6 Resources for Teaching Systems Thinking

Compiled by the team at IHE

If you’ve ever tried to unclog a drain by cleaning out only what you can see from the surface – as opposed to considering the entire plumbing system – you’ve probably learned the importance of using systems thinking when identifying root causes. When we only address what is visible on the surface, this almost always leads to recurring clogs in our sinks (or societies) and results in compounding issues in the future. So, as we look to prepare a generation of thoughtful and effective problem solvers, cultivating systems thinking skills is key.

Students who can understand and examine systems are able to grasp a bigger picture of what is creating and perpetuating the problems that concern them. When encouraged to dig deeper and think systemically, students can find effective leverage points that lead to solutions that are good for people, animals, and the environment. For this reason, it is critical to develop systems thinking skills as a foundation for successful solutionary work.

While we believe systems thinking is both important and fun, we recognize that introducing it to students can initially be challenging. Below, we’re sharing a few of the resources we use in our programs at the Institute for Humane Education that can help you understand, teach, and encourage systems thinking.

Videos Introducing Systems Thinking

  1. This 3-minute What are Systems? video uses the example of a pile of laundry to help viewers understand what a system is, what a system is not, what systems do, and why they are so important. This resource is part of the Systems Literacy Collection from PBS, and it is appropriate for teaching upper elementary students to high school students.
  1. This 7-minute System Iceberg Model video illustrates a tool that students can use to uncover the systemic origins of problems and consider how systems are interconnected. At the Institute for Humane Education, we include the iceberg model as a tool in our Solutionary Guidebook and encourage educators to use it to help students identify the root causes and systemic structures contributing to the problem they want to solve. Use this tool for upper elementary students to adult learners. Learn more about the Iceberg Model and additional systems thinking tools for building a more sustainable world at https://compasseducation.org/.

Lesson Plans for Teaching Systems Thinking

  1. At the Institute for Humane Education, we have developed multiple Systems Thinking Lessons for students in upper elementary school, middle school, and high school that use a bicycle as a metaphor for thinking about systems. The lesson plans start with an introduction to systems and end with having students think about how bicycles consist of multiple systems and interact with larger systems like roads, traffic patterns, health, manufacturing, and energy.

Books About Systems Thinking

  1. The book Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows is one that students in our graduate programs in humane education read in their Intro to Humane Education course. The book encourages thinking that leads to more effective problem-solving on the personal and global level. It is an appropriate tool for high school and undergraduate students or adult learners.

Visualizations of Systems

  1. This curated Pinterest board on Systems Thinking provides illustrations that represent systems thinking for visual learners–as well as more books, websites, and videos–that support teachers in introducing students to systems thinking. Find resources for a range of ages.

Blog on Taking Systems Thinking to Solutionary Thinking

  1. For an understanding of how systems-thinking skills are a necessary foundation for solutions-focused thinking, read Zoe Weil’s blog Becoming a Solutionary: What it Means and Why it Matters. Weil outlines how becoming a solutionary involves system thinking as well as creative thinking, strategic thinking, and critical thinking.

Thank you for your dedication to encouraging deep, systems thinking and positive action! For more lesson plans that help students develop thinking, ethics, and analysis skills, visit our free resource library for educators.