Systems Thinking: A Great Equalizer


After a number of years teaching in public education, I have a pretty good idea about what students will be able to accomplish when learning something new. Despite a desire to reduce limiting beliefs, and to hold high the ideal that all students are capable of extraordinary achievement, most academic tasks require a similar set of capabilities and a student’s prior school experiences significantly influence the rate at which he or she will master a new academic task. Such is not the case when introducing systems thinking tools. Two first grade students provide a particularly clear illustration of how students are able to master basic systems thinking tools within a learning task at different rates and by drawing on vastly different experiences.

Eric came to school as a kindergartener from a Head Start program. He entered school with an individualized educational plan for language. He had suffered significant developmental delays and spent much of kindergarten learning how to function in a group. He was not speaking in complete sentences. He had limited skills for taking care of himself. In first grade Eric participated in a lesson in which behavior-over-time graphs were introduced as a tool for retelling folk tales. An adult read the story to Eric and he began drawing the key story events across the x-axis of his graph. He plotted a change in the story and then came up to retell me his assigned folk tale. To my delight his retelling was excellent. He was able to explain what had happened in the story. Further, Eric was able to use his behavior-over-time graph to retell the story to his classmates and could still retell the story one month later using his graph. Change over time opened the concept of story structure for Eric. Additionally, he was able to use this tool into the next school year to assist in recalling information. The tool allowed Eric success in school that he had not previously experienced.

In contrast to Eric, Jordan came to school already reading. He had great background knowledge and excellent comprehension allowing him to engage with ease in all aspects of the academic day. When I introduced behavior-over-time graphs to Jordan, he had great difficulty with the graph. He could not grasp the concept of time moving horizontally. He attempted to draw graphs with loops or circles suggesting that events could go back in time. Jordan eventually mastered change over time and eventually used the tool regularly as a part of his academic work; however, what had come easily to a child with historically low academic performance required multiple lessons for Jordan. Jordan expressed frustration and reticence at learning the task because it was difficult for him, a previously unfamiliar experience for him as a learner.  Jordan eventually mastered change over time and began using the tool regularly as a part of his academic work.

Granted, these examples are extremes in the acquisition of systems thinking skills, but they are real stories and are reflective of the fact that systems thinking tools are accessible to all students.  Teaching all learners the tools and habits of systems thinking can provides access to challenging content.