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Systems Thinking in the Elementary Classroom

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Systems Thinking is an approach to teaching and learning where students identify and explore the interconnectedness of systems in our world.

In Systems Thinking, students investigate systems, and examine how these systems connect to other systems in our world.

Systems Thinking encourages us to zoom in and zoom out.

Students zoom in to study one system – even one small part of a system – and they zoom out to understand how this system might impact other related or connected systems.

In my classroom, the Systems Thinking approach works.

Systems Thinking can deepen students’ learning of standards, and even strengthen their development of skills like critical thinking (American University School of Education).

Introducing the Idea of Systems

Systems are everywhere!

From the school system – to the transportation system – to the water cycle – systems are all around us.

In our classrooms, students identify systems everyday. They practice the hand-raising system, or the signal system, or the line-up system. They also identify systems in stories and in nature.

Many students are naturally curious about the interconnectedness of systems, whether or not they have the language to describe the term “system.”

“To think about systems means we pay attention to interrelationships, patterns, and dynamics as well as to the parts” (Linda Booth Sweeney, Agency By Design, Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education).

For this reason, students and teachers will often create systems maps to document their learning process.

Systems Mapping

Systems Thinking is process-focused.

Deep learning occurs in the process rather than in the creation of a final product. This process often takes form through systems mapping.

To better understand what the systems mapping process looks like, let’s take a look at a project example.

Example Systems Thinking Project

Preparing for a Systems Thinking Lesson

In a Systems Thinking project, I create an essential question to share with my students.

At my school, our 2nd grade social studies theme is “neighborhood.”

Our essential question might be, “What are the systems in our neighborhood (or community)?”

To prepare for our lesson, I would write this question at the top of the board. Then, in the center of the board, I would write “Our Neighborhood.”

Identifying Systems in Our Community

I would start off the lesson asking students, “What are the systems in our neighborhood?”

I would call on students (using our hand-raising system!) and ask them to share their ideas.

As students share, I would begin mapping their ideas out on the board. To do this, I would (1) write the name of the system, (2) circle the system, and (3) based on student ideas, connect systems using lines.

For example, in response to the question, “What are the systems in our neighborhood?” a student might identify, “The Street System.”

Digging Deeper with Connected Systems

I would then probe students to consider other systems that are connected to the Street System.

Students might identify systems like the car, trash, sign/signal, or mail systems.

I would also probe students to think about systems that might be broken, unbalanced, or harmful (i.e. littering, climate change, pollution).

Sometimes, the Systems Thinking process isn’t quite so structured.

I might ask students to share a system connected to the street system, and a student might say, “this doesn’t answer your question, but… what about the school system?”

That is okay! In fact, that’s great! Systems Thinking isn’t meant to be a linear process.

Completing Your Systems Map

I usually spend about 30 minutes creating a systems map with students, but the time allotment is up to you!

In my experience, many students tend to be pretty engaged during the discussion. They seem to love thinking about the interconnectedness of our world!

In the image below, you will see a completed example of a systems map I might make with my 2nd graders.

I remind students that there are no right answers! “This systems map shows our class’ thinking and ideas.”

I also might tell students, “There are so many other systems we could add to this map. There are so many other connections we could make. For example, we could connect ‘Homeless’ to the ‘Work’ system. Or, we could connect the ‘Car’ system to ‘Carpool.”

Identifying Human-Made, Natural, and Broken Systems

In looking at the completed systems map as a class, I would ask my students to share out which systems are human-made. I would label these systems using a color, like red in the image below.

You will notice that the majority of the systems below are human-made. Sometimes, the majority are natural, and other times it’s 50/50!

Once we have identified human-made systems, we would highlight natural systems (in blue below).

Now, you might notice that some systems (i.e. climate change and learning) have been identified as both human-made and natural. Systems can belong to multiple categories, and in my experience, students typically make this connection without guidance.

Finally, we would identify broken / unbalanced / harmful systems (indicated with a star below).

Learning About Broken Systems

After students have identified broken, unbalanced, or harmful systems in our neighborhood, we would then shift our focus to explore one of those systems in depth.

We might do a design thinking activity to design a solution (more on this in a future blog post!).

Or, we might read a book about one of these systems.

Or, we listen/read news about this system.

There are endless opportunities!

Systems Thinking in My Elementary Classroom (and Yours!)

There are many approaches to teaching and learning. Systems Thinking is just one approach that has worked for me and my students.

When students document their learning with systems maps, they are able to visualize how systems might impact each other.

Students are able to identify problems, when learning through a Systems Thinking lens.

If you are interested in this approach, consider starting with one of these essential questions:

  • What systems do we have in our classroom?
  • What systems do we have in our school?
  • What systems do we have in our bodies?

Introduce students to Systems Thinking on a smaller scale before diving into a bigger project.

Thank You!

Thank you for reading this blog post about Systems Thinking in the elementary classroom. If you want to share your thoughts with me, please leave a comment down below, DM me on Instagram @edtechclass, or write me an email myedtechclassroom@gmail.com.

Additional Resources

To learn more about Systems Thinking, you can visit the following resources:

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