Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Archive for the ‘Systems + Parenting’ Category

Shifting Patterns

Stories.  We love them. They’re our most ancient form of education. And yet there’s often a mismatch between the stories we love to read to children and the way the world actually works.

It comes down to plot lines. Most children’s stories tend to feature some sort of straight line, often starting with a problem, followed by a reaction, and ending with a resolution. It’s one, linear pattern of connection:

A →B →C

A causes B, and B causes C. End of story.

 
Screen Shot 2018-04-03 at 3.29.53 PM

Think about the children’s book I Know an Old Lady (by Rose Bonn and Alan Mill). It’s about an old lady who swallowed a fly:

I know an old lady who swallowed a spider

That wriggled and wriggled and tickled inside her.

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.

But I don’t know why she swallowed the fly!

I guess she’ll die!

The old lady goes on to swallow a mouse, a cat, a dog, a cow, and, finally, a horse — all to catch a pesky little fly. What happens when she swallows the horse? “She dies, of course!”

Ok. So it’s not A →B→C, but A→ B→ C → D→ E→ F → G. End of story.

The story is dark, hilarious and a one-way pattern of connection, that is, a long, straight chain of events. Many things in a child’s life do happen in a straight line of cause-and-effect: turn up the volume on the TV and the sound increases. A causes B. Done.

But cause-and-effect is not always straight. Indeed it can be loopy, web-like, cascading.

(Hang in with me now. We’re going to enter the field of systems thinking. It may sound abstract but it is really practical stuff that is leading the way to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems*).

 

Let’s look at the loopy kind. In If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, a best-selling children’s story by Laura Joffe Numeroff (illustrated by Felicia Bond), the mouse wants a cookie, then a glass of milk and by the end of the story, he wants another cookie. Here’s how my eight-year-old nephew drew the chain of events in Numeroff’s story:

 
Drawing by Bradley Booth

Unlike the Old Lady who swallowed that fly, this closed loop of cause and effect, feedsback on itself to amplify change. Even the youngest readers intuitively know that the story could go on forever and if left unchecked, the mouse is going to want more and more cookies. When we understand how reinforcing feedback loops work, for example, we see how events build on one another — and how a small change can “grow” into larger and larger consequences as the pattern of connections loops and loops around. Children encounter these reinforcing feedback loops everyday. Think of mean words on a playground, rising noise levels on the bus ride home or the spread of a rumor.

Young children can learn to “close the loop” and take advantage of reinforcing feedback. Think about saving money in the bank. It doesn’t take a math whiz to appreciate compound interest, which Albert Einstein once called “the most powerful force in the universe”: An increase in the amount of money in the bank increases interest payments. An increase in the interest payments compounds the initial increase of the amount of a child has in the bank. It’s not a far leap for kids to harness that same time of reinforcing feedback to grow, for instance, kindness in the classroom.

While reinforcing feedback loops act as engines of growth and decline, another closed loop of cause and effect — balancing loops — self-regulate and dampen change. By its very nature, balancing feedback works to brings things to a desired state and keep them there. Sometimes this is good (e.g. helping to keep a system in balance) and sometimes this is why we feel stuck.

Image courtesy of World Watch 2017 State of the World Report

Image courtesy of World Watch 2017 State of the World Report

When we understand balancing feedback, we understand that predator-prey relationships in nature are not one-way (where the predator simply eats the prey), but rather is made up of a closed loop of cause and effect, with births and deaths of one species affects the population of the other.

Closer to home, when we understand balancing feedback, we stop using our thermostat like a gas pedal, increasing or decreasing the temperature to suit our moment-by-moment needs. Rather we let the internal feedback structure do its work, allowing the temperature to self-adjust to a desired temperature. (Indeed we live on a planet controlled by balancing feedback loops but that is another post!)

A child who understand the basic idea of balancing feedback has a better understanding why things get stuck, and what they can they do about it. Let’s use the example of a messy room and a child that is doesn’t want to clean it. Throughout the week, the parent may reminds him: clean up your room! The child on the other hand, is otherwise occupied. By the end of the week, the parent’s frustration is boiling over. Finally, the parent threatens a week of no TV or depending on the age, no cell phone and the child relents. When he shows his clean room, the parent is happy. But the next day, with the pressure off, he slowly reverts to his old habits and the room becomes messy again. Mid-way through the week, the parent’s frustration builds again, this time with more pressure. The room clean up roller coaster continues.

 

(What to do? One way out of this dilemma is for the parent and child to sit down together, and draw simple diagrams showing the situation as one sees it. Then together they can figure out how to change the pattern.)

Growing Little Systems Thinkers

Back to children’s stories. Don’t get me wrong. I love stories with all kinds of plot lines. I’ve written two myself. But a diet of all one-way plots doesn’t prepare our children for the diversity of real world patterns they will encounter.

So what can you do?

Encourage your little readers to be pattern detectives.

Encourage them to draw the patterns they see in stories. Then look beyond books to the cause-and-effect patterns they see on the playground, around the dinner table or on the front page of the newspaper.

By seeing these patterns, they will be more likely to stop jumping to blame a single cause for the challenges they encounter be curious about the multiple, interacting forces driving events and often, unintended impacts. As an added bonus, when children (and adults for that matter) see patterns, they are more likely to be able to understand them and when needed, to change them. (For an example with two siblings, read here).

Ask questions to focus on cause-and-effect:

o What happens next? (Keep asking. Sometimes you’ll find a drives b which drives c which loops back to drive more or less of a).

o How is this similar pattern similar to that? When they get older recognizing these patterns helps build a bridge between different disciplines in school. Bridging science and social studies they might ask: How is the growth of the bacteria we’re looking at through the microscope similar to the population growth in a particular region?

Whether we are 7 or 77, when we are aware of these closed loops of cause and effect, we are less likely to react to behaviors produced by them and more likely to be able to understand them and when needed, to change them.

Good Books for Little Systems Thinkers

For an introduction to systems-based stories for little systems thinkers, see the 2018 version of When a Butterfly Sneezes: A Guide for Helping Kids Explore Interconnections in Our World Through Favorite Children’s Stories (2018, updated and revised with a new introduction by Peter Senge). For more on systems thinking, see: www.lindaboothsweeney.com.

 
More good books for little systems thinkers

Other Useful Links:

Systems Thinking in World folktales: see Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems by L. Booth Sweeney.

Causality in science: see the Causal patterns in science work of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Causality in children’s nonfiction: see author Melissa Stewart’s blog Celebrate Science (look for “cause and effect” books).

Systems stories in the classroom: Waters Foundation and Creative Learning Exchange (search resources for literature)

PBS Learning Media: see the Systems Literacy Collection

THANK YOU to Gale Pryor, Penny Noyce, Emily Rubin, Melissa Tackling , Eugene Pool and Christine Abely for your thoughtful feedback on this article.

 

Using Systems Thinking to Talk with Teens about Texting

 

The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.

                      — Albert Einstein

 

 

Last week-end, the parent network in our town was buzzing.  A teen in a neighboring town had invited friends over for a party while her parents were away.  Before the teen knew it, 10 friends had turned into 90. The party got out of control.  Crystal glasses were broken.  Drawers were ransacked.  Guests vomited throughout the house.  The police were called.

In the end, 22 teens were arrested.

As the parent talk led to how could this happen and who was to blame, my mind turned to another question:  What can we learn from this?  As a systems educator, I heard a familiar pattern:  small numbers escalating in unexpected and explosive ways, like invasive species, fads and epidemics.  In the story of the party, one invitation turned into two texts turned into four forwarded messages turning into eight new “friends” and so on.  Sounds like exponential growth.

Most of us learn about exponential growth in a math class, somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16.  We learn that exponential growth means doubling, like this: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32. We learn that it’s important to know if you want your bank account to grow or if you want to understand population dynamics.

And we forget it.

So I grab a chess board, a big bag of Cheerio’s (jelly beans would be better) and my two boys.

Playing with Cheerios and exponential growth

We read the letter-to the-editor (page 2) written by the mother of the girl who threw the party.

And we talk about the numbers. How was it that one or two invitations could lead to 80 uninvited party guests?

To make it real, I 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?”

My younger son rolls his eyes.  Like, who wouldn’t accept that deal?  He accepts my deal and then we walk through it:

“On the first day, you get one jelly bean, the second day you get two and on the third day you get four.  So far so good.”  Now he takes over.   “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 we pull out a piece of paper and calculate that on the 10th day though, he has 512 jelly beans to eat.  He’s still not phased.  Double that number on the 11th day. That would be 1,024 jelly beans.

His eyes start to widen.  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.  He starts to look queasy.  I’d DIE if I had to eat all of those jelly beans!

We draw a graph like this:

We talk about how sneaky doubling can be. And how once it gets going, in the case of the party, it can be unstoppable.  “So”, I ask, trying to mask the hope in my voice:  “if you understand how texting can double, could that help you avoid trouble down the road?”

Here are a few of their answers:

 Well, now I wouldn’t forward the text.

If I don’t know who the text came from in the first place, then it could already be blowing up out of control.

Of course, we also talked about not going to a party if the parents aren’t home.

My sons are 13 and 11.  Will they remember this conversation when the party invitations come in as they get older?  I can only hope so.   Check back with me in five years and I’ll let you know.

 

Here are some resources for teaching kids about exponential growth:

Stories: 

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.

Games: 

See the Paper Fold game in the Systems Thinking Playbook.  If you don’t have it, email me (www.linaboothsweeney.net) and I’ll send you the exercise.

Movies/YouTube:  

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 Waters Foundation and Creative Learning Exchange websites.  Lots of great curriulum 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

 
Look for Part II of this blog in the coming weeks:   Why do most of us profoundly underestimate the effects of exponential growth?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Gold Sticker “Effect”

How do we nurture children’s capacity to “think about systems” through everyday conversations and activities?

Many of you know I’ve been asking this question for a long time.

These days, I’m thrilled to be part of a movement to help children develop “systems literacy“, “systems thinking dispositions“, and other systems thinking “habits of mind” (and here).   Today, children and the adults who teach them can learn to think about and work with systems through camps like Camp Snowball and Design Camp, through innovative learning programs from SEEDthe Institute of Play (see related blog) and Lego Serious Play and from systems educators at The Waters Foundation, the Creative Learning Exchange and The Cloud Institute, by reading blogs by Beth Sawin, Tim Joy, Tom Fiddaman (especially when he talks about his kids), Pegasus and many more (tell me who I’ve missed!)

I now have to add my most recent book — Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems (SEED/Chelsea Green)*–  to the list of good things that encourage systems literacy.

I found out today that the book and children’s CD won at the New York Book Festival. (The CD won last month at the San Francisco book festival).

That’s good news!

What may be even better news is that we now get to put those little gold “winner” stickers on the book and the CD.


Sure, it’s good to get the recognition (who couldn’t use a pat on the back), but mostly, it’s good because people will be pick up the book or CD, and share it with their children.

Now that’s the really good news! As our children come to appreciate and see living systems in their everyday lives, we can confirm for them what they already know:  that their world is interconnected and dynamic, a tightly woven web of interrelated elements involving people, places, events and nature and, as such, is indeed purposeful and meaningful.

My deepest gratitude goes to Simone Amber, who listened to (and acted on!) my crazy idea to use folk tales as as a way to learn about the principles of living systems.  And to all who have been on this journey with me for past fifteen years, thank you for your continued encouragement.  It has made a world of difference to me.  For those of you who are new, welcome!

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*The Connected Wisdom book and CD is a collaborative effort with three first-class artists – Milton Glaser, recipient of the National Medal of Arts is the book designer, Guy Billout is the award-winning illustrator and Courtney Campbell is the wildly talented children’s singer/songwriter.   Funding for Connected Wisdom was provided by SEED. It is currently translated into nine languages including English, Portuguese, French, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish,  Russian, Dutch and Hungarian.

This is what the poet Judy Sorum Brown has to say about the book:

“Artfully, beautifully, playfully, seriously, clearly Linda Booth Sweeney invites us to join her in a deeper understanding of the profound principles of living systems. Tapping wisdom connected to many cultures and many times, Linda weaves memorable simple stories into a tapestry holding enormous complexity.   A book that is at once a work of art, a representation of science, and an invitation to think more deeply and playfully, Connected Wisdom is a gift. Whether the reader is six or sixty, it matters not.  These pages open us more fully to the world around us.”

Ok. Just one more, from the children’s troubadour and author, Raffi:

“The moment you touch and open this book, its wisdom is evident. This is the wisdom of wholes, of belonging, and connecting the dots to see the richer tapestry of life.”

To hear a preview of the Connected Wisdom CD, click here.  Also for the academic-types among you (I’m one of them), my endnotes for Connected Wisdom can be found here.

For teachers:

Earth science and other educators looking to effectively engage young people while meeting state and national standards will find the Connected Wisdom book and CD invaluable resource that is easily linked to curriculum standards. For example, National Science Education Standards call for students in grades five through eight to study earth and life systems, including natural cycles, natural cycles, nature awareness, habitats and community (specifically, dependency of plants and animals on their habitat and each other) and, human influence on habitats (and in Canada, standards 4s1 and 4s3).