Matchbox mini traffic jam. Photo by Daniel Dionne, licensed under Creative Commons.
This article originally appeared at Solutions Online.
The road construction project around the local
rotary had been going on for over a year. As a result, the whole town was
cranky. One afternoon, my son and I drove the rotary just before 5:00 p.m.,
along with throngs of irritable commuters, anxious to get home. Tempers were
short and the sound of car horns pierced the air. Pointing to the tangle of
traffic in front of us, my then four year-old asked: "Mommy, what happens
when everyone says me first!?"
I was used to his asking questions. Typically,
Jack asked about categories (“Animals aren’t people, are they?”), or how things
work (“Why do bees kiss the flowers?”) or facts (“How hot is the center of the
earth?”). This question was different; this one had to do with causes and
consequences. I considered talking to him about the cost of maximizing
individual gain, but held back and asked instead, "What do you think would
happen if everyone said me first!?”
He pressed his nose against the window, paused,
and said, “Well, there might be a lot of accidents. Or maybe even a huge
"Can you think of other times when everyone
says me first?" I was thinking about overfishing, gas guzzlers, and our
overcrowded community pool.
Jack responded, "You know how you said it's
not good to let the water run when we brush our teeth, ‘cause if everyone did
that the reservoir would go down?’ Well, it's kind of like that."
At the age of four, he was aware enough of the
general notion of systems – two or more parts that interact to form a whole –
to make a complex observation: the rotary and the reservoir were common
resources. Like water, air, and playgrounds, these are resources that many
people use, and for which no individual is solely responsible. Moreover, in
asking the question, “What happens when everyone says me first!?” he
recognized the impact of individual decisions on the larger whole. Without
knowing it, he stepped right into the middle of the greatest dilemma in
commons-related issues: each individual action is defensible on its own, but
they can combine to have a devastating impact on the larger whole.
Many children intuitively grasp the nature of
systems, as Jack did. They can see, for instance, how a common but limited
resource, such as water, air, land, highways, fisheries, energy, or minerals
becomes overloaded or over-used, and how everyone experiences diminishing
benefits. However, these children don’t always have many opportunities to
develop those insights into a systems awareness that will serve them all their
lives. Parents, educators, and other adults can help them learn to “connect the
dots”: to see beyond the surface, to recognize interconnections and dynamics
among people, places, events and nature, and to begin thinking about how to use
those interconnections to improve their world.
Where do our children learn to think this way? How
do you nurture a child’s natural intelligence about systems and help him or her
to become systems literate? How can you confirm for your children what they
already know: that their world is interconnected and dynamic, a tightly woven
web of related, interacting elements and processes, and as such, is indeed
meaningful? How can this insight become an underlying learning aesthetic with
which they can build their lives?
Why Systems Literacy Matters
Children today are growing up in a world in which
oil spills, global warming, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, institutional
malfeasance, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict are commonly at the top
of the news. For children to make sense of these trends, they must become aware
of the causes and consequences in a slew of interconnected systems, including
families, local economies, the environment, and more. Ideally, we want our
children to take what author Edith Cobb, author of The Ecology of
Imagination in Childhood, calls “a reticulate approach”1
(resembling a net or network) to knowledge and sense-making.
To be literate means to have a well-educated
understanding of a particular subject, like a foreign language or mathematics.
In many fields, the knowledge must be both comprehensive and abundant enough
that you are capable of putting it to use. Systems literacy represents that
level of knowledge about complex interrelationships. It combines conceptual
knowledge (knowledge of system principles and behaviors) and reasoning
skills (for example, the ability to see situations in wider contexts, see
multiple levels of perspective within a system, trace complex
interrelationships, look for endogenous or “within system” influences, have
awareness of changing behavior over time, and recognize recurring patterns that
exist within a wide variety of systems).
When people aren’t literate about systems, too many human activities are
like those cars jammed into the roundabout: unaware of the pattern that
connects them and, thus, prone to exploitive and destructive results. Systems
literacy is a prerequisite for realizing the kinds of aspirations that people
increasingly have in an interconnected world, but that seems impossible to
achieve from a fragmented point of view. As the poet, novelist and essayist
Wendell Berry puts it, “We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption
that we can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself.
But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the
scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back
together. For the parts can be reconciled to one another only within the
pattern of the whole thing to which they belong.”2
When children learn about systems and become more explicitly systems
literate, their worldview shifts. In The Power to Transform, Stephanie
Pace Marshall explains that the value of nurturing systems literacy comes from
“the power of an alternative worldview.” She continues, “When we perceive and
experience wholeness, we are transformed. We no longer see nature, people,
events, problems, or ourselves as separate and unconnected.”3
One natural consequence is greater compassion for others. This is a part of
peoples’ makeup that can get suppressed by the prevailing culture in many
places, but that can be uncovered and drawn out by experience and learning.
When children look for the connection between themselves and other people,
places, events, and species, they no longer feel like outsiders looking in at
others’ worlds. They are now insiders, experiencing the connection to “other”
as the farmer is connected to the soil and the salmon is connected to the
Another consequence is that children start to see themselves as part of,
rather than outside of, nature. Imagine that a 12-year-old, living in a
suburban village, is presented with two pictures of a lawn. The first is filled
with wildflowers and looks somewhat messy and random. The second is lush,
green, neat, orderly, well-groomed, and obviously well-fertilized. Which is
more beautiful? The second image, of course, represents the way that a
beautiful lawn is conventionally expected to look in many communities, and many
12-year-olds would pick it, but a systems-literate student might well prefer
the disorderly lawn. He or she would know that that the lawn worked
with the landscape’s natural processes, encouraging a diverse group of plants
and animals to grow, maintaining its own ecological balance, and adding little
or no waste to the ecosystems around it. On the other hand, the orderly,
straight, groomed lawn could only survive by contradicting natural processes.
It would require ongoing management and its continued success would lead to a
variety of unintended negative consequences: greenhouse gas emissions from the
lawn mower, use of fossil fuels to make chemical fertilizers and treatments,
the death of beneficial insects from pesticides, the added economic costs of
lawn supplies and maintenance, the stress it puts on the family’s budget, the
removal of some plants while allowing others to overrun the ecosystem
(potentially causing the need for more pesticides), and the run-off of
chemicals into local water sources with unknown effects.
As they grow up and learn about the economy, climate, education, energy,
poverty, waste, disease, war, peace, demographics, and sustainability, children
who are systems literate will tend to look at all these issues as interrelated.
From the systems perspective, nothing stands alone: my climate is your climate,
your infectious disease is my infectious disease, your food shortage is my food
shortage. Systems literacy makes people less likely to blame a single cause for
challenges and problems. Instead, it becomes a habit to look for recurring
patterns that exist among a wide variety of systems, to seek out indicators of
interrelated causes (knowing that very complex causes can leave deceptively
simple tracks), and to anticipate how the functioning of a living system will
change if a part or a process is changed. Systems thinkers recognize that big
actions can have small consequences – and vice versa. They seek diversity,
knowing that living systems depend on the variety, complexity, and abundance of
species to be healthy and resilient. They look for closed loops of production
and consumption, where waste from one source can be “food” for another. They
question the assumption that bigger is always better.
Paying attention to living systems also raises awareness of the Earth’s (or
biosphere’s) pace of change, often in stark contrast to the hurried,
mechanistic pace of the technosphere. Systems literacy makes it easier to see
the commons: the shared gifts of nature such as water, air, land, fish, and
also the shared efforts of our communities, upon which we depend, and for which
we are all responsible.
Learning about systems, and about living systems in particular, can help
children come to a deeper, more compassionate, more accurate, and more
sustainable sensibility about what is beautiful, what is peaceful, and what is
Changing the Learning Aesthetic
When we ask students to move beyond simple, linear explanations of causes,
we are asking them to be literate about systems. Yet most adults in the U.S., including
most industry and government leaders, were not explicitly taught skills related
to seeing systems of multiple causes, effects, and unintended impacts. Rather,
people were taught that the best way to understand a subject was to analyze it
or break it up into parts. Research in dynamic decision making shows that when
adults are faced with dynamically complex systems – containing multiple
feedback processes, time delays, nonlinearities and accumulations – performance
is biased and suboptimal.4
Herein lies an intriguing opportunity. When it comes to developing greater
literacy about systems, most adults are learning along with their children.
Rather than an obstacle to children’s learning, this could be a major asset.
For most students, co-learning (with parents, teachers, or peers) offers a
chance to take an active role and develop higher-order skills such as critical
and divergent thinking, analysis, synthesis, and problem solving.
Most classroom structures today do not encourage system literacy. While the
world is becoming increasingly more complex, educators can find themselves
continuing to fragment knowledge and real world problems through
compartmentalized curricula; science is taught in one class, math in another,
English in another. Courses in natural science focus on the material world,
while courses in the social sciences focus on the social world, and neither
class acknowledges the intensive, ongoing ways in which these two worlds
influence each other. When we talk to children about issues, such as climate
change, terrorism, and water use, we can raise their awareness of the material
and social worlds, bringing together insights from history, biology, and
literature, as well as the daily newspaper. Most importantly, we can come to
richer understandings by tapping into the experience and insight that children
already have. Conversations with Fritjof Capra helped me clarify this division
between the natural and social sciences. According to Capra, “this division
will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century – for
social scientists, natural scientists, and everyone else – will be to build
ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their
technologies and social institutions – their material and social structures –
do no interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”5
Everyday Ways To Foster Systems Literacy
Some experts in the field have argued that, because systems operate in
non-linear ways that can be difficult to assimilate, systems thinking requires
access to advanced training in complex systems theory, system dynamics, and
agent-based modeling. Certainly, these fields of study can help people move
beyond natural, intuitive understanding of systems to more expert levels of
systems literacy. At the same time, there is a growing body of research
(including my own research with 10- and 11-year-olds) that shows that many
students intuitively “think about systems,” both natural and social, without
any formal training and long before they’re ready for graduate school. Children
as young as four and five show a capacity for understanding systems behaviors,
which suggests that systems thinking may be part of a child’s innate
intelligence that is “corrected” by adults who have been taught to
R.W. Kates and C. Katz studied three-to-five year olds and their
understanding of the hydrologic water cycle. These researchers found that “some
sense of cycles” (e.g., the domestic water cycle and the cloud-rain cycle)
existed among the four-year-old children, while the five-year-old group
described “a more complex and extensive hydrology.”7
Piaget, who was familiar with Austrian-born biologist Ludwig von
Bertalannfy’s notion of “open systems,” recognized this natural systems
intelligence when he observed: “There is in the child…a spontaneous belief that
everything is connected with everything else and that everything can be
explained by everything else.”8
We see this natural intelligence in young people who partake in role-playing
games such as Dungeons and Dragons and computer games like Zoo
Tycoon and SimCity. In the thick of this “play,” children track
numerous interdependencies, manage large amounts of data, and anticipate
unintended consequences. In play, they flex their systems thinking muscles.
Opportunities for nurturing systems literacy in children are all around us,
from the classroom and the playground to the car, the library, the dinner
table, a school garden, the bath, and the grocery store. With a thoughtful
guide, the great outdoors offers a fertile classroom for understanding the
interrelationships and dynamics of species. Time in nature is not just healthy
(as Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the
End of Nature-Deficit Disorder, reminds us), it is also important if we
are to learn to live sustainably with our natural environment. Buckminster
Fuller, the American engineer, systems theorist, author, designer, and creator
of the geodesic dome, also pointed to the concept of nature-as-teacher: “I am
confident that humanity’s survival depends on our willingness to comprehend
feelingly the way nature works.”9 Why not encourage the
seven-year-old child, enthralled with the life cycle of a butterfly, to explore
other “life cycles?” Or wonder, with the 10-year-old fishing enthusiast, how a
worm in the garden may be useful for his next fishing trip, but also useful as
a soil tiller and a potential food source for a hungry robin. In these ways, we
can give children direct experiences with unadulterated nature so that they, as
Masanobu Fukuoka, farmer, and author of The One-Straw Revolution
urges, “… can instinctively understand what needs to be done and what must not
be done – to work in harmony with (nature’s) processes.”10
Here are some other examples of conversations and activities that can help
young people become more systems literate:
Help children to connect the dots.
Set an example: talk about relationships, not just things. Instead of simply
saying, “That’s a brown chicken,” point out that the chicken lays eggs and eats
the insects in the farmer’s garden. Recognize and encourage the child’s natural
tendency to see a network of possible causes and consequences. Ask the child to
draw the connections he or she sees among cars, air, plants, and people.
Simple cause-and-effect diagrams can help to reveal the patterns underlying
sticky problems. For instance, think of an ongoing household battle. Perhaps
your son hates to clean his room and you really don’t like to ask him to clean
his room. Throughout the week, you remind him about the chore. Your son
resists. By the end of the week, your frustration is boiling over. Finally, you
threaten a week of no TV and your son relents. When he shows his clean room,
you are happy. But the next day, with the pressure off, he slowly reverts to
his old habits. Mid-way through the week, you feel your frustration build
again, this time with more pressure.
One way out of this dilemma is for you and your son or daughter to sit down
together, and each draw simple diagrams showing the situation as you see it.
By connecting the dots, both sides can see that you’re caught in a closed
causal loop. It is a balancing feedback process, a set of interactions that
return a system – like your body, an ecosystem, market systems—back to a state
of equilibrium. By their very nature, they are goal-seeking, working to bring
things to a desired state and keep them there.
Once you see this pattern, you can look for ways to break it. One strategy
is to revisit and reset the goal. Perhaps your standards as a parent are too
high – you’re looking for the pristine child’s bedroom that one might see in House
and Garden—while your child’s are too low. Can you develop a “maintenance”
goal that both parent and child agree upon? Since that may not be enough to
overcome this ingrained systemic structure, can you also add in a link to the
system, such as planned clean-up time twice a week, to achieve the maintenance
Talk about change over time.
Trace and anticipate changes over days, months, and years. For example, a child
may notice the slow decay of a fallen tree in a park or in the back yard. Or
you may point out less obvious changes, such as the changes in a pasture when
chickens are allowed to roam free.
You can work with your child to draw simple line graphs to track behavior
over weeks or months – anything from the levels of happiness at school to the
money in your savings account to the number of beavers in the pond. Once you
have a graph and you can see some behavior rising, falling, or oscillating,
ask: what set of interrelationships might be causing this pattern?
For a personal demonstration of change over time, encourage children to find
a “sit spot” where they can focus on some outdoor phenomenon, returning on a
regular basis to see how it changes. Examples might include a tree with leaves
that turn color, a pond whose water level rises or falls, or a place with a
barometer and thermometer. Encourage them to leave a small notebook near their
sit spot so they can keep track of the changes they observe over time.11
Look for the patterns that repeat.
When a child observes drivers’ behavior at the traffic rotary being similar to
people letting the water run when they brush their teeth, or that the growing
conflict between two kids at school is similar to the escalating conflict
between two nations, compare those patterns. Give your own nicknames to the
patterns you see. For instance, you might call that escalating conflict
“snowballing,” and then when a fight between siblings begins to escalate at
home, you can ask, “Are you snowballing now yourselves?”
Many Dr. Seuss books, like The Lorax, The Sneetches, and The
Butter Battle Book, have great examples of balancing and reinforcing
When there’s a case of bullying at school, try to talk about the perspectives
of the aggressor, the target, the teachers, and the bystanders. Create a role
play so the students can act out the situation or problem from different
perspectives. What new ideas or insights come from changing some of the
situational factors – such as how close they stand to each other when they tell
Anticipate unintended consequences.
Take a rubber band and stretch it, saying, “Let’s have some fun and see how far
we can stretch how we look at time.” Unstretched, the rubber band may represent
a day; stretched, it may represent five years into the past and five years into
the future. By doing this, we are asking the young person to adopt what
sociologist Elise Boulding called, “the extended present,”13 a view
of time that extends the present to five, 50 or 200 years ahead and behind. For
example, disposable diapers take between 100 and 500 years to decompose. Talk
about the fact that no one knows exactly how long it takes, because no one has
lived long enough to see it happen. The extended sense of the present is
particularly appropriate for living systems, because many living systems, both
natural and social, don’t generate a full cycle of behavior over short time
intervals. You won’t understand the seasonal cycle of your garden, for
instance, if you observe it for only a day or two.
Think like a bathtub.
Make it a game to look for things that build up or accumulate. A bathtub for
instance, accumulates water. System dynamicists call these accumulations
stocks. Trees, fish, people, goods, good will, money, the national debt—these
are all stocks. The rate at which the stock changes is its flow.
Challenge children to think in terms of stocks and flows. For instance, you can
ask: If the water is draining out of the bathtub twice as fast as it is flowing
in, what happens to the level of the water in the tub? (The answer: The level
goes down!) What if the amount of CO2 emissions flowing into the atmosphere is
flowing in at twice the rate that it is being drained out (through, for
example, carbon sinks)? What happens to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere?
(The answer: the amount increases, which is actually what is happening today)
Stocks and flows play a key role in generating some of the most perplexing
dynamics we encounter. Studies of the pesticide DDT, for example, have shown
that while DDT evaporates from the surface of plants and buildings over six
months, it remains in the tissue of fish for up to 50 years. The amount of DDT
in fish tissue is a stock with very slow outflow. We need to understand these
accumulations to understand the source of many of the major challenges we face
today—economic, social, and environmental.
When we look at stocks and flows we understand, for instance, that a deficit
(the rate at which a country borrows money) is a flow and the national debt is
a stock. We understand, as well, that taking the national deficit down to zero
doesn’t necessarily mean that we will get rid of the debt. We also understand
that carbon dioxide stocks in our atmosphere will continue to increase if the
rate at which carbon dioxide flows into the atmosphere is greater than the rate
at which it drains out—an important insight in the application of carbon
From Awareness To Action
With the help of adults, children’s intelligence about systems can be
developed further, into models of better problem definition, problem solving,
and design. This enables them to analyze and act in informed ways; aware of
recurring patterns, they will be less likely to react viscerally and
ineffectively and more likely to understand the patterns of behavior. They can
use this understanding to correct their own actions, anticipate unintended
consequences, and help others operate more effectively.
When children are systems literate, they help their parents learn, as well.
For example, they can talk about and make visible "commons dilemmas"—those
conflicts that arise around shared resources for which everyone is mutually
My four-year old at the rotary is now a strapping 13 year-old. Not long ago, he
ended up in a not-so-playful snowball fight with his brother. I took each one
aside to find out what was going on. They both told a similar story: A cutting
comment from one led the other to comment back, which led the first boy to
poke, the second boy to squash, and then prompted both to an out-and-out
battle. This was an example of the common pattern called escalation. Feeling at
my wit’s end, I quickly sat them down and sketched a diagram that looked like
“Look,” Jack said, “it’s a figure eight lying on its side. That’s infinity.
This thing could go on forever.”
“And just keep getting worse,” his brother groaned.
As we talked about it, we realized together that the growing conflict was
driven by each one trying to “out-cool” or “top-dog” the other. The more “cool”
behavior one kid put on, the more the other wanted to squash it. Suddenly, they
saw themselves as part of the “system,” rather than separate from it. They
“got” that blaming each other wasn’t going to solve the problem. When they
could see how their actions were actually fueling the actions of the other, with
the help of a simple picture, they then could talk about how they might break
the cycle. When I asked what they could do differently, the answer came easily.
The poker would lighten up on the poking, and the squasher wouldn’t squash so
The rotary, of course, has long since been fixed; traffic is back to normal.
In our family, we try to do our part to solve the problem of the commons.
Though I still rely on the car to drive to soccer practice, we walk to buy
groceries and we share eggs with neighbors from our own chickens. We try to
talk in ways that make it easier to connect the dots in everyday situations. A
common phrase in our house these days—what if everyone did that?—is
our way of attempting to magnify the consequences of our individual actions so
that we can imagine the broader impact.
Everyone is born with a natural intelligence about living systems. With just
a little effort, you can encourage that natural intelligence in young people
and remind them that their world is interconnected and dynamic, a tightly woven
web of nature, people, issues, and events, and as such, it is both purposeful
To learn more about fostering systems literacy in a variety of settings,
see: Tina Grotzer’s Learning Causality in a Complex World: Understandings
of Consequence (Lanham, MD: R&L Education, 2012); Daniel Goleman, Lisa
Bennett, & Zenobia Barlow’s Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating
Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence (San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 2012); and Draper Kauffman’s classic text, Systems 1: An
Introduction to Systems Thinking (Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications,
1980). Invaluable online resources include: The Waters Foundation (www.watersfoundation.org),
The Creative Learning Exchange (www.clexchange.org), and The Center for
systems educator, and award-winning author. She works
with people of all ages to develop an understanding of living systems to
improve learning, decision making, and design. Linda’s work has appeared in
numerous journals and magazines, including "Highlights Magazine for
- Cobb, Edith. The Ecology
of Imagination in Childhood. (New York: Columbia University Press,
- Berry, Wendell. The Way
of Ignorance and Other Essays. (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.
- Marshall, Stephanie Pace. The
Power to Transform: Leadership That Brings Learning and Schooling to Life.
(Danvers, MA: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
- Sterman, J. Learning in and
about complex systems. Reflections: The Journal of the Society for
Organizational Learning. 1: 24-49 (2000).
- Capra, Fritjof. The
Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. (New York:
- Booth Sweeney, L &
Sterman, JD. Thinking About Systems: Student and Teacher Conceptions of
Natural and Social Systems. Systems Dynamics Review 23(2-3)
- Kates, RW & Katz, C The
hydrolic cycle and the wisdom of the child. Geographical Review
- Piaget, J. The Language
and Thoughts of the Child. (New York: Humanities Press, 1959).
- Edmonson, Amy. A Fuller
Explanation: The Synergetic Geometry of R. Buckminster Fuller.
(Pueblo, CO: EmergentWorld Press, 1987).
- Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One-Straw
Revolutions: An Introduction to Natural Farming. Trans: Chris Pearce,
Tsune Kurosawa & Larry Korn. (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1978).
- Young, J et al. Coyote’s
Guide to Connecting with Nature for Kids of all Ages and their Mentors.
(OWLink Media Corporation, 2008).
- Booth Sweeney, L. When a
Butterfly Sneezes: A guide for helping children explore interconnections
in our world through favorite stories. (Waltham, MA:
Pegasus Communications, 2001)
- Boulding, Elise. Education
for Inventing the Future, in Alternatives to Growth I: A Search for
Sustainable Futures. (Ballinger Publishing, 1977).