Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
Email this Post Email this Post

Posts Tagged ‘systems literacy. parenting’

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 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.


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


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.


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?








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.