Systems Thinking Overview

Systems thinking is an approach to thinking that includes the interactions and interrelationships among multiple and sometimes conflicting contexts. The basic idea of systems thinking involves moving away from a reductionist approach to learning and thinking to an approach that constantly refers to the “whole” system as the fundamental point of reference. Table 1 lists the overall characteristics, foci, thinking process, and concerns involved in systems thinking. However, the major intent of such an approach to thinking focuses on trying to develop understandings of whole systems and the interactions between systems in ways that account for the functioning of all parts, their interrelationships, and the contexts in which these systems occur. Figure 1, below, provides a visual representation of systems thinking.

Table 1. Summary of systems thinking.


Thinking and in-depth learning are cognitive systems that focus on wholes, relationships, and complex interconnections. The dimensions of systems thinking occur along three intersecting continuums that result in a kind of “systems thinking space”. Such thinking can focus on inquiring into and understanding a variety of systems that are situated somewhere within the systems space delineated by the continuums (a) of simple to complex, (b) from single system to multiple, interacting systems, and (c) from contextually bounded to applied across contexts. For example, a bicycle is a simple, but multiple, interacting mechanical system. Typically, this is the extent of the study of such a system. However, a bicycle is nothing without a rider. So, now we add the biological and cognitive systems, including emotions, of the rider. This addition of the rider begins to move the object of study towards a more “complex” end of the continuum and further towards the “multiple, interacting systems” end, as well. In addition, the rider suggests a context of human use. However, depending upon how far we want to go with this, the contextual continuum can be expanded to examining how bicycles are used in various situations, such as those involved in recreation, competition, and transportation. These situational contexts can vary further in specific cultural contexts such as bicycle use in the United States, China, India, Kenya, and the United Kingdom. In each of these cultural contexts, the meaning and function of bicycles vary.

Young children's thinking is characterized by the foci and processes of systems (Bloom, 1990, 1992), but the longer they stay in school, the less they continue to think in this way as the emphases change to linear approaches to remembering fragmented and disconnected content (Waldron, P. W., Collie, T. R., & Davies, C. M. W., 1999). However, previous attempts at teaching systems thinking to upper elementary school children has been shown to be effective in children's learning about social problems (Roberts, 1978), but such an approach to thinking has never been adopted in any comprehensive way in schools. If we are to pursue education that focuses on complex, ecological understandings, we need to move systems thinking to the forefront of our efforts.


Figure 1. Model of systems thinking.


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© 2010 Jeffrey W. Bloom

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