Linda Booth Sweeney


“We have used the Systems Thinking Playbook for years with our clients. It provides a framework for us to get them out of their old, top-down thinking and to think of themselves as a part of a whole organization and the organization as part of a whole community.�

Marianne Hughes, Executive Director Interaction Institute for Social Change

Systems Resource Room

Over the past eighty years, a family of systems frameworks has emerged. Some have their roots in general systems theory, while other hail from system dynamics, systems ecology, cybernetics, complexitytheory, and more.

Although they may not see each other as kin, they all view systems as the context for defining, understanding, and solving complex challenges and designing human systems.

You’ll find here a sampling of systems-oriented resources - including websites, materials, and practitioners - from around the world:

Learning About Systems


Systems 1: An Introduction to Systems Thinking by Draper Kaufman. Appleton, Wisconsin: McGruder Books.

Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, edited by Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow. This book chronicles some of the most exciting work that the Center for Ecoliteracy has supported over the last decade.

Donella Meadows’ The Global Citizen (Island Press, 1991). When I need inspiration and to remember how systems thinking can help us see and change the "big picture," I pick up this book. For a collection of Donella’s work, see the Sustainability Institute website (don’t miss Donella's article "Dancing with Systems"?).

Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life: a New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (Anchor Books, 1996). This book is my most definitive and accessible guide to living systems.

The Systems Thinking Playbook, When a Butterfly Sneezes and Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems, by Linda Booth Sweeney, are also useful resources for helping kids, big and small, to learn about living systems. See:

"System Dynamics and Learner-Centered-Learning in Kindergarten through 12th Grade Education" by Jay Forrester (1992) an MIT Road Map Series Paper (D-4434-1), Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Modeling Dynamic Systems: Lessons for a First Course by Diana Fisher. This book uses STELLA software's icon-based, non-abstract language to structure problems in ways that students can easily visualize. For more by Diana Fisher, see

The Shape of Change by Rob Quaden and Alan Ticotsky. Introductory and intermediate lessons that focus on using systems thinking to teach critical thinking. Written by a team of master teacher mentors. See for more information.

Tracing Connections: Voices of Systems Thinkers. Inspired by Barry Richmond, Tracing Connections reveals how "thinking about systems"? can radically improve our ability to work through complex issues and uncover elegant solutions. See:


The Waters Foundation’s Systems Thinking in Schools project provides training and resource materials to K-12 teachers and administrators around the world. Don’t miss their new web-based tutorial!

Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development (SEED) is a global non-profit education program that serves students aged 10-18. The site has a number of systems-oriented animations.

The Center for Ecoliteracy is dedicated to education for sustainable living. The site is chock-full of many systems-oriented tools and ideas to support innovation in K–12 education.

The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education's mission is to leverage K-12 school systems to prepare young people for the shift toward a sustainable future. The website is packed with education for sustainability materials, tools, and articles.

The Creative Learning Exchange's mission is to develop systems citizens through active, learner-centered K-12 education. This site provides the educational community with a library of materials, a newsletter, K-12 listserve, and a biennial conference.

Many of Shelburne Farms Education Programs include hands-on activities and lessons about living systems and sustainability for both educators and students.

SEER (State Education & Environment Roundtable) is a wonderful resource for using the environment as an integrating context for learning.

Simulation Games:

Friday Night at the E.R. is a simulation experience, based in a hospital and community setting, that helps people learn to collaborate and innovate, considering the effects of their action on the larger systems. Created by Betty Gardner. This team board game works beautifully to give a team the opportunity to become students of their own behaviors.

Fish Banks, a computer-assisted, interactive role-playing simulation in which teams manage a fishing company. Created by Dennis Meadows. This team board game works beautifully to give a team the opportunity to become students of their own behaviors.

On-Line Courses/List Serve:

The Waters Foundation offers first-class, web-ed tutorials focused on systems thinking in K-12 education.

Systems Thinking World, offers a Systems Thinking World Discussion Group, free on-line webinars and more.

The K-12 system dynamics listserve is a useful resource for practitioners who are applying systems thinking in the classroom.

The MIT System Dynamics in Education project offers the Road Map self-learning courses online.

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Working with Systems

These resources include case studies, capacity building opportunities, and how-to’s for working with a variety of systems:


Russ Ackoff. Ackoff's Best: His Classic Writings on Management
(John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999). This amazing collection had me laughing at Ackoff’s wry wit and marveling at his highly effective, real-world applications of systems theory.

John Sterman’s Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World (McGraw-Hill/Irwin 2000). This is the definitive textbook on systems dynamics as applied to business. If you ever get a chance to hear John speak, go!

Jamshid Gharajedaghi Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity - A Platform for Designing Business Architecture (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2005). If you liked Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and want more systems thinking case studies, read the second half of this book.

Soft Systems Methodology in Action by Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes. Checkland and Scholes offer practical techniques to apply systems thinking tools and methods to a variety of organizational settings, including business, healthcare, NGO’s, government, and more.

Applied Systems Thinking:

David Peter Stroh and Michael Goodman offer capability building and the application of systems thinking tools and strategies.

See this extensive list of system dynamic consultants.


Pegasus Communications offers a yearly conference that focuses on applied systems thinking in a variety of settings including corporations, education, non-profit, and governmental agencies.

International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) is one of the oldest, and most inclusive organizations devoted to interdisciplinary inquiry into the nature of complex systems.

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Systems and Leadership


Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. See also the related Fifth Discipline Fleidbooks.

Leadership and Systems Thinking

The Society for Organizational Learning

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System Tools

There are a growing number of tools available to help us to make systems visible. These tools include:

connection circles

causal loop diagrams (and more on causal loops here)(

system archetypes. See also, Daniel Kim’s (1992) book, Systems Archetypes I (and II).

computer-aided diagramming

and simulations

agent-based modeling


Daniel Kim’s (1992) Systems Archetypes I (and II). Waltham, Massachusetts: Pegasus Communications.

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Understanding How Systems Work


Donella Meadows’ The Global Citizen (Island Press, 1991) When I need inspiration and to remember how systems thinking can help us see and change the "big picture,"? I pick up this book. For a public collection of Donella Meadows work, see the Sustainability Institute website and Donella’s article "Dancing with Systems."?

Gerry Marten’s Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development (Earthscan Publications, 2001). This is my new favorite for learning about the relationships between ecosystems and human societies.

C. West Churchman’s The Systems Approach (Delacorte Press, 1984).

Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life: a New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (Anchor Books, 1996). This book is my most definitive and accessible guide to living systems.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference (Little Brown & Co., 2004).

Mitchell Resnick’s Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams (MIT Press, 1995).

George Richardson’s Feedback Thought in Social Science and Systems Theory (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

Jay Forrester’s Principle of Systems (Productivity Press, 1968).

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The EcoTipping Points Project

The System Dynamics Society

International Society for the Systems Sciences

The New England Complex Systems Institute

The Ackoff Center for Advancement of System Approaches
(I enjoy their blog as well)

Systems Thinking World

Systems Design

These resources apply the principles of living systems to infrastructure and organization design.


Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002). Designing with living systems in mind.

Biomimcry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine Benyus. Biomimicry is a design disciple that asks a simple but profound question: how does nature do it? Benyus offers up a design discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates the designs to solve human problems. For more about Biomimicry, see

The Nature of DesignEcology, Culture, and Human Intention by David W. Orr. A terrific primer on the emerging field of ecological design.

Bela H. Banathy (1996) Designing Social Systems in a Changing World (Contemporary Systems Thinking). (Springer) ISBN 0-306-45251-0

Systems Thinking 4 Kids

Systems Teaching and Farm-Based Education by L. Booth Sweeney This article is about the potential of teaching about living systems on farms. Link to article, Farm-Based Education Association newsletter(winter/Spring 2009).Download newsletter

Dr. Art’s Guide to Planet Earth: For Earthlings Ages 12-120. Using clear, conversational language, Dr. Art Sussman uses a systems approach to explain how the planet works. This is one of my all-time favorite natural science books for young people.

Billibonk & the Big Itch (and three other Billibonk stories) by Philip Ramsey (Pegasus Communications, 1998).

Learning to Connect the Dots: Developing Children’s Systems Literacy by Linda Booth Sweeney

Learning to Connect the Dots: Developing Children’s Systems Literacy

Systems Thinking: A Means to Understanding our Complex world

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Learning to Connect the Dots: Developing Children’s Systems Literacy

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 crash!”

“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?

Read more

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We have not inherited the world from our forefathers -- we have borrowed it from our children.


Whole-systems learning on-line? Join our community conversation on November 12. Hosted by the System Dynamics Society.



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