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

Shifting Patterns

Stories.  We love them. They’re our most ancient form of education. And yet there’s often a mismatch between the stories we love to read to children and the way the world actually works.

It comes down to plot lines. Most children’s stories tend to feature some sort of straight line, often starting with a problem, followed by a reaction, and ending with a resolution. It’s one, linear pattern of connection:

A →B →C

A causes B, and B causes C. End of story.

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Think about the children’s book I Know an Old Lady (by Rose Bonn and Alan Mill). It’s about an old lady who swallowed a fly:

I know an old lady who swallowed a spider

That wriggled and wriggled and tickled inside her.

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.

But I don’t know why she swallowed the fly!

I guess she’ll die!

The old lady goes on to swallow a mouse, a cat, a dog, a cow, and, finally, a horse — all to catch a pesky little fly. What happens when she swallows the horse? “She dies, of course!”

Ok. So it’s not A →B→C, but A→ B→ C → D→ E→ F → G. End of story.

The story is dark, hilarious and a one-way pattern of connection, that is, a long, straight chain of events. Many things in a child’s life do happen in a straight line of cause-and-effect: turn up the volume on the TV and the sound increases. A causes B. Done.

But cause-and-effect is not always straight. Indeed it can be loopy, web-like, cascading.

(Hang in with me now. We’re going to enter the field of systems thinking. It may sound abstract but it is really practical stuff that is leading the way to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems*).

Let’s look at the loopy kind. In If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, a best-selling children’s story by Laura Joffe Numeroff (illustrated by Felicia Bond), the mouse wants a cookie, then a glass of milk and by the end of the story, he wants another cookie. Here’s how my eight-year-old nephew drew the chain of events in Numeroff’s story:

Drawing by Bradley Booth

Unlike the Old Lady who swallowed that fly, this closed loop of cause and effect, feedsback on itself to amplify change. Even the youngest readers intuitively know that the story could go on forever and if left unchecked, the mouse is going to want more and more cookies. When we understand how reinforcing feedback loops work, for example, we see how events build on one another — and how a small change can “grow” into larger and larger consequences as the pattern of connections loops and loops around. Children encounter these reinforcing feedback loops everyday. Think of mean words on a playground, rising noise levels on the bus ride home or the spread of a rumor.

Young children can learn to “close the loop” and take advantage of reinforcing feedback. Think about saving money in the bank. It doesn’t take a math whiz to appreciate compound interest, which Albert Einstein once called “the most powerful force in the universe”: An increase in the amount of money in the bank increases interest payments. An increase in the interest payments compounds the initial increase of the amount of a child has in the bank. It’s not a far leap for kids to harness that same time of reinforcing feedback to grow, for instance, kindness in the classroom.

While reinforcing feedback loops act as engines of growth and decline, another closed loop of cause and effect — balancing loops — self-regulate and dampen change. By its very nature, balancing feedback works to brings things to a desired state and keep them there. Sometimes this is good (e.g. helping to keep a system in balance) and sometimes this is why we feel stuck.

Image courtesy of World Watch 2017 State of the World Report

Image courtesy of World Watch 2017 State of the World Report

When we understand balancing feedback, we understand that predator-prey relationships in nature are not one-way (where the predator simply eats the prey), but rather is made up of a closed loop of cause and effect, with births and deaths of one species affects the population of the other.

Closer to home, when we understand balancing feedback, we stop using our thermostat like a gas pedal, increasing or decreasing the temperature to suit our moment-by-moment needs. Rather we let the internal feedback structure do its work, allowing the temperature to self-adjust to a desired temperature. (Indeed we live on a planet controlled by balancing feedback loops but that is another post!)

A child who understand the basic idea of balancing feedback has a better understanding why things get stuck, and what they can they do about it. Let’s use the example of a messy room and a child that is doesn’t want to clean it. Throughout the week, the parent may reminds him: clean up your room! The child on the other hand, is otherwise occupied. By the end of the week, the parent’s frustration is boiling over. Finally, the parent threatens a week of no TV or depending on the age, no cell phone and the child relents. When he shows his clean room, the parent is happy. But the next day, with the pressure off, he slowly reverts to his old habits and the room becomes messy again. Mid-way through the week, the parent’s frustration builds again, this time with more pressure. The room clean up roller coaster continues.

(What to do? One way out of this dilemma is for the parent and child to sit down together, and draw simple diagrams showing the situation as one sees it. Then together they can figure out how to change the pattern.)

Growing Little Systems Thinkers

Back to children’s stories. Don’t get me wrong. I love stories with all kinds of plot lines. I’ve written two myself. But a diet of all one-way plots doesn’t prepare our children for the diversity of real world patterns they will encounter.

So what can you do?

Encourage your little readers to be pattern detectives.

Encourage them to draw the patterns they see in stories. Then look beyond books to the cause-and-effect patterns they see on the playground, around the dinner table or on the front page of the newspaper.

By seeing these patterns, they will be more likely to stop jumping to blame a single cause for the challenges they encounter be curious about the multiple, interacting forces driving events and often, unintended impacts. As an added bonus, when children (and adults for that matter) see patterns, they are more likely to be able to understand them and when needed, to change them. (For an example with two siblings, read here).

Ask questions to focus on cause-and-effect:

o What happens next? (Keep asking. Sometimes you’ll find a drives b which drives c which loops back to drive more or less of a).

o How is this similar pattern similar to that? When they get older recognizing these patterns helps build a bridge between different disciplines in school. Bridging science and social studies they might ask: How is the growth of the bacteria we’re looking at through the microscope similar to the population growth in a particular region?

Whether we are 7 or 77, when we are aware of these closed loops of cause and effect, we are less likely to react to behaviors produced by them and more likely to be able to understand them and when needed, to change them.

Good Books for Little Systems Thinkers

For an introduction to systems-based stories for little systems thinkers, see the 2018 version of When a Butterfly Sneezes: A Guide for Helping Kids Explore Interconnections in Our World Through Favorite Children’s Stories (2018, updated and revised with a new introduction by Peter Senge). For more on systems thinking, see:

More good books for little systems thinkers

Other Useful Links:

Systems Thinking in World folktales: see Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems by L. Booth Sweeney.

Causality in science: see the Causal patterns in science work of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Causality in children’s nonfiction: see author Melissa Stewart’s blog Celebrate Science (look for “cause and effect” books).

Systems stories in the classroom: Waters Foundation and Creative Learning Exchange (search resources for literature)

PBS Learning Media: see the Systems Literacy Collection

THANK YOU to Gale Pryor, Penny Noyce, Emily Rubin, Melissa Tackling , Eugene Pool and Christine Abely for your thoughtful feedback on this article.

Building Win-Win Narratives Through Causal Mapping

Last weekend I got up early to head to Bridgewater State.  I had received a call from Ed Brush, a chemistry professor and organizer of the school’s annual Symposium on Sustainability and the Environment.  “We want to introduce a group of 80 students and faculty from colleges in the Northeast to systems thinking.  Help them ‘think outside the box’.  Show them how a systems approach can be used to solve environmental and sustainability challenges.” O.K.  He hit all my keywords:  students, systems thinking, applied, real world.  I had to say yes.

A bit of background.  There were about 80 college students, three high school students and a small group of faculty.  All the students were there present research posters on water, energy, toxicity, bees and more.    These were important projects that could have a real impact on our region.

BridgewaterState2017After a game (of course), I started by asking them to think about their projects.  What did they want to change?

Here is what these students said about the changes they wanted to see:

Less microplastic pollution.

More native bee diversity.

More sustainable agriculture

Less solvent use

Less caffeine exposure in childhood

Do you care about those things?   I do.  If you like clean air, drinkable water, a safe healthy environment, and broccoli, squash, apples and almonds (all pollinated by honey bees) then you care too.

Whether these students know it or not they are Very Important People doing very important work.

As the students described their research projects I found myself remembering why I got up early that morning.  I was honored to be working them.

We then moved on to the nature of complex systems hovering on one key characteristic:  Systems are made up of tightly coupled interconnections. It’s easy to say “everything is connected to everything else” but as they soon discovered, we often forget that simple truth.

Screen Shot 2017-11-29 at 8.42.10 PMWe played another game (thumb wrestling) to get a baseline of their embodied understanding of interconnections.  Most of the students had played the game. There are commonly known rules. I explained the goal carefully:  ‘To get as many points as you can.” It is possible to collaborate, allowing each person to pin the other’s thumb thus winning many points for each partner.  But for the most part, mental models about the the system structure (the game) got in the way of significantly improving performance.  As efforts increased, performance actually went down.  90% of the participants did not take the opportunity to work together or in systems language, to leverage interconnection.

There is no shame in this. Just good information. You have to start somewhere.

Next we looked at the UN Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs in the context of their research projects.  The SDGs are 17 interrelated global goals outlined by the United Nations.

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We put our heightened awareness of interconnections into practice.

Using wikki sticks and SDG cards, students and faculty looked for possible causal connections among the SDGs.

In what ways could they drive positive change through closed loops of cause and effect (e.g. feedback loops)  Students then set their own research project “maps” within the context of these iIMG_3545nter-related SDG goals.

IMG_4111Groups looking at improving air and water quality for instance explored how their research projects fed (and were fed by)  larger sustainable development goals such as Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being and Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Mapping student research projects into the larger landscape of the SDGs was a simple idea.  It allowed students to actively build their own win-win narratives by finding the causal connections between their local projects and global sustainable development goals.

While the airwaves are cluttered with stories of conflict and stalemates, these VIPS are working diligently, thoughtfully and rigorously to solve our worlds greatest problems.  May we seek them out and support them. If we do, our future will be in good hands.


For more information about Bridgewater States Annual Symposium on Sustainability and Environment, contact Ed Brush at EBrush@Bridgew.Edu

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.