Friday, March 21, 2014

Systems Thinking in Education

Systems Thinking: Big Picture Thinking


Critical analysis . . . problem solving . . . creativity . . . systems thinking are the things that we need to prepare students for the 21st century.  Systems thinking is especially relevant to developing a 21st century understanding of the world. A world where understanding how one's actions affect the actions of others.   

What is systems thinking?  If analysis involves breaking a thing into smaller parts and thinking about how each part works, systems thinking looks at how the thing interacts with other things.   The Waters Foundation ( has developed 13 habits of systems thinking:
  • Seeks to understand the big picture
  • Observes how elements within systems change over time
  • Recognizes that a system's structure generates its behavior understanding the complexities
  • Examines interdependence causing cause and effect relationships to be circular rather than linear
  • Changes perspectives to increase understanding
  • Rigorously examines assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions
  • Considers issues fully and resists urge to jump to a conclusion
  • Makes mental models to understand what is happening
  • Uses understanding to identify points of  leverage : what small change can result in the desired effect?
  • Considers both short-term and long-term consequences
  • Identifies unintended consequences 
  • Recognizes that an action will experience time delays before a desired result takes place
  • Successive approximation: Monitors and evaluates the behavior of the system and takes action when necessary 

An example of systems thinking:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (creator) (2011, August 28). Re-thinking progress:
The circular economy [video file]. Retrieved from

This type of thinking is found in the common core standards k-12, STEM, and 21st Century Skills.  Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than I.Q.,  has stated that this type of thinking helps to facilitate the development of emotional intelligence (2014).  Recognizing the impact that the actions of others have on you and your actions have on the emotions of others is central to understanding social-emotional dynamics.  Taking this a step further, systemic thinking can also be found in the conflict resolution practices of Restorative Justice, a highly successful school discipline program.  Restorative justice focus on how ones actions affect others.  Research indicates that student participation in social emotional learning programs has been shown to have a 11 percent increase in student achievement (Durlak, Weissberg,  Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2010).  Additionally, Restorative Justice strategies have been associated with increased student achievement (Schiff, 2013).

Systems thinking has been around as a discipline for over 50 years.  However, its application for the 21st century seems untapped.  Providing instruction on systems thinking in the classroom has a large potential for deepening student understanding of content, decreasing discipline problems, and increasing emotional intelligence.  In a world where our interdependence is inescapable, understanding the potential of our actions on others, positive or negative, is essential.

Further Information

Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge discusses system thinking in relationship to empathy building and the use of systems thinking in the schools.  Excellent starting point for systems thinking in schools.  Another good source for systems thinking in schools.  Information regarding social emotional learning in schools.  Fix School Discipline is a good starting point to learn about restorative justice in schools.


Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. (2011), The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82: 405–432.

Goleman, D. & Senge, P. (Performers). (2014, March 17). Education For Today: Rethinking Skills for Success with Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge [Web Video]. Retrieved from

Schiff, M. (2013, January). Dignity, disparity and desistance: Effective restorative justice strategies to plug the “school-to-prison pipeline.”. Closing the School Discipline Gap: Research to Practice conference, Washington, DC.