Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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It all comes down to dirt

Not long ago, our local elementary school hosted a “Getting to Green” community event.  My job was to work with my friend, Edie, an Audubon educator and farmer, to entertain the little ones while their parents listened to Dr. Halina Brown talk about “sustainable” consumerism.

Edie and "Clucky"

Edie, a spry elder with a twinkle and lightning-white hair, brought one of her chickens for the children to touch and hold.  I brought one of my “systems playkits”.

"Healthy Chickens, Healthy Farms" Playkit

“Clucky”, Edie’s barnyard bantam, was a huge success. The children, ranging in age from 3 to 8, sat cross-legged in a circle, listening intently as she explained why a chicken has this part and that, what they eat, what color eggs they lay (Thoreaucana, a breed Edie developed, lays greenish-blue eggs. Dr. Suess would approve).

Each child had a chance to feed and hold the chicken on their lap.  To their great delight, they all received a white feather to stroke and tuck into their pockets to take home.  When Edie finished, one of the monitors arrived to give the group a choice:  “You can play basketball in the gym, or you can play a ‘systems game’ with Mrs. Sweeney.”

No surprise.  Most of the children bolted to the gym! (Note to self:  Drop the word  “system” next time).  The few who remained gathered into a small circle on the floor.  I showed them pictures of a chicken coop at Drumlin Farm, a local Audubon site. We laid out playing cards with pictures of chickens, cows, grass, manure, insects, decomposing soil, eggs, people, the sun, and more, and gave everyone a handful of wikki stixs, bend-able sticks made from hand-knitting yarn enhanced with non-toxic wax. We were ready to play.

When they looked closely at the mobile coop they could see that this coop was unique:  It had wheels!

The Egg Mobile, Drumlin Farm (Lincoln, MA)

“Now, why would that be?” we wondered.  Lilly, a bright and curious first-grader, had been to Drumlin Farm. She’d seen the chickens scratching the grass near the mobile chicken coop.  “I know, I know!” she said. “The chickens eat the bugs in the grass!” Lilly grabbed a green wikki stix and connected chicken card to the grass card.

I asked more questions:  What happens to the chicken manure when it’s left in the field? How are the chickens, the pasture and people connected?

A group of children created this "systems map" using wikki stix (from the Wolves in Yellowstone playkit)




Then the group set to work, adding and taking away links. When they were done, they had “connected the dots”, and had put together a tightly linked “map” of causes and effects.  They discovered that the more the soil was fed the chicken manure and decaying plants, the healthier it was.  With a little help, they also saw the positive influence the chickens had on the health of cows (eating the harmful insect larvae in the cow’s manure), people (an omnivore’s diet improved the quality of the chicken’s eggs) and the climate (less fossil fuels needed to produce chicken feed)

When the last wikki stix was pressed into place, Lilly paused to study the map. Then she exclaimed:  “It all comes down to dirt!”

If you read the newspapers, you know that this statement is both timely and profound. Loss of topsoil and soil erosion due to over-farming and over-grazing of fragile soils is, according to The Worldwatch Institute, “A quiet crisis in the world economy.”  The causes of soil erosion (expanding demand for food, short-cut farming practices) and consequences (silt-laden rivers, desertification) are complex. Said simply though, the more the soil erodes, the less productive it is. Without good topsoil, plants cannot grow.

So, Lilly, at the tender of seven, got it. She explored the interconnections and dynamics of the farm and found that all roads (all wikki stix in this case) lead to the soil. In just a short half hour, she discovered the role soil plays in the health of crops, animals and people. With more time, she would have also likely discovered soil’s role in the cleanliness of water and the livelihoods of farmers. She might also have been guided to think about “systems” as an organizing framework to take home and apply, for instance to that escalating squabble with her brother or to preventing homework “burn-out.”

Systems Playkits, like the one I used with Lilly and her friends, have been used on farms, in public workshops, with a local girl scout troop towards earning their eco-explorer badge, and most recently with a group of 50 graduate students, studying sustainable development and education in Brazil.


Students in the Post Graduate Program on Integral Sustainability at The Instituto Visão Futuro (Brazil, 2011)

People, whether they’re eight or 88, like to touch, build, discover, explore, imagine and play. Using all their senses and interacting with the real world increases the depth and breadth of learning. As our children begin to understand the critical issues that shape our interdependent world, let them become true “systems citizens” with their hands in the dirt and a chicken feather in their pocket.  I think Confucius had it right when he said:

When I hear, I forget,

When I see, I remember,

When I do, I understand.

About the Systems Playkit:

Working with the Creative Learning Exchange and Drumlin Farm, we designed the “Healthy Chickens, Healthy Pastures” playkit to encourage students to think deliberately about living systems in a farm setting.  Through observation and play, the students discover the often hidden connections within the pasture and see the people, and wildlife around the farms, not as a set of interesting but disconnected parts, but as components in a vibrant living system.  When used in educational settings, the game also provides students with an organizing framework (informed by system dynamics) to take home and apply in other contexts. (The “Healthy Chickens, Healthy Pastures” playkit can be ordered through the Creative Learning Exchange).

An Opportunity to Learn and Play with Systems

Want to learn more about systems? Check out  Camp Snowball in Tucson the week of July 21-25.  This summer “camp” experience brings together students, parents, educators, and business and community leaders to build everyone’s capacity for learning and leading in the 21st century. Teams and individuals from school systems and communities around the world are invited to learn how to enable youth to develop into “systems citizens.”

Many thanks to my good friends Gale Prior and Sara Schley for your thoughtful comments on this article.  And to Ann Jennings (superb graphic designer), Renata Pomponi (Drumlin Farm) and Lees Stuntz (CLE) for our most enjoyable and fruitful collaboration!






A Snow Day Lesson

In this blog I write about systems.

What’s tricky here is that systems — two or more parts that interact to form a whole — are often hard to see.

If you think of it, have you ever seen a system walking around?  Why not? Well, for the most part we don’t actually see the connections that make up systems. We have to imagine how this influences that.

I was reminded of this during yet another snowstorm last week.  With school closed, my two boys were having a ball, and then, as the afternoon crept in, the laughing was replaced by arguing.  What started out as a sharp word or two, ending up in a not-so-playful snowball fight.

Was this simply too much of good thing?  To find out, I took each one aside, and listened while each told their version.

They both told a similar story:  an annoyed comment from one, led the other to comment back, which led to a poke, then… (you know the scenario). In both of their explanations, I heard a common pattern – often seen in systems – called escalation. (If you don’t have children, just think about any situation that escalates like the old advertising campaigns for Coke and Pepsi, competing street gangs, or the current situation between Palestine and Israel. Siblings, companies and countries can all be viewed as “living systems”; the difference is the scale.)

Whether you’ve studied systems or not, you know the pattern I saw. One party does something that is seen as a threat by another party so the other party responds in kind, increasing the threat to the first party. This results in even more threatening actions by the first party and the cycle continues. Seeing this pattern I drew the following picture with my boys:

(Here’s how you read it: Start in the middle. One boy, let’s call him “J”, makes a move to be more awesome than the other. Now, moving to the bottom of the right-hand loop, we see this annoys “T”, who then throws a poke of some sort at his brother. “T”, feeling he now has the leg up,  then probably expresses some level of satisfaction. Then the cycle continues on the left-hand side, with “J” now feeling annoyed at “T” and so on.)

When I asked: “Would you say this is what’s going on?” they both agreed immediately but then quickly started talking over each other.

“Look,” one of them said, pointing to the diagram, “it’s a figure eight lying on its side.” The symbol of infinity.

“This thing could go on forever,” one moaned.

“And just keep getting worse,” the other groaned.

As we talked about it, 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. As it turns out, one was particularly good at “poking” and the other one was good at “squashing”.

For that one snowy afternoon (with their Mom at her wit’s end), they saw themselves as part of the “system”, rather than separate from it. They “got” that focusing on just one of them 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 were able to 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 much.

When our children learn to see systems they eventually learn to see themselves “in” and not outside of situations.  When they see that nothing stands alone, they begin to see that  my bully is your bully, your food shortage is my food shortage, my climate is your climate. They learn to stop jumping to blame a single cause for the challenges they encounter and instead, try to track the a variety of interacting causes, effects and unintended impacts. They learn to move beyond laundry lists and look for  more web-like patterns of cause and effect in their everyday lives.

Does all of this really happen when we talk to our children about systems?

We’re expecting another snow day this week.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

What is that loopy thing boosting our economy?

Something called a “feedback loop” is boosting our economy.

You can read about it yourself in Adam Lahart’s Wall Street Journal article (see How a Feedback loop is Providing a Boost, Dec. 23, 2010).  Although Lahart never mentions the word “feedback loop” in the article itself (I assume you have to know what one is), he refers to this hopeful trend:

Consumer’s willingness to spend (and not save) is encouraging businesses to spend, which means businesses are hiring, which is sending a signal to consumers….

You guessed it.   It’s okay to spend!

If Mr. Lahart were to have included a simple diagram in his article (and I wish he did), it might look something like this:

(The R in the middle lets you know this is a reinforcing feedback loop).

Here’s an even shorter version of this loop:

Consumer optimism generates business optimism, which generates consumer optimism and so on.

As a systems educator, I’m thrilled to see a “feedback loop” in the headline of a Wall Street Journal article.  We sorely need more media coverage that moves beyond bullet points and mechanistic metaphors, to language and images that more closely match the interdependent, dynamic, complex reality of our world.  I’m game for anything that helps people to develop systems literacy, that is, to “connect the dots” and see not just of the parts but the interrelationships, patterns, and dynamics as well of complex issues.

Mr. Lahart’s article was a tease to me.   I really wanted him to use phrase “feedback loop” in his article and to show us, using some kind of image, how the loop worked.  Perhaps he assumes that the average WSJ readers knows what a feedback loop is (loops of cause and effect) and that the loops come in two flavors: balancing feedback, which counteracts or lessens change, and reinforcing feedback, which amplifies or reinforces change.  (In this article, he’s referring to the latter).*

At this point, you might be wondering:  Why should I care about feedback loops?

Here’s why I care about them:   Feedback loops help us to understand why things change and why they stay the same.

Mr. Lahart refers to a “vicious cycle… starting to turn virtuous” (feedback loops) to explain why and how consumer optimism is changing (in this case, increasing). Everyday challenges, from an escalating marital argument to resistance of a new school policy, all can be traced to the interaction of balancing (or self-correcting) and reinforcing feedback loops.

Here’s the good news:  When you see and understand these loops, you then have a better chance of influencing them.

Okay, you still might be saying, I get it, but so what?

As a researcher, I’ve investigated children’s and adult’s intuitive understandings of complex systems and have found that deep misconceptions about complex systems persist, even among highly educated adults.   In one study (see “Thinking about Systems”), a significant number of students and adults used “open-loop” or one-way causal thinking when “closed-loop” causality or feedback was present.

This would explain why a significant number of Americans use their thermostats like a gas pedal.  It’s too cold?  Turn up the thermostat.  Too hot?  Turn it down.  The temperature is increased or decreased suit our moment-by-moment needs.

When we understand balancing feedback, we set the thermostat and leave it alone, letting the internal feedback structure do its work and  allowing the temperature to self-adjust to a desired temperature.

When we pay attention to balancing feedback, we’re less likely to over-correct and over-steer, perhaps allowing our children or our team to handle a problem themselves.

When we understand reinforcing feedback, we see that seemingly small changes can “grow” into big consequences.

We share scientists concerns about melting ice in polar regions.

Cover of the Independent Newspaper, 1.29.07

We “get” that a vicious cycle is at work when a slight rise in atmospheric temperature begins to melt ice in the polar regions; the now bare ground absorbs more heat, causing even more ice to melt.

When we pay attention to reinforcing feedback, we also understand a successful person’s willingness to take on more work.  “Success to the successful” sounds good, but when success brings more and more work, if a balancing loop isn’t brought into play, this reinforcing loop often results in a case of diminishing returns, also know as  burn-out.

Mr. Lahart, thank you for using “feedback” in the title of your article.  Next time, I encourage you to use throw in a feedback loop and maybe even use “feedback loop” in a sentence.   We could all use the practice.


* Reinforcing feedback loops act as engines of growth. When reinforcing feedback is present, change in a system feeds back to cause even more change in the system.   Think of the spread of a rumor, or a virus, or your saving account (if you actually save and don’t spend).

Balancing or self-regulating feedback return a system (like your body, an ecosystem, market systems) back to a state of equilibrium.  By their very nature, balancing feedback works to bring things to a desired state and keep them there.

I’ll be writing more in this blog about ways to teach people of all ages about feedback loops.  For other great resources, see the Waters Foundation site or check out the cover article by Steve Wilhite — “Concept Learning — Feedback Loops” in the Fall 2010 Creative Learning Exchange newsletter. (This particular article focuses on high school students).