are much worse.

So, how can we live and grow, within the means of nature, what some scientist have begun to call planetary boundaries?

That’s the BIG question. And we should keep talking about this. They’re starting to round up some Balatoner’s for a volleyball game near the lake so I’d better wrap up for now.  Here’s a quick summary of what makes me hopeful that we’ll be able to find a way to answer Dennis’ opening question:

Modeling:   Bert DeVries and Harald Sverdrup are working to create WORLD models, computer models of the earth as one system.  According to Harald, these models can help us to “recognize that we have limited resources. When we do that, we can then work toward managing our common resources so there will be enough for all.”  The biggest ah-ha for me from these models?  We need to pay attention to phosphorous.  Without it, the whole link of food–> to people –> work –> wealth breaks down.

Get the Whole Community Involved:   Vala Ragnarsdottir is doing some exciting and important work with whole communities to model and better understand their food systems.  And Beth Sawin inspired us all as she shared her experience using a computer simulation (C-Roads) to support country leaders and other decision makers as they make decision related to greenhouse gas emissions.  Beth reminded us two key leverage points in addressing climate change:  population and consumption.

Dare to think change is possible:  I was thrilled to hear Colleen Kohlsaat talk about the ways Levi Strauss is cleaning up production of its t-shirts and jeans using life cycle assessment and other sustainability practices.

Colleen Kohlsaat, Jamila Haider, Momma and Karan Khosla, celebrating Balaton 2012

And then there was Phonchan (Newey) Kraiwatnutsorn, who showed us how Ashoka fuels the flame of passion for  positive transformation among young changemakers.  And so much more!

In many ways, these talks were filled with what Dana Meadows called “unpleasant truths.”  The reality of not living within the means of our planet are quite serious.  Yet, when I think about the three of you, I feel hopeful.

Here is what I wish for you, and for all the young people on this planet:

•   Learn the fact about our finite planet.

•   Get comfortable discussing uncomfortable ideas.

*   Stay curious about this question:  How can we live and grow, within our planetary boundaries?

We can talk about this more over dinner, when I get home.

Love you,


PS:  Did you feed the chickens today?




My thanks to Dennis Meadows who graciously granted me permission to incorporate slides from his 2012 Balaton address — Reflections about Resource-Capital-Finance Interactions  — into this blog post.











Thinking Like Da Vinci in Macae

In his book, How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, author Michael Gelb lists principles for thinking “a la Leonardo”:

Curiosita’ – an insatiable curiosity
Dimostrazione – testing knowledge through experience
Sensazione – continued refinement of the senses
Sfumato – a willingness to embrace ambiguity
Arte/Scienza – developing a balance between art and science
Corporalita’ – cultivating fitness and poise
Connessione – recognizing and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena

I piloted a new “integrated” workshop for SEED along with Tom Lough and Angie MacArthur that would have made Da Vinci proud.  The workshop,  offered in Macae, Brazil to 50 teachers and students, touched on all seven Da Vinci principles, plus one. The author introducing the water cycle from a systems perspective
 Over the course of five days, students and teachers, ranging in age from 10 to 60,  explored the theme of water – its use, management and conservation — through three integrated frameworks:  science/technology, complex problem solving, and Smart Wired, which brings us an eighth principle: know thyself.  Through Smart Wired concepts and tools, students and teachers work together to better understand not how smart they are, but how they are smart.

We “unpacked” a variety of complex systems (connesione, sfumato) from soda production to the water cycle. Participants kept  a journal for notes, observation and reflections (curiosita, sensazione).  Students and teachers tested their knowledge of water-related issues (dimostrazione) through a site visit to a local water treatment plant and they engaged in hands-on activities, using robotics, animation software (e.g., SCRATCH) and a systems thinking playkit and through creative (art/scienza) hands-on projects (see this link for project descriptions*). They even went bowling (corporalita).

SEED students and teachers take a systems view of water conservation

I congratulate SEED for its efforts to to go beyond traditional science and technology education to educate students to deal not just with technical-based problems but to foster “systems citizens” able to manage the complexity of socio-technical issues in their communities, such as those related to water, energy, health, climate and more.

For more on Leonardo Da Vinci as a systems thinker, see Fritjof Capra’s book, The Science of Leonardo and the Global Oneness Project.




*As their final project, one group created a model of a system that was designed to work with the public water supply. In their model, the public water supply is cut off at the house by a special meter and valve subsystem once the monthly water allocation is exceeded. If that happens within a certain month, the house switches over to an internal system that makes use of rainwater stored in a rooftop reservoir. The rainwater is collected through a subsystem of gutters, pipes, and tanks, and is treated through a filtering subsystem before being pumped to the reservoir.