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Combining Systems Thinking and Design Thinking in the Classroom

In my classroom, I want my students to be not just problem-solvers, but also problem-finders.

I want students to learn strategies and skills to solve real-world problems.

And I want students to be able to identify the very problems that need to be solved.

In my experience working in schools, I’ve noticed that there is often an emphasis on problem-solving and less of a focus on identifying those problems. For this reason, I love to teach a combination of Systems Thinking and Design Thinking approaches.

Systems Thinking helps students find problems. Design Thinking helps students solve those problems.

What is Systems Thinking?

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.

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

For more information about Systems Thinking, you can check out this blog post.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is an iterative, human-centered, problem-solving process that involves five key steps: (1) empathize, (2) define, (3) ideate, (4) prototype, and (5) test.

Design thinking sparks innovation, and in the classroom, invites students to explore “wildly radical” ideas.

For more information about Design Thinking, you can check out this section of my website.

Combining Systems Thinking and Design Thinking

Starting with Systems Thinking

If you are unfamiliar with Systems Thinking, I highly recommend you check out another blog post that explains the entire systems mapping process before reading the rest of this one.

I combine both the Systems Thinking and Design Thinking approaches in my classroom by starting off with a systems lesson.

I would start this lesson by picking a system for our class to explore, and we create a systems map.

For example, our essential question might be: What are the systems in our neighborhood?

And our class would create a systems map to show the different systems in our neighborhood.

Once students have identified many systems connected to our neighborhood, I would then ask students to identify which systems are human-made (red), natural (blue), or broken/unbalanced (star).

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.

For example, we might choose “littering” as a broken system in our neighborhood.

Transitioning to Design Thinking

If you aren’t familiar with the Design Thinking process, I recommend you read some of my blog posts on Design Thinking before finishing this current blog post.

Once we have identified (or “defined”) the problem we would like to solve (i.e. littering), we will form an essential question for our Design Thinking project.

For example, we might try to answer the essential question: How might we solve the littering problem in our neighborhood?

For the remainder of the project, we would focus on the Ideate, Prototype, and Test Stages of Design Thinking to answer our essential question.

I would explain to students that we aren’t skipping the Empathize and Define Stages, but instead, we already reached “Define” through the Systems Thinking process.

Students would then proceed to tackle the Ideate Stage by brainstorming and drawing at least 3 wildly radical solutions to the littering problem in our neighborhood.

Students would build their ideas during the Prototype Stage.

Lastly, students would test out their prototypes to gauge their effectiveness, as well as reflect on our class learning.

Thank You!

I have found that combining these two approaches – Systems and Design Thinking – gives students agency over their learning, from identifying to solving real-world problems.

Have you tried out this combination in your classroom before? Are you looking to get started? I’d love to hear from you! You can email me at, DM me on Instagram @edtechclass, or leave a comment down below!

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