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When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings. - Wendell Berry
Systems thinking lessons include systems thinking concepts, habits and tools related to a variety of critical thinking skills. One example of related focus are the habits of mind identified by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick.
Following is a description of connections between systems thinking and these habits of mind.
Discovering and Exploring Habits of Mind, Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick (Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000)
Persistence: persevering when the solution to a problem is not readily apparent
Systems thinking classroom applications should be designed to facilitate scientific inquiry, to encourage trial and error. The message of systems thinking is that complex systems are not easy to understand and that a variety of approaches may be necessary to obtain a thorough understanding of how a complex system works.
Managing impulsivity: effective problem solving requires a sense of deliberativeness and thinking before acting.
The concepts and tools of systems thinking require that users approach a problem or situation with certain questions in mind, understandings to obtain. What outcomes are a result of this system? What is the purpose of this system? What patterns of behavior have been occurring over time? What structures exist in the system? How are the patterns of behavior and/or structures interrelated? What mental models exist about this system?
Listening to others with understanding and empathy: learning to do this requires holding in abeyance values, judgments, opinions, and prejudices in order to listen to and entertain another persons thoughts
Systems thinking involves an awareness and understanding of mental models and the importance of surfacing and clarifying our own mental models and the mental models of others in order to effectively communicate.
Flexibility in thinking: capacity to change ones mind as additional data is received Using the concepts, habits and tools of systems thinking often leads to a new and/or more in depth understanding of a system.
Metacognition: awareness of our own thinking
An increased awareness of our own mental models is crucial to systems thinking. Our mental models affect what we see happening in a system as well as our opinions about the value of the system, our ability to change the system and perceptions of cause and effect.
Checking for accuracy and precision
The tools of system thinking (Behavior-over-time graphs, causal loops, stock/flow diagrams, etc.) can represent thinking in an explicit way. It assists students in exploring questions and checking for accuracy, especially when carried to the point of computer modeling.
Questioning and problem posing: effective problem solvers know how to ask questions to fill in the gaps between what they know and what they dont know
A system thinking approach includes asking reflective questions of oneself and others about the problem/situation of concern.
Drawing on past knowledge and applying it to new and novel situations
The transferability of systems thinking facilitates looking for trends, structures, and dynamics that have been studied previously and applying the understanding of those characteristics to new situations.
Precision of language and thought
One motivation for the creation of the field of systems thinking by Dr. Jay Forrester at MIT was the desire to provide students with tools for communicating. The vocabulary, concepts, habits and tools of system thinking, can increase clarity of communication.
Using all the senses
Understanding complex, dynamic systems is often enhanced through the use of sensory pathways along with the more visual and/or mathematical systems thinking pathways.
Ingenuity, originality, insightfulness: creativity
Creative approaches to problem solving can be facilitated with the use of systems thinking concepts, habits and tools.
Wonderment, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and the enjoyment of problem solving
Reports about the use of systems thinking tools, including computer modeling, have consistently included evidence of learner enthusiasm and the development of initial questions leading to new questions.
Responsible risk taking
Systems thinking lessons should include opportunities for learners to recommend leverage interventions. With the computer model, interventions can be tried and results studied without risk to the actual situation. Although the process does not guarantee success, options can be explored, discussed, and revised in a fairly realistic and timely manner.
Displaying a sense of humor: people who engage in the mystery of humor have the ability to perceive situations from an original and often interesting vantage point.
Although humor is not an explicit aspect of systems thinking, the vantage point described above is an important aspect of a systems approach.
Understanding and evaluating levels of interdependence is a core concept of systems thinking.
The humility of continuous learning
Using systems thinking creates an awareness that there is always something more to be learned.
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Educators planning for the successful integration of systems thinking must combine effective instructional strategies with the concepts, habits and tools of system thinking.
Two studies of best practice are cited below:
Best Practice New Standards for Teaching and Learning in Americas Schools, Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels,
Arthur Hyde (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998)
Schooling should be student-centered, taking its cues from young peoples interests, concerns, and questions.
Dynamic systems are everywhere and many dynamic systems are of interest or concern to young people.
As often as possible, schools should stress learning that is experiential. Systems thinking lessons should incorporate a combination of instructional strategies which may include experiments, use of manipulatives, role playing, games, field trips, real-world projects, etc.
Learning in all subjects needs to be holistic.
Systems thinking involves understanding how parts of the system affect each other and the system as a whole. Deciding how much of the system is important in a particular situation is an essential problem-solving skill.
Learning activities need to be authentic.
Systems thinking involves the study of actual systems, systems that students encounter and that affect them on a daily basis. Understanding and recognizing the patterns of dynamic systems is a skill that can be transferred to all areas of school and life.
Students need to learn and practice many forms of expression to deeply engage ideas.
The tools of systems thinking (behavior-over-time graphs, causal loops, stock and flow diagrams, computer simulations) are most powerful when accompanied by meaningful dialogue, opportunities to explain, demonstrate, and present evidence.
Effective learning is balanced with opportunities for reflection.
Reflecting on what was learned from previous study of dynamic systems, how that learning applies to the current system of concern, and reflecting on the generalization, transfer, application, and usefulness of systems concepts is essential to the effective use of systems thinking.
Teachers should tap into the primal power of social relations to promote learning.
The dynamics of social systems are among the most important and challenging to study, analyze, and understand. Systems thinking concepts, habits and tools are useful in this process.
Some of the most efficient social learning activities are collaborative. Systems thinking learning can and should integrate cooperative and collaborative activities. The sharing of perspectives on how dynamic systems work, why they work that way, how generic patterns of behavior and structure apply, as well as collaborative research, discussion, and consensus building are also important.
Classrooms can become more effective and productive when procedures are democratic.
Respect and appreciation for one anothers differences and views through sharing and negotiating differences of opinion and conflicts are essential to effective use of systems thinking. In addition systems thinking concepts, habits and tools can be helpful in gaining an understanding of why differences exist, how those differences contribute to various dynamics, and why differences are essential to creating and/or maintaining some dynamics.
Powerful learning comes from cognitive experiences.
Central to the use of systems thinking is the role that mental models play in our view of the world. Systems thinking also involves looking at our thinking as a system. The use of the concepts, habits and tools of systems thinking can lead to increasingly complex applications and deeper understanding of dynamic, complex systems. Language, thinking, and conceptual understanding can be intertwined as graphic and mathematical representations of dynamic systems are utilized, discussed, and presented orally and in writing.
Childrens learning must be approached as developmental.
For the past ten years, teachers have been applying the tools and concepts of systems thinking at all levels of elementary, middle, and high school. Accounts of those applications have been positive and have consistently included the discovery that the systems thinking approach seems very natural for students. In fact, change from linear thinking to systems thinking appears to be more difficult for adults than for children.
Childrens learning always involves constructing ideas and systems. Developing behavior-over-time graphs, causal loops, stock and flow diagrams, and computer simulations involves a constructivist approachneeding to learn more in order to understand interrelationships, structures creating behavior, etc. As the representations of the system are developed, tested, and altered, hypotheses about the system can emerge, what if scenarios can be checked, alternative interventions can be tried.
Study # 2
Educating Everybodys Children, Diverse Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners, What Research and Practice Say About Improving Achievement ASCD Improving Student Achievement Research Panel,
Robert W. Cole, Editor (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1995)
Chapter 3: A Bakers Dozen: Effective Instructional Strategies, Lloyd W. Kline
Provide opportunities to work together.
Systems thinking lessons should include opportunities to share perspectives, to analyze, research, discuss and reach consensus in small cooperative groups and/or in large group activities.
Use reality-based learning approaches.
Systems thinking lessons should use real-world scenarios as the basis for problem solving.
Encourage interdisciplinary teaching.
The vocabulary, concepts, and tools of systems thinking create natural connections among disciplines.
Involve students actively.
Systems thinking lessons should involve students in discussions, use of manipulatives, role playing, and the building of physical models, in addition to the formation of graphs, causal loops, stock and flow diagrams, computer simulations.
Analyze students learning/reading styles.
Using systems thinking allows opportunities for a variety of perceptual and analytical strengths.
Actively model behaviors.
It is very important that adults in a school situation model systems thinking for students and attempt to represent best practices that contribute to a healthy/productive system for individuals and for the school as a whole.
Explore the fullest dimensions of thought.
Applying the tools and concepts of systems thinking cause learners to utilize higher order thinking and to build their capacity to recognize, understand, and deal with complex, dynamic systemsthe types of systems that are most likely to be encountered in the world.
Use a multicultural teaching approach.
Systems thinking can help learners to understand the dynamics produced by cultural diversity and to maximize the potential benefits of that diversity. An understanding of the ways in which mental models are developed and maintained can help us identify leverage for adopting mental models that celebrate diversity and recognize and appreciate the multicultural nature of our society.
Use alternative assessments.
The tools of systems thinking, behavior-over-time graphs, causal loops, stock/flow maps, computer models can be used as assessment tools. Concepts and patterns of dynamic systems can be the focus of evaluation and can be represented in a variety of ways that include performance assessment.
Promote home/school partnerships.
The school is not a closed system. Interactions and interrelationships between the school, the home, the community, etc. affect the results that a school can produce. In addition, parents and community members typically support the type of critical thinking, problem solving, mathematical reasoning, etc. that are involved in using systems thinking.
Use accelerated learning techniques.
The more you use your brain, he maintains, and the more facts and experience you store, the more associations and connections you make. Therefore, the easier it is to remember and learn yet more new materials. (Colin Rose, 1985) This is a reinforcing relationship-new learning reinforces old learning and old learning reinforces new learning. Understanding of dynamic systems can be transferred to new situations and can foster even more learning.
Foster strategies in questioning.
One of the major goals of systems thinking is that students will use results of investigation and independently generate what if questions and pose new questions to explore.
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Teachers consistently report that use of systems thinking result in improved student learning. Positive results are attributed to the connection between the Systems thinking tools (visual representations of change over time and interrelationships in a system) and the research on the use of other graphic organizing tools for learning.
Visual Tools for constructing knowledge, David Hyerle
(Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1996)
As Hyerle points out, the brain works by making patterns; and we can visualize this process through a medium called visual tools. (Frances Faircloth Jones, ASCD President, 96-97)
Metacognition: To the best of our knowledge, human beings are the only form of life that can reflect on their own thinking processes. Basically, metacognition means that, when confronted with a dilemma or some obstacle, humans draw on their mental resources to plan a course of action, monitor that strategy while executing it, then reflect on the strategy while executing it, then reflect on the strategy to evaluate its productiveness in terms of the outcomes it was intended to achieve.
The tools of systems thinking provide a way to graphically display thinking processes and make thinking explicit. The concepts of systems thinking and the thinking involved in the use of the tools provide a way to move through the process of metacognition, including the simulation of a scenario that provides the compression of time and space.
Constructing Abstractions: Humans have the unique capacity to synopsize massive amounts of information and to shape raw data into workable patterns. To live productively in the future, we have found that the capacity to construct abstractions has become prerequisite to survival and will need to be grown.
The tools and concepts of systems thinking require the construction of abstractionsrepresenting patterns of behavior. Systems thinking involves learning to understand, recognize, and deal with the patterns of dynamic systems.
Storing Information Outside The Body: Human beings are the only form of life that can store, organize, and retrieve data in locations other than our bodies.
Systems thinking is a way of providing tools to generate, store, and communicate information in a manner that can be recalled and interpreted at a later time through computer models, simulations, graphs, and tables.
Systems Thinking: Humans have the unique capacity to see the parts in relation to the whole and thus to see patterns, congruencies, and inconsistencies. Human preferences for perceiving parts or wholes as separate cognitive inclinations, as some cognitive-style theorists would have us believe, is inadequate for productive participation in a quantum world. In dynamic systems, tiny inputs can reverberate throughout the system, producing dramatically large consequences.
Systems thinking fulfills a human capacity to understand the boundaries within a part of the total system and, at the same time, to understand the interactions with its interconnecting parts. Hyerle suggests the use of visual tools to guide thinking when we need to simultaneously pay attention to the whole and analyze whether the parts are, indeed, interdependent and interconnected.
Problem Finding: To the best of our knowledge, humans are the only form of life that actually enjoys the search for problems to solve. Being dissatisfied with existing levels of certainty, humans have an insatiable passion for doubting the status quo, sensing ambiguities, and detecting anomalies. Once having intuited such inconsistencies, humans have developed the profound capacity to engage in experimental inquiry, to set up procedures to test and evaluate alternative ideas, and to strive for certitude. The process of modern scientific thought thrives on this human tendency.
The most effective applications of systems thinking incorporate practice in the process described above.
Learning & Memory, The Brain in Action,
Marilee Sprenger (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1999)
Graphic organizers are one of the most powerful ways to build semantic memories. Behavior-over-time graphs, causal loops, stock/flow diagrams, and computer models can be used as graphic organizers which, in addition to representing connections, also represent the dynamics of a system.
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