What makes systems thinking so powerful? Educators integrate systems thinking into instruction because they recognize that demonstrated understanding of dynamic systems is an integral part of educational standards, including Common Core Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. As students better understand the complex, dynamic systems they are studying in a classroom, they can transfer that skill and knowledge to future situations they would like to understand. Individuals or groups can use systems thinking habits, concepts, and tools as they look for leverage points when solving problems.
People who practice systems thinking often report that it sharpens and clarifies their understanding of how systems actually work. Confusing, disconnected snapshots of life start to make more sense when understood as patterns of change over time. The effects of undesirable patterns may be reduced and the influence of beneficial patterns may be increased by deeper understanding of the system causing the behavior. Experience with understanding the world in terms of feedback loops leads to simple, powerful questions such as: What are the patterns and trends produced by the dynamic system? What is the structure of the system that created the pattern and trends? What is accumulating here? What effects the rate it is accumulating? How do parts of the system influence each other? Where may we intervene in the system to change the outcomes in a positive manner? How might we avoid unintended consequences of our interventions? Many of us have some sense that everything is connected to everything else. Systems thinking provides tools to better understand and communicate these connections.
Schools across the United States and throughout the world are actively pursuing the advantages of integrating systems thinking in classrooms and schools. Applications vary greatly across many areas of the curriculum and at every grade level. No matter the topic or the age of the students, reports of success are consistent for students who have previously been successful in school and those who haven’t.
Exploration of dynamic complexity is a highly motivating learning experience for students. Their learning is enhanced by the “real” nature of the problems that they explore and the sense that they are developing skills that will prove useful throughout their lives. The merging of system dynamics and the characteristics of effective instruction creates tremendous potential for engaging students in powerful learning experiences.
Research* shows that instructional settings that are student-centered, experiential, and authentic optimize learning. In these settings, students are provided opportunities to utilize many forms of expression, to reflect independently, to interact with other students, to construct ideas and systems, and to collaborate. Effective applications of systems thinking and dynamic modeling include all of these characteristics.
*Best Practice – New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, Arthur Hyde (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998)