Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Archive for April, 2020

Talking to Kids About Exponential Growth During COVID-19

When kids ask, “Why do I need to wear a mask?” it’s helpful to have a good understanding of exponential growth. Here are a few ideas for ways to unpack this powerful force.

Start by reading What does exponential growth mean in the context of covid-19?, a short article in the Washington Post. Then grab a chessboard (or draw the same number of squares on a large piece of paper).  Get some cheerios, jelly beans or something desirable and small.  


Look at the graph in the article.  Why does it look like a hockey stick?

To make it real, put one Cheerio on the chessboard and say: “Pretend these are jelly beans.  You win a bet and as your prize, I have to pay you one jelly bean on the first day. For the next 63 days, I give you double the jelly beans I gave you the day.  Sounds like a good deal?  There’s only one requirement:  you have to agree to eat the jelly beans you get each day.  Deal?”

Who wouldn’t accept that deal?  (Turns out, it’s not a good deal).

“On the first day, you get one jelly bean, the second day you get two and on the third day you get four. Then ask your kids to fill in the rest.  “On the fourth day I get eight jelly beans and on the fifth I get 16 and then I get 32!”

Things are looking good. The squares are too small and the Cheerios are too big so you’ll need to pull out a piece of paper and calculate that on the 10th day though, he or she will have 512 jelly beans to eat.  Are they phased yet?

Double that number on the 11th day. That would be 1,024 jelly beans.

By the 20th day, the number is over 500,000 jelly beans.  On the last day, the 64th day, he would have 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 jelly beans. 

Draw a simple graph like this:


Talk about how sneaky doubling can be. And how once it gets going, it can be unstoppable.  Think of other examples together. If you are talking to teens, they may know examples of a small party that spiralled out of control (true story here) Another simple example is compound interest. Take two sticky notes. On one write “Money in the bank” on the other write: “Interest”. Say: If you leave your money in the bank (draw a link to interest), you received interest on that amount. The more money in your bank account, the more interest you accrue, (draw a link from interest to money in the bank) the more money in your bank account. 

If you leave your money in the bank, you are leveraging a simple closed loop of cause-and-effect known as compound interest, one Albert Einstein once may have called, “the most powerful force in the universe.”  

Now, go back to the question: Why do I need to wear a mask? Staying home. Not visiting friends.  Your behaviour multiplied by a lot of kids doing the right thing, can help “flatten” an exponential growth curve. Perhaps this is the simple lesson:  Our individual actions can combine to have positive or devastating impact on the whole.

Here are some other great resources for talking with kids about exponential growth:


Stories are a great way to learn about anything, even exponential growth. Here’s a system-based review I wrote about  One Grain of Rice by Demi (good for young and old) for the Waters Foundation.

For a similar story, try “Sissa and the Troublesome Trifles.  See I. G. Edmonds, Trickster Tales (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott Co.,1966) pp. 5-13.


For a classic, hands-on example of underestimating the power of exponential growth see the Paper Fold game in the Systems Thinking Playbook and John Sterman’s original version below.

From “Business Dynamics”, John Sterman, p.268

The Infection Game

See The Shape of Change and the Shape of Change Stocks and Flows, by Rob Quaden, Alan Ticotsky and Debra Lyneis, illustrated by Nathan Walker.  This paper-and-pencil game simulates the spread of an epidemic.  Best when played by a larger number of students – 35 is ideal.  


This youtube clip by Dr. Albert Bartlett of U Colorado is worth every minute, more for teens and adults.

There are also some wonderfully clear examples of exponential growth on the Khan Academy site that explore compound interest and bacteria.

Websites/Blogs: Search “exponential growth” on the Water’s Center for Systems Thinking and Creative Learning Exchange websites.  Lots of great curriculum ideas.

Really good explanations, visuals and video clips on these two blogs:

Zimblog:  Understanding Exponential Growth

Growth Busters:  check out the documentary film and the blog

Leaning into Complexity: Young Leaders of Systems Change


It’s been a while. I hope you’re all staying healthy and finding a new rhythm during these challenging times.  Like many of you, I feel our systems-based work is more urgent than ever.

Young people are watching.  They’re worrying. From climate change to our current pandemic, adults don’t seem to have the answers. Even the very young now know that events in China can close down schools, economies, and be responsible for deaths thousands of miles away. They know in their bones they’re living in a tightly interconnected web (what Martin Luther King called “the interrelated structure of reality”).

Here are the questions I go to bed with and wake up in the morning thinking about: How can we encourage young people to understand and lean into the complexity they’re experiencing and, see that complexity as a feature of their world — a guide –  rather than the enemy? How can we help them to look to the other side of the hardship and disruption they’re experiencing, to feel confident they can solve complex problems and together, innovate their way to healthier futures? Curious how you would answer those questions. For me, whole-systems learningexperiential opportunities to improve our ability to see, understand and work with interdependent systems — is one answer. For an example of “whole-systems learning” in action, partnership, please read on. 


During a recent climate change rally, on an unusually warm day late last fall, I noticed two young women holding this sign:   

They laughed when I asked them about systems change. They had to admit, systems change sounded like a good idea but they weren’t sure how to actually do systems change. Fair enough. Most adults don’t either.

Last Fall, I started working with teenagers and young adults through a local non-profit called SparkShare (, a non-profit dedicated to supporting young people to solve problems across differences. During a one-day systems change summit, I worked with 100 teen leaders in 13 groups from the Boston area, all of whom are focused on solving complex challenges in their communities — from vaping, substance abuse, racial equity, to youth employment, climate change and safer streets.

Sparkshare Systems Change Summit

During the summit, the youth groups focused on “helping the system to see itself” through systems mapping.  We also built in plenty of opportunities to envision “future states” (Buckminster Fuller’s term), cross-pollinate between and among the groups, make real commitments for action and have fun!  In the month leading up to the summit, I worked with each group virtually to shape a strong systems question, one that incorporated change over time.  I opened the summit by thanking some of my “teachers” including Dana Meadows, Ruth Rominger, John Sterman, Dennis Meadows, and Peter Senge, and introduced the concept of systems, system dynamics and the broader field of systems change. At the close, I let them know they were not alone and encouraged them to connect with the growing number of people around the world who understand and use systems-based approaches in a variety of professions.

Their reaction to the day was electric! You can see a short video below:
Youth Leading Systems Change

Most exciting were the practical actions groups took after the summit. One team used their systems mapping experience to better understand the multiple factors that drive teen vaping, concluding that they had to reach their peers in different ways, reduce access, and engage adults. After the summit, they partnered with a manufacturer of vaping detectors and are now working with school administration to get vaping detectors into bathrooms at their high school.

Together with the team at Sparkshare, we’re working to make systems change a core part of how their youth partners work together to positively impact their communities, and develop the skills to become the future problem solvers our world desperately needs. We’re actively looking for funding to create a scaleable systems change “hub” offering:

  • Virtual, in-person labs for whole-systems learning, rapid prototyping 
  • Collaborative network building
  • Peer and expert coaching
  • Virtual, in-person community
  • Question-led database
  • Protocols that enable partners to test solutions and learn from what works (and what doesn’t).

If you can help us make this systems change “hub” a reality, please do be in touch. I’ll be announcing upcoming “whole-systems learning” opporutnities over the next few months via this blog.

Take good care!

What is Systems Change: Fostering health in systems through coordinated shifts in narratives, relationships, networks and structures.