Going further with systems thinking – students apply their conceptual knowledge

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Several weeks ago, I blogged about introducing systems thinking by using children’s literature with my grade 2 students. I was really enthused by their receptiveness to the process and how quick they learned, it almost seemed intuitive to some of them. Last week my teaching partner and I came back to the process and used it as one of the summative assessment tasks for our UOI on healthy living.

After a short introduction, we gave the students an opportunity to apply the skill of systems thinking and focus on areas of the UOI knowledge they felt they had learned most about.  We wanted to see how they connected with a key understanding we had identified in our planning – that of seeing the body as an interacting system. I was particularly interested in their response to the challenge of making their thinking visible, so took it upon myself to work with groups of 5 or 6 students at a time and provide support where needed through poignant questioning, challenging their ideas and envoking discussion. Observing the process, I was impressed with how much they had remembered about thinking systemically, it had been several weeks since our last experience with using the process, yet very little instructional guidance had to be given to the students. Another thing that I observed was how flexible this tool is in allowing students to express their thinking, once they had become familiar with the process, there was less time spent on the procedural knowledge of how to do it, which I think freed up the mental space needed to express their understanding. As an extension I asked if any students wanted to transfer their “round and round thinking” to a prezi, here is one student’s example.

Junk food prezi

I can’t help wondering how far you could take the concept of systems thinking and apply it to curriculum mapping models… I imagine the potential of a learner’s development when a school curriculum articulates and promotes systems thinking skills as a core value of their educational pedagogy, particularly if they are teaching for international mindedness. It seems obvious to me that conceptual thinking skills, which are pervasive and yet flexible enough to have positive application in a multitude of content areas and settings, should be a fundamental principal of 21st century education. Hope I am not in a minority forever on this one!

“Round and round thinking” in Grade 2

Image from: http://blog.pegasuscom.com/Leverage-Points-Blog/?Tag=feedback%20loop

The focus of our current UOI is healthy living – “what we eat and how we look after our bodies is related to the sustainability of our health.” The concept of causation is a driving force in this unit to help move the students beyond the facts and knowledge. In particular this unit presents a wonderful opportunity of developing in the students an ability to think in sytemic ways.

After reading the book “When a Butterfly Sneezes” by Linda Booth Sweeney, I set about using some of her suggestions of introducing the concept of systems thinking through literature. I first read to the students the HCA classic “The Emporers New Clothes” (quite a few children had never heard this story), we discussed what happened in the book. I then modeled a way to record the significant issues that had clear causal connections, using a simple linear style, and another way that used causal feedback loops. One child aptly made a connection saying “oh it’s like a butterfly,” recalling her previous knowledge from G1 unit on living things. I then challenged students to make their own causal diagrams about any of the issues that seemed to repeat in the story.  The students responded with interest and decent engagement, which does not always happen when I challenge them to think! We repeated the same process with a Dr Suess book – “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back,” again I modeled one example and the students then had a go at making their own loops and connections. On the third occasion I read the book “The Lorax,” this time I did not model the thinking, but used our previous examples as a cue. One child said “oh that round and round thinking,” I liked his way of describing it, because I am often challenged by dumbing down terminology to a G2 level – so we have now adopted the term as part of our systems thinking vocabulary. I plan to continue to develop this thinking skill using literature throughout the unit, but my main goal is to get the students to transfer these skills to show their conceptual understanding of healthy living (a future blog post I will share).

In education we tend to assess what we value and, although I am not a gambling man I think it a safe bet to say, I could walk into most schools and access data that shows the trajectory of a students progress in reading, writing or mathematical skills.  However, would I find the same documentation of a students progress in thinking systemically? Maybe… but I  beleive it would be an exception rather than a rule. Of course thinking skills can and mutually need to be subject specific, but more and more we are living in a world of transferable skills. The ability to think systemically is needed in our world like never before, human evolution, growth and our global interconnectedness, reveals new issues and challenges that demand our attention. Pursuing simplistic cause/effect solutions are like putting sticking plasters on a machete wound – they’re just not up to the job, we need to think on a deeper level. Look at the way many governments tackle road congestion (“take a ride around the M25 the next time you visit London to get my point”).

I believe teaching kids about the skills of systems thinking should be equally as important as teaching kids to learn their times tables. But… Which one gets more coverage in your school?