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Systems-Based Review – Who Really Killed Cock Robin?

by Linda Booth Sweeney

 

Book Title:           Who Really Killed Cock Robin?

Book author:       Jean Craighead George

Publisher:            Harper Trophy

Format:                Chapter book; fiction

Age range:           8 years old and up

 

Systems Thinking Concepts:

Mutual dependencies, unintended consequences, reinforcing and balancing feedback, time delays, nested systems, “fixes that fail,”escalation

A Quick Look at the Story

In her ecological mysteries, George invites young readers to become systems super sleuths, prodding them to search for interconnections among science, nature and social systems, all within the context of real-to-life mysteries. The beauty of these stories is that they have sufficient complexity to be confounding but at the same time are quite accessible to 8-12 year old readers.

In Who Really Killed Cock Robin? George tells the story of an intricate web of interrelationships and mutual interdependencies among plant life, animals and humans. The story begins with the news that Cock Robin, a bird that has come to symbolize progress in the town’s clean environment campaign, has died.  The question of who killed Cock Robin immediately appears in the town’s newspapers, on the local radio show, on the playing fields and in the homes. The finger-pointing begins and the blame and insults start to fly.  To the author’s great credit, the system dynamics portrayed in this story are all too real.  There is an escalating spiral of blame: the mayor is blamed for using weed killers on his lawn. The local textile mill is blamed for dumping dye into the river, while the pump mill is dumping mercuric acid and mercury. The farmers are blamed for using pesticides to prevent insects from eating their apples. The townspeople are blamed for using harsh detergents to wash themselves, their dishes and their clothes.  Eventually the blame reaches all the way to the U.S. government and NASA. 

The town wants to know: Who really killed Cock Robin?  The final explanation, more complex than simple finger-pointing at an isolated source, comes from an unlikely source: Tony Isidoro, an 8th grade student. The reader realizes along with the young protagonist that knee-jerk assumptions based on seemingly conclusive evidence can lead to investigative and intellectual dead-ends.  A different kind of thinking “one that looks at multiple interconnections, seeks out delays between cause and effects, and attempts to look at the whole picture” is needed. 

Teaching Tips

There are many ways to look at this story from a systems perspective. One approach is for students themselves to act as systems sleuths and keep a journal. A journal can be a spiral bound or handmade, tape-bound notebook.  The phrase “keep a journal” suggests that students pause after every chapter to reflect on what they are reading, write down their own assumptions, and attempt to map key interrelationships and dynamics. 

Students can reflect as they read by recording significant events and looking for intriguing patterns of behavior.  To map key interrelationships, they can create appropriate BOT (behavior over time) graphs and draw causal loop diagrams to depict the sets of interrelationships that might be causing some of the behavior patterns.  Students can also write notes about assumptions or policies that might have influenced the events or propose new policies that would address the problems at hand.

Following is a sample flow of a systems sleuth’s journaling activity for this book. For a rich description of how journals, aka notebooks, can be used to facilitate learning of system dynamics, I recommend you read the article “Writing and Modeling: Using a notebook to learn about system dynamics” listed in the References section below(Joy, Fall 2003). 

For each chapter, ask students to:  1) Identify key events, discoveries and assumptions, 2) Draw one or more behavior-over-time graphs and provide description(s) of the trend(s) observed, 3) Identify key interrelationships and influences and look for unintended consequences and 4) Develop policy-level recommendations.


1.    
 Identify key events, discoveries and assumptions.

Have the students list what they see as key events and discoveries in the chapter as they are reading (recording the page number on which they read it, in case they want to refer to wording later for a quotation), then when they conclude the chapter they can designate which were the “most important”  or appeared to be “assumptions.” If students are able, you may ask them to summarize their findings for each chapter in a paragraph.


2.  Draw one or more behavior-over-time graphs and provide description(s) of the trend(s) you are observing.

Ask students to consider:  What are the important things that are building up and/or decreasing throughout the story? (For older students, you may ask:  What are the intriguing trends or patterns of behavior?)  This question will help students to focus on what to graph. Then students can think about the particular pattern of increase or decrease they have observed, and over what time frame. There are several behavior patterns to graph in this story.  Let’s first look at the perplexing increasing number of ants (and possibly related increase in the number of bees) on the playing field. (page 72 and 73)  

Tony wonders what will happen when picnickers come to the park and see all the bees.  Tony surmises they will probably spray the bees with a non-toxic chemical.  Then Tony goes a step further and thinks about the unintended consequence of this act:

 bees

The thousands of dead bees would provide more food for the ants.  They would lay more eggs, feed more babies. The babies would mature and make more hills.  The hills would grow more flowers and the flowers would attract more bees. (pages 61-62)

Tony needed to find out why there were so many ants in the first place. 

As students keep their logs, they will find out later on that there are fewer birds (and baby spiders) to eat the ants. With fewer predatory birds and spiders, the ants thrive.

To track these interconnections, students may begin to visually map key interrelationships.

 

3.  Identify key interrelationships and influences and look for unintended consequences.

A natural question is:  Why are there fewer birds, such as the marsh hawks, owls and eagles?  From the story, we see that Tony identifies at least two possible reasons for the decline in the number of birds. One reason may be due to the loss of nesting area for the birds because of the clearing away of bushes. Another possible cause may be the amount of harmful chemicals found in the environment.

Students may choose to represent these connections through a variety of methods including: connection circles, influence diagrams, causal loop diagrams and/or stock flow diagrams. For example, to explore the question of why ants and bees have taken over the playing field, students can create a causal loop diagram such as this one:  

cr1

Tony puts forth a theory that perhaps the ants had multiplied because there were fewer birds. (page 96)  He tests that theory with his scientist friend Rob who suggests there may be other natural causes for outbreaks of insects, such as too much acid or too much lime in the earth. 

While noticing that the marsh hawks have disappeared, Tony also notices that the marsh itself appears to be dying.  With the help of his friend Rob, Tony learns about the key dynamics in the life and death of the marsh.

Students should be encouraged to try to map “the dying marsh dynamics.”  One representation of these dynamics can be found in the causal loop diagram below:  

Cock-Robin-CL-2 

Although there are many places to begin, we can start by looking at the impact of lawn fertilizers on life in and around the marsh. As the amount of fertilizers increases, the amount of nitrogen in the marsh increases.  The nitrogen kills the blue-green algae. As the blue-green algae disappears, the amount of green algae increases, and oxygen in the marsh is gradually used up.  With less oxygen, the floating plants begin to die. The oxidized or decomposed water plants then in turn reduce the amount of oxygen and the number of dead floating water plants increases and the reinforcing feedback dynamic continues.  As the amount of oxygen in the water begins to decrease, the fish die. The dying fish attract scavenger seagulls but provide less food for eagles, hawks and owls. (pages 91-92)  (For tips on how to read causal loop diagrams such as the one described above, click here).  

 

4.  Develop policy-level recommendations.

After mapping key patterns of relationships, students may then discuss the various policies that influenced Cock Robin’s and Mrs. Robin’s death and that will influence the life of Saddle, their offspring.  Students may begin discussing what “policies” are and then list the various policies they encountered throughout the story.  For example:

  • NASA’s policy to burn space flight fabric

  • Lamberty’’s mill’s policy to dump dye in the river

  • The town policy that allowed for use of fertilizers and pesticides

One of the more empowering lines of inquiry for students to take after they’ve identified the various policies results from putting themselves in the shoes of another.  They might ask:

                What would I do if I were Tony? 

                What would I do if I were the mayor?

Tony as a Systems Thinker

 A complementary approach to the journaling activity is to consider how Tony Isidoro and other characters in the story think and act systemically, or not, compared to a list of systems thinking qualities. (For one of many lists of such qualities, see Systems Thinking Playbook, Vol. 1)  One way into this activity is to provide students with the types of questions that someone thinking systemically might ask and place those on the left-hand side of a sheet of paper. (Or have students generate the qualities and questions themselves.) Then ask the students to provide examples from the story of those qualities being exhibited and place those on the right-hand side.   

Here is an example: 

Questions Systems Thinkers Ask                                             Examples from the Story

What are the simple or complex interconnections in this situation or story?

 

 

Tony sees how one event can influence another -even if the second event occurs “far away” from the first.  For example, he traces the numerous interconnections among the use of pesticides, dumping dyes in the river, parasitic flies (page 186) from Florida and the health of Cock Robin.

What lies beyond the obvious here? 

Initial assumptions and conclusions about the death of Cock Robin by the Mayor, Mary Alice and others, all focused on the obvious. But as Tony slowly looks beyond the obvious (and uses his peripheral vision) he begins to trace the many causes of Cock Robin’s death to non-obvious circumstances in the marsh, in the Mayor’s yard, in the homes of Saddleboro residents, and in other geographic areas, such as Florida.

What are the different time dimensions in this story?

Where might there be significant time delays?

Throughout the story we see Tony consciously asking questions about time, such as “When did Cock Robin arrive?” The answer is April 29th. Then why had the frogs stopped singing about April 18th

Here we see Tony consciously expanding his time horizon to look back weeks before Cock Robin arrived.  

Where might there be nested systems at play?

In this quote from Tony, we see he was astutely aware that Cock Robin was part of numerous nested systems: “He was part of something bigger-a town, perhaps a county, even a whole state.”  (p. 53)

What if I looked at these events from multiple perspectives?

Tony shows a remarkable ability to look at this mystery from the perspective of the robin, the Mayor, Mary Alice’s dad, the townspeople, and from other states’ residents.

How can I focus on structure and not on blame?

Early on in the story, the mayor commands Tony to find out who killed Cock Robin, saying:  “I have no one to accuse. Lamberty’s mill has not been dumping dyes since long before the first egg was laid.” (page 30) Tony listens to his own intuition and attempts to suspend his own assumptions about who killed Cock Robin. He does this by avoiding blame and uncovering key interrelationships instead.    

In what additional ways could Tony’s investigation have been helped by systems concepts and/or tools?

In this story, Mrs. Robin, Cock Robin’s mate, also dies.  Finding marsh hawk feathers around her nest, Tony concludes it was the marsh hawk that killed Mrs. Robin.  Tony knows that the hawks, owls and eagles are predators of birds like Cock Robin.   When Tony goes to the marsh, he discovers that the hawks, too, have disappeared, and worries: “without the predators to control the birds that control the insects, trouble is upon the land.”  (page 77)  What could he mean by this?

  • What are the major accumulations, that is, stocks, in this story?  What are the flows that increase and decrease the stocks? 

Partner Stories

One of the ways I find stories that can be looked at from a systems thinking perspective is by talking to a lot of librarians.  When I try to describe what I mean by a “systems thinking perspective,” some librarians point me to books about the human body (the word “system” conjures images of the digestive system and the nervous system).  Others point me to science books about ecosystems.  Those librarians who see that systems are found in a variety of environments (or places) -from the body, to a pond, to a family- consistently say that a “must read!” for me is the work of Jean Craighead George.  George is the author of more than 60 books, including the widely acclaimed Julie of the Wolves and My Side of the Mountain.  She is also the author of a perhaps lesser-known series of ecological mysteries, and as such, is now my hero.

Other eco-mysteries by Craighead George, including The Missing Gator of Gumbo Limbo, The Firebug Connection and The Case of the Missing Cutthroats (all by Harper Trophy) will give students the opportunity to practice their systems sleuthing skills[LBS1].

 References

Joy, T. (Fall 2003). “Writing and Modeling:  Using a notebook to learn about system dynamics.” The Creative Learning Exchange 12(4): 1-12.

Meadows, D.  (1973). Adding the Time Dimension to Environmental Policy.Toward Global Equilibrium: Collected Papers. D. L. Meadows and D. H. Meadows. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wright-Allen Press, Inc.309-314.


 [LBS1]A note:

 Adults who care about the environment face a tough challenge today.  It is difficult to raise awareness about the harmful things that are happening to the land beneath our feet, the ecosystems around us, the water in our oceans and the air around us, when most of us are distracted by seemingly more immediate issues such as terrorism and a shaky economy.

Our young people, on the other hand, still have the mental spaciousness to consider thoughtfully the interconnections between the natural world and humankind. This story, and other stories in Craighead’s eco-mystery series, give young readers the opportunity to explore the often hidden connections between nature and humankind and consider the many unintended consequences of tinkering with ecosystems. 

 

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