What makes systems thinking so powerful? The benefits are multifaceted and have an ongoing, ripple effect …
By applying the Habits, concepts and tools of systems thinking, users gain a deeper understanding of systems around them and move closer to achieving their highest performance. Systems thinkers have a sharpened and clarified understanding of how systems actually work. Confusing, disconnected snapshots of life start to make more sense when understood as patterns of change over time.
Educators integrate systems thinking into instruction because they recognize that demonstrated understanding of dynamic systems is an integral part of educational standards.
As students better understand the complex, dynamic systems they are studying in a classroom, they can transfer that skill and knowledge to any situation or challenge.
This also applies to individuals or groups within businesses, community organizations and more. Really, anyone who is a part of a system (and we all are!) can use systems thinking Habits, concepts, and tools to look for leverage points to find lasting solutions.
Check out this video featuring Jim Waters and Waters Center President, Tracy Benson, along with teachers who have implemented systems thinking, discuss some of the benefits to schools.
STUDENTS Become Engaged and Empowered
Systems thinking engages even the most reluctant students with a mix of visual, verbal and kinesthetic strategies appealing to all types of learners. Its tools distill abstract ideas into a shared vocabulary that lets students express themselves with empowering precision. That lucidity also helps them connect classroom learning to the outside world to tackle challenges in their daily lives. Systems thinking helps teach students how to think — not what to think. It helps develop independent, mature thinkers who have the tools to manage the complexity of today’s systems.
Overall, it improves students’ ability to:
- Connect their learning to real-world situations
- Solve complex problems
- Consider short-term, long-term and unintended consequences
- Apply the Habits of a Systems Thinker to life outside the classroom
- Negotiate life choices as adults
EDUCATORS are Energized by Success
Educators who use systems thinking in their classrooms experience the galvanizing energy of highly motivated learners immersed in critical thinking. Their students take responsibility for their own learning. Systems thinking improves the system of the school itself, fostering social development in ways that reduce disciplinary problems.
Other specific benefits for educators include:
- Increased student engagement and a learner-centered environment
- A cooperative, interdisciplinary, and relevant educational environment
- Integration of rigorous thinking in instruction, which is key to achieving proficiency
- A solid support for social and emotional development
- A common language and a set of tools that facilitate collaborative problem-solving
BUSINESSES and EMPLOYERS Gain a Pipeline of High-Efficacy Talent
Schools have the unique responsibility of preparing students for an unknowable future, a span of 50 – 75 years with jobs we can’t even imagine. Given that uncertainty, employers consistently rank applied thinking skills as crucial for the 21st-century workforce. Systems thinking develops an independence that persists beyond graduation, giving systems thinkers tools to recognize complex situations and work within them to achieve desired results. Businesses use the Habits and tools of systems thinking to better structure their organizations, and identify problem areas and solutions. Implementing change in an organization can be daunting and difficult — systems thinking can help.
Specific benefits for businesses and employers include:
- Increased engagement and collaboration among employees
- Identification and analysis of undesirable outcomes and subsequent leverage points to create positive change
a common vocabulary and shared set of Habits, concepts and tools, aligning employees and fueling a shared sense of purpose
- Improved decision-making and problem-solving strategies to maximize benefits internally and externally (with clients, work output, etc.).
COMMUNITIES Form Around Mature Thinkers
Inflation, environmental degradation and issues of inequity and injustice aren’t new problems. They’ve endured for centuries, in part because the systems driving them have been understood too little and by too few. Systems thinking education develops citizens who can analyze and help solve complex problems. Graduates see their roles in larger systems and feel increased personal responsibility while approaching civic problems from a holistic point of view. This competence and maturity promotes harmony, not only on a large scale, but also on an intimate level: within families, friendships and everyday relations.
Communities that embrace systems thinking develop citizens who:
- Understand that they are part of a community and as such have an effect on the success of the community and approach civic problems from a holistic view
- Are able to analyze situations in a framework that is empowering and leads to increased personal responsibility
Benefits of Implementing Systems Thinking
Making Thinking Visible
Students use systems thinking tools to visually represent and better understand complex systems. When students make their thinking visible through the use of systems tools, teachers can immediately identify misconceptions that students may have about curricular content.
They do this with:
- Behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs) to depict their understanding of patterns and trends. BOTGs are visual tools that help students describe orally and in writing what and how they are thinking.
- Connection circles and causal loop diagrams that help students describe their understanding of the connections and interdependencies of complex systems including historical systems, scientific systems, economic systems, cultural systems, political systems, and literary systems (both fiction and nonfiction).
In addition, students for whom English is a second language have demonstrated marked improvements communicating their thinking both orally and in writing as a result of using behavior-over-time graphs, causal loop diagrams, and the other systems tools.
Systems thinking tools help students make connections between cause and effect scenarios relevant to life experiences.
By doing this, educators have noted:
- An increased number of incidences of transfer from classroom lessons to students’ real-life experiences.
- Students see the similarities between seemingly different systems. For example, the understanding of how a contagious disease infects a population helps students understand how a rumor spreads or a fashion trend grows.
Students of all ages successfully learn and independently use systems thinking problem-solving strategies.
- Recognizing and using systems thinking concepts and tools to seek out new and varied perspectives when solving problems.
- Using systems thinking vocabulary and concepts to question and challenge seemingly obvious solutions to complex problems. For instance, students use systems thinking archetypes like “Fixes that Fail” and “Shifting the Burden” to identify and analyze both short and long-term effects of actions.
- Using systems thinking concepts and tools helps students understand their own beliefs/mental models and behaviors. Students use BOTGs for self-assessing how behaviors and emotions change over time; ladder of inference for understanding the development of inferences; and causal loop archetypes for retelling the dynamics of particular situations.
Developing Readers & Writers
Systems thinking concepts and tools help students develop as strong and confident readers and writers.
When students use the concepts and tools of systems thinking, they are better able to:
- Retell and summarize a piece of writing, analyze character, plot, setting, theme and the relationships among these literary components.
- Identify point of view and the author’s/characters’ mental models.
- Describe cause and effect relationships.
- Express themselves descriptively.
By using systems thinking concepts and tools, many students show increased motivation, engagement, and self-esteem.
We have found that:
- When using systems thinking tools as a prewriting strategy, students who have been producing below-average writing, write more (quantity) and develop more thoughtful, insightful content (quality) than they have previously.
- When asked to “tell the story of a line” (BOTGs), “tell the story of a loop” (causal loop diagrams), or “describe a stock-flow map,” many usually reluctant students are more willing to participate in front of others, using visual diagrams as they describe ideas or theories.
- Students in special education classes voice satisfaction at being able to understand challenging concepts typically presented to their non-special education peers but not to them.
Click here to see a Waters Center research summary.
Are you interested in seeing research from outside sources? You can search for additional research here.