Systems thinking in the school of the 21st century

Jan Jutten

Specialist Systems Thinking and Educational consultant at  Natuurlijk Leren,

Everything changes, faster and faster, more and more drastically. The environment is no longer relatively stable, as it used to be. The changes in our society are accelerating, and new demands are constantly being made on organizations and the people who work there. This always requires adapted responses, different behavior, flexibility, systems thinking.

The change potential will therefore have to become a structural characteristic of every organization. Schools will also have to develop continuously in order to “survive”. The question is how one can adapt to ever-changing circumstances. One of the possible answers is that people develop in the direction of a learning organization.

The philosophy of the learning school is not a panacea, the concept is not a “cure” for all educational ailments of today. It is one of the many possibilities that can make work at school more pleasant, more interesting and therefore better for everyone. 

Peter Senge, one of the most important founders of the learning organization, describes five disciplines that form the basis for working on a learning organization:

  • joint vision;
  • personal mastery;
  • mental models;
  • team learning;
  • systems thinking.

The five disciplines cannot only be meaningful at school level; they also provide a useful framework for education and upbringing in our time.systems thinking

  • Shared vision and personal mastery ensure aspiration and commitment.
  • Team learning and mental modeling ensure open communication and collaboration.
  • Systems thinking contributes to a better understanding of our complex reality.

This article focuses on  systems thinking: “the fifth discipline” , which, as it were, connects the other and evokes them. It is the main lever for developing a  learning school and a learning class . Applying the five disciplines in the classroom actually starts with systems thinking. However, it is precisely this discipline that turns out to be difficult for many.

School leaders and teachers indicate: “ It’s too technical, too abstract, I can’t do anything with this in practice. 

If we really want to use the five disciplines as a foundation for good education in the 21st century, then we will have to explore the many possibilities of system thinking together with the teachers and the children. The question then is: how do we do that? This article aims to contribute to answering this question.

1. What is systems thinking?

We are used to cutting all kinds of things into small pieces and then studying them. This approach is also very common in education.

  • Pupils are divided into groups;
  • the subject matter is divided into subjects or parts thereof;
  • the subjects are then further divided into all kinds of subjects, which are often offered separately and by different teachers.

At the school level, we are concerned about:

  • finances;
  • personnel;
  • the parents;
  • the results.

The relationship between them receives much less attention! We set priorities  when drawing up a  school  plan  . This school year we will work on cooperative learning, next year on multiple intelligences and the following year we will work on systems thinking in the classroom. Could these three major developments of exciting education have something to do with each other?

The  paradox  is that we know more and more about parts of the world, but that we find it increasingly difficult to gain insight into the functioning of the world as a coherent whole of parts. All of this leads to a limited understanding of our reality.

The world we live in is complex. The problems we encounter are also becoming more complex and in many cases can no longer be solved by one person or one specialism. At the same time, we see that our world is becoming smaller and smaller: due to the enormous increase in (air) traffic and the influence of technology and mass media, our world is increasingly becoming a “global village”.

Systems thinking is first and foremost a way of looking at reality.

“It is the ability to see and understand relationships in dynamic systems .”

This way of thinking allows us to see the big  picture , not just the  details . You could compare it to using a zoom lens on a camera. We alternately zoom in and out to see “the big picture” in addition to the details.

Systems thinking is the focus to see interrelationships instead of separate phenomena, to see patterns of change instead of snapshots, to see the difference between a problem and a symptom.

Children are naturally systems thinkers. At school, however, it is as if we make every effort to put an end to the understanding of relationships and the natural learning of children. If we are able to better understand the complexity of reality, we are also able to positively influence this reality.

We learn to see that we ourselves are the system and not just “victims” of it. In addition, systems thinking is a means of communication:

” Working with a special language that is intended to describe the operation of systems .”

Our language turns out to be insufficient to put the complexity into words. By means of the language of the causal loops we make mutual connections visible and we can communicate about it more easily. Finally, systems thinking includes “ the use of a number of tools”  with which we can visualize a system.

These aids can be applied in education at all levels:

  • with children of four years old;
  • up to and including directors;
  • and school boards.

The following diagram describes the differences between the systems approach and the analytical approach.

The analytical approach:

  1. isolates; focuses on individual elements
  2. emphasizes precision in the details
  3. always focuses on one fixed variable
  4. usually causes linear thinking:
    A causes B and B causes C
  5. focuses on individual components within specific areas (courses)
  6. assumes that cause and effect are closely related; in time and place
  7. studies the nature of the interactions
  8. focuses mainly on events and facts
  9. considers each problem unique

The system approach

  1. unites; focuses on the interaction between elements
  2. also emphasizes global perceptions, the overall picture
  3. focuses on more dynamic variables simultaneously and on the interaction
  4. often causes cyclical thinking: A causes B, but B also causes A
  5. is aimed at connecting different disciplines in various fields
  6. assumes that cause and effect can be distant from each other
  7. studies the effects of interactions
  8. pays a lot of attention to the underlying structures and views
  9. always makes the same patterns explicit when dealing with problems

Source: Anderson (1997)

2. What is a system?

Our world is a system, consisting of a lot of systems which in turn consist of systems …… .. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are part of all kinds of systems. The family, the family, the organization where we work, for example. Moreover, we are a system ourselves, consisting of a lot of subsystems: organs, nervous system, circulatory system, etc. Two definitions of a system:

  •  A system is a system experienced as a whole, the elements of which are related. These elements continuously influence each other and work towards a common goal.
  •  A system is a collection of parts that interact in such a way that they can function as a whole.

There are many systems. Some examples:

  • the human being – a brain cell – a car
  • a class – the brain – a washing machine
  • a school – the nervous system – a bicycle
  • the education system – a wolf – a factory
  • society – a herd – the economy

What is the difference between a “normal” collection (heap, mass) and a system?

An overview:

3. Sustainable learning

Current developments in our society are characterized by increasing interdependence and cohesion. We try to understand this complexity individually and collectively, and we should teach our children that too. However, education is not keeping pace with these developments. We can conclude that current education seems more fragmented than ever.

Both the contents and the organization still bear the characteristics of machine thinking from the 19th century:

  • productivity (more is better);
  • uniformity;
  • fragmentation

were and still are core concepts in our schools.

We still prepare our students for industrial thinking, because we hardly ask ourselves what the lightning-fast developments towards globalization mean for education. There is a risk of creating a gap between the complexity and cohesion in today’s world on the one hand and the investments we make to help our pupils and students understand this complexity on the other. This gap is increasingly a major challenge for our education.

We do not want to claim that the current “subjects” as they are presented in education are not important. What is lacking is the development of insight into ‘ the relationship between and  within the components of the curriculum’ . Our students must learn that the problems of our time are interdisciplinary, interconnected, complex and dynamic. In a world of increasing dependence, systems thinking is therefore much more than “a nice idea”.

In the business world, the need to think and work differently is increasingly recognized. Sustainability and corporate social responsibility have become core themes in many companies. Shell CEO Van der Veer pointed out during an interview with Paul Witteman the great importance of thinking about long-term effects and sustainability.

He emphasized that for a company making a profit and paying attention to sustainability are not contradictions. As the need for profit on the part of shareholders increases, the pressure to earn a lot quickly and to pay less attention to sustainability increases. This has a positive effect in the short term. In the long term, however, it will lead to fewer opportunities for Shell and therefore less profit.

Systems thinking and sustainability are inextricably linked. One of the most important principles of systems thinking is to consider the long-term effects of our actions. These developments will certainly have consequences for education. At the moment very little is happening in schools in the field of systems thinking and sustainability.

Unfortunately, we have not come further than thinking about “sustainable school construction”. Sustainable learning and systems thinking in education can make a constructive contribution to change this. The government is increasingly recognizing the need for new impulses in education.

There are also many developments in our country in which forms of education are sought that meet the real needs of tomorrow. Together they form the basis for the development of “sustainable learning”. By this we mean the development of curricula and working methods, in which systems thinking is linked to sustainable development.

To this end, we must build up a network in which students, teachers, developers, counselors, the business community and government work together. The vision behind it is that we teach students how to deal with the problems of today and the future in a way that contributes to a world that is worth living in for everyone; both for current and future generations.

We need to make students aware of the process of globalization and what they can do themselves to work towards a better future for everyone.

4. Why systems thinking in education?

The development of a learning school and thus systems thinking in such a school is therefore necessary, among other things, to be able to deal with the increasingly complex nature of our society. Knowledge quickly becomes outdated. Collaboration, creative thinking, communication, seeing relationships: all these skills are becoming increasingly important.

Systems thinking at school and upper school level, but especially systems thinking with children, is one of the possibilities that offers great opportunities for better education in the 21st century. It can play an important role in our quest for “the new learning”. In recent years, a number of developments have taken place in thinking about learning and teaching that support the importance of systems thinking in the classroom.

a. Constructivism
Constructivism is a theory that puts an end to learning and remembering individual facts presented. Instead, the learner advocates self-development of knowledge. Knowledge that is coherent and actually leads to deeper insight.

The starting point is not to divide the contents into many small pieces and explain them, but to offer children opportunities to build up concepts themselves, to construct their own reality. Systems thinking in general and the use of visual aids support this process.

b. technology and visual culture
Our word culture is increasingly being replaced by visual culture. The development and increasing use of computers in particular played a major role in this. Schools are still largely focused on language, both the spoken word and the written word. The development of visual culture together with technology offers many opportunities for better learning.

c. interaction
Learning is a social process. We are looking for ways to ensure that education is increasingly geared to the pedagogical and didactic needs of the child. Adaptive education includes matters such as: collaborative learning, communication and interactive learning. Systems thinking can also help here.

d. multiple intelligence and thinking habits
A child is not just “stupid or smart”. Each child has their own mix of at least eight different intelligences, all of which can be developed. (Gardner, 1983.)

The task of the school is to develop all these intelligences and to formulate broader learning objectives than passing on factual knowledge and learning skills. The theory of habits of thought ties in with this. Costa (2000) calls them the ‘ Habits of Mind .’ We won’t get there with intelligence alone, according to Costa.

The point is to actually use the intelligences in order to be able and willing to display intelligent behavior. To this end, it is important that we develop a number of thinking habits in children that help children to be willing to use their capacities and that they recognize situations where this behavior is desirable and possible.

e. brain-based teaching
We know more and more about the functioning and functioning of our brains during learning. Some principles that brain-based teaching is based on:

  • the brain processes wholes and parts simultaneously;
  • emotions are of great importance in learning;
  • learning is promoted by challenge and inhibited by fear;
  • the search for meaning is innate;
  • brains work best in conjunction with other brains;
  • brains do not work in the form of “laundry lists”, but in the form of “spiders”.

You can expect the following beneficial effects of systems thinking in the classroom:

  • more enthusiasm and involvement in children

The experiences that have been gained so far with systems thinking in the classroom show that children are working with it with great enthusiasm.

  • learning new things becomes easier

This is mainly due to the transfer value of many work forms.

  • better understanding of the world with its complex situations and problems

Children learn, among other things, to view problems from different perspectives and to look beyond the boundaries of a particular subject.

  • personal skills are developed

This mainly concerns being able to see relationships, perseverance, consistency and courage.

  • develop a cohesive view of the 21st century world

Children learn to see that they themselves have an influence on their own future, that they matter, that they make a difference. “We are the system ourselves….… .. !!”

5. The visual aids for systems thinking

One of the hallmarks of systems thinking is the use of a variety of visual aids. They are useful and useful in many situations.

  • They respond to the development of the visual world: from a  “hearing and reading culture”  to an interactive  “seeing culture”.  The image supports the word and vice versa.
  • Visual aids support learning: making “pictures” and then storing them appears to be of great importance in the functioning of long-term memory.
  • They provide opportunities to cater to different forms of intelligence.
  • They offer us and the children opportunities to deal better with the enormous amount of information that is coming our way. You can use it to structure knowledge and facts.
  • They clarify relationships and connections and lead to a deeper understanding of reality. This makes it possible to make new connections and to visualize the unknown.
  • They show that the world is not single, but much more complex.
  • They initiate communication, through which, for example, mental models are examined and cooperative learning (team learning) is promoted.
  • They offer great opportunities for the effective use of ICT in our education. Various computer programs have now been developed in the United States that can be used in systems thinking. The most used program is Stella. A Dutch version is currently being worked on.
  • They optimize self-reflection; they help children and teachers to explore their own ways of thinking.

Below is a brief overview of the various  “visual tools”  that can be used. The three shapes in the diagram overlap. They are not arranged hierarchically, so you should do one first and then the other. Nor is one tool better than another.

Which tool you use depends on the goals you want to achieve in a particular lesson or activity. Furthermore, it is quite possible to deploy various resources based on one particular topic.

For example, at the start of a theme it is useful to make a word spider or a mind map. In a later phase, organizers and charts can play an excellent role.  Visual aids: types and uses . Only the tools in the right column belong to the actual system tools.

That does not alter the fact that the resources from the other two columns can also help us well, certainly in the preparation of working with the real system resources.

Brainstorming tools and organizers are currently widely used in education. They are tools that can play an important role in learning to see relationships and dealing with a large amount of information. However, the real system tools go one step further, partly because there is a special language.

In this article, I will limit myself to describing three tools:  the relationship circle, the behavioral pattern graph, and the causal loop.

5.1. Relationship circles

Working with the relationship circle is a great preparation for the next steps. It goes like this:

  • the starting point is a problem, a story, a newspaper article, the content of a biology lesson, etc.
  • draw a large circle;
  • place the main elements of the story around the circle: they must be nouns;
  • limit the number of elements: 5 to 10 maximum;
  • the elements must be able to increase and decrease; this is very important;
  • find an element that causes an increase or decrease of another element on the circle, for example: ‘ the increase in the number of birds of prey decreases the number of mice’ ;
  • draw an arrow from cause to effect;
  • see if the arrow can point in the other direction and draw the arrowheads;
  • look for other relationships between the elements and draw the arrows;
  • let children tell their story at the circle.

Experiences show that children understand better, talk about it better together, can remember the content more easily and have a lot of support for the circle in retelling the story. (especially the children who are less verbally strong)
A simple example:  the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood

5.2. Behavior Over Time Graphs (BOTGs)

By means of behavioral pattern graphs we can show a pattern of change over time, an increase or decrease of a variable. They are the most basic and simple tools of systems thinking.
Working with GPGs generally consists of three consecutive steps:

  1. Describing a problem

In the classroom, this could include telling a picture book, reading a story or studying an informative text.

2.  Searching for the important variables

This step is about the question which are the most important factors that play a role in this problem or story. Carefully searching and formulating those variables is one of the most important and most difficult parts of systems thinking.

3.  Drawing the pattern of the variable (s) in the behavior pattern graph

The line in the graph shows how the variable increases or decreases over time. There are some very important basic rules for working with a chart:

  • the time is always stated on the X axis, the horizontal axis;
  • “The behavior” that changes is on the Y-axis, the vertical axis. We call this the variable.

This is the case with all BOT graphs! The purpose of the graph is to show how “behavior” (the variable) changes over time. Time can be expressed in different units: seconds, weeks, centuries, etc. “The behavior” can be anything that increases or decreases over time. The correct name of the variable is placed on the vertical Y axis.

Many variables are measurable. They are also called hard variables: content, number, weight, temperature. However, the BOT graphs are not just about measurable matters. Many variables are conceivable that can increase or decrease, but which we cannot measure.

For example, think of:

  • quality;
  • self confidence;
  • luck;
  • aggression;
  • grief;
  • need for rest;
  • and so on.

These variables can  not be measured , but they are  scalable . They are also called ‘ soft variables’  .

If the time is on the X axis and the variable is on the Y axis, the line can be drawn. It is important that this is done accurately, but that not too much attention is paid to details. It is about making a pattern visible. If you are working in a group, it is usually useful to have everyone draw his or her line and then have a conversation with each other.

After all, the way in which the line is drawn partly depends on the perspective of the person making the graph. Behavioral pattern charts can be used in many educational situations and with many materials: language, reading comprehension, areas of knowledge, newspaper articles, following films, stories and books. They can also play a role in discussing all kinds of social-emotional problems and children’s feelings.

Children are guided step by step in the development of cohesion thinking. It is necessary to pay some attention to the line graph in the beginning. Graphs are familiar to most children and it will not take much effort to explain how such a graph works. It is of course very important that the children understand how a graph works.

Example:
A behavioral Over Time graph about Cinderella’s happiness in the fairytale.
Cinderella BOT
The many possibilities of systems thinking in the classroom are not limited to upper and secondary education. Experiences so far show that children from the age of four can work with it, eg with the help of picture books. With young children, we often use pictures instead of words in the chart. If you want to work with Behaviour Over Time Graph in your group, choose carefully (print) books that lend themselves to this.

Especially books, in which variables change very clearly: joy, anger, sadness. But also measurable variables such as the number of frogs, trees or children. Check for yourself in advance which important variables are in the story and how you want to use them in class. For example, a graph about happiness might look like this:

Happyness BOT

5.3. Causal loops

One of the characteristics of systems thinking is the different way of looking at cause-and-effect relationships. The language we are used to speak is linear: A causes B. But systems work differently: they consist of “circular lines”, of elements that work together, influence each other. Factor A does not just cause factor B, but A and B constantly influence each other. We call this cyclical thinking.

factor A

Causal loops

A child’s performance affects the teacher’s expectations, but also vice versa! In figures with causal loops this mutual influence is shown by means of arrows. From one element (a variable) to another and back again. Causal loops, like behavioral pattern graphs (GPGs), can be used in many situations in education.

There are clear similarities between the GPGs and the causal loops. The main difference between the two, however, is that the GPGs show what changes and how, while the causal loops show what changes something! In recent years, a “new language” has been developed for systems thinking to map out how systems work.

The causal loops are an important part of this language. In this article it is impossible to deal with the language of systems thinking in its entirety. The essence of the language is as follows:

  • if the increase of one variable leads to an increase of the other, we put an S at the arrowhead (S = the Same); this also applies if both variables decrease;
  • if the increase of one variable leads to a decrease of the other (or the other way around), we put an O at the arrowhead (O = Opposite).

Some examples from the school:
Examples school
If self-confidence increases, this has a positive effect on performance, which further increases self-confidence. The opposite is also true: less self-confidence leads to less performance and therefore even less self-confidence. In the other example we see that the quality of the lesson leads to more involvement of students. This has a positive influence on the job satisfaction of the teacher and this in turn leads to a better quality of the lesson.

The other way around unfortunately also occurs …… I want to limit myself to a few practical methods with causal loops in the classroom. In general, the method described in the behavioral pattern graphs can also be used here.

  • Talk to the children about coherence, how one thing can affect another. Many situations and stories lend themselves to this. Make connections clear in all sorts of ways, including word spiders, mind maps and organizers.
  • If the class has previously worked with behavioral pattern graphs, it is useful to join them. Do you see relationships between different graphs? To what extent does the decrease in one variable have anything to do with the decrease or increase in the other?
  • Check with the children whether the relationship is one-sided or two-sided.

Some examples.

  •  Little Red Riding Hood’s fear and the wolf’s anger. When the wolf gets more angry, Little Red Riding Hood gets more frightened. Is that the other way around?
  •  In an argument, how does hitting me affect hitting the other?
Beating

The graphs can also be used to explain (depending on the age group) whether there is a positive relationship (S) or a negative (O). For example, give children a worksheet with a number of examples and let them indicate the nature of the relationship. Let them come up with more examples themselves in pairs.

An example:
Put an S if both increase or decrease. Set an O if one increases and therefore the other decreases:
exercise ———————> performance
thirst ————————–> how much I drink
number of birds of prey ——–> number of rodents

Explore cause and effect of a problem together. First from existing situations, stories, articles and real events. Then let them come up with your own situations. You can make good use of “organizers”. They are pre-printed forms that the children only have to fill in. You also come across them in various methods.
cause-problem-effect
Write a problem in the middle of a piece of paper. To the left of it, write three possible causes of this problem. To the right of it, write three possible consequences. Then consider whether the consequences also have something to do with the causes. An example.

Example
Example in the school

After completing such a schedule, it can be discussed whether the consequences of this problem are related to the causes. One possibility could be: the stricter behavior of the teacher makes the lessons even less enjoyable, which further increases the problems.
These exercises can also be done with “organizers”.
In this way children learn to see that effects are often causes and causes are often effects: the basis of cyclical thinking!
After these exercises, the transition can be made to the “wonderful world of the causal loops”. With the help of all kinds of examples we explore situations with the children, where the effect is also cause and vice versa. Some examples with which children themselves came:
• the more flowers, the more seeds; the more seeds, the more flowers, the more seeds …….
flowers-seeds
• if there are more foxes, fewer rabbits will come. But if there are too few rabbits, fewer foxes will come

rabbits-foxes
• the better I do my best, the nicer the teacher; the nicer the teacher, the better I try

Do my best
In small steps, the children learn to place these sentences in loops. Important here is:

  •  are the variables well defined: are they scalable?
  •  avoid terms like “more or less” So: the number of birds and not: more birds.
  •  is there really a loop or just one relationship?
  •  can I tell “the story at the loop” and is this story correct?
  •  are there positive or negative relationships?
  •  which behavioral pattern graph belongs to this?

With young children it is possible to work with the aid of pictograms and drawings, similar to the method used in the behavioral pattern graphs.
The angrier the dog, the angrier the cat. The angry cat makes the dog even more angry!

The more birds, the more eggs. The more eggs, the more birds!

6. Start with systems thinking

I will close the article with some practical tips that can help to implement systems thinking successfully in a school. An important condition for success is that the team is open to innovation and that there is a shared vision of good education. Systems thinking must fit within this vision.

Inspirational leadership is one of the most important success factors in change. This also applies to systems thinking. Showing exemplary behavior, propagating a vision, inspiring and supporting team members are important tasks for every school leader.

Teachers sometimes shy away from the term “systems thinking”. In such a case, it may be wise not to use the term. “We would like to get started with interesting education and we are going to try out these tools! Do not consider systems thinking as a separate element, but as one of the puzzle pieces for exciting learning in our time.

All changes take place in small steps. Teachers must experience that systems thinking is not a new subject and that they set to work to make the existing more effective and pleasant: for the children and for themselves.
The following steps can be taken when introducing systems thinking:

  • inform the team about the essentials of systems thinking and make the link with the vision of the school;
  • give team members who are interested the opportunity to follow a training. This is not only important to know more about systems thinking, but also to learn how to work with the different tools;
  • then the teachers will try out lessons with systems thinking in their group. Make sure there is adequate support and coaching. It is of great importance to all learning that successes are achieved, that people experience that it yields something;
  • make use of the infection strategy: if teachers have to work with it, the chance of success is small. Pay close attention to the “believers” and give the “non-believers” time. Provide opportunities to infect each other with success experiences through team learning. Stimulate and facilitate all of this;
  • it is recommended to start with small steps, for example with one section or in one construction. Later, transfer can take place to other subjects or to other groups;
  • communicate with parents about systems thinking and its importance;
  • have patience and trust: do not expect major short-term successes, give this development a chance;
  • change processes are most effective when there is coherence between various levels: class, teacher, school, leadership, region. This also applies to systems thinking.

Systems thinking at school level (eg in team meetings) stimulates systems thinking in the classroom. The reverse is also the case: teachers who work with it in class will also look, think and act differently at school level. This discipline can also play an important role in the development towards a learning organization at the level of a school board or in a partnership.

Causal loops according to Jan Jutten

In the book Natural learning – systems thinking in a learning school Jan Jutten describes causal loops as ‘language of systems thinking’:

One of the hallmarks of systems thinking is a different look at cause-effect relationships. The language we are used to speak is linear: A causes B.

But systems work differently: they consist of ‘circular lines’, of elements that work together and influence each other. Factor A does not just cause factor B, but A and B constantly influence each other. We call this cyclical thinking .

Factor A results in factor B. But factor B in turn influences factor A. A child’s performance influences the expectations of the teacher, but also vice versa!

Systems themselves continuously send signals via circular loops of cause and effect relationships. They are also called feedback loops or feedback loops. The term ‘feedback’ has a different meaning in systems thinking than in communication.

It is meant that a consequence of the feedback affects the cause, that a solution affects the problem.

In figures with causal loops this mutual influence is shown by means of arrows. From one element (a variable) to another and back again. In recent years, a ‘new language’ has been developed for systems thinking to map out how systems work. The causal loops are an important part of this language.

The alphabet of systems thinking

The way in which our language is structured encourages linear thinking: subject, person form, direct object. For example, if someone says, “I drive the car,” this sentence would look like this from a linear perspective:

Linear thinking versus systems thinking
In reality, however, the situation is more complex. After all, the behavior of cars is not only the result of the way of driving, but also influences driving behavior. For example, if the car threatens to hit the road and starts to swing, this has an effect on driving behavior. So there is constant feedback, also called feedback.

Cyclical thinking versus systems thinking
Our language has a great influence on our way of thinking. And our way of thinking determines how we act. A linear language leads to linear thinking. Linear thinking to linear action.

reckless driving  —–> number of accidents —–> set speed bumps

Systems thinking requires a different language. A language with a different structure, which better reflects the way systems work. In principle, this system language is simple. We can map complex systems with a few basic concepts.

The system alphabet actually consists of just two main rules:

  1. positive and negative relationships between variables
  2. reinforcing and stabilizing causal loops.

A variable is a scalable quantity : that means that elements that we place in a behavioral pattern graph around a relationship circle or in a causal loop must be able to increase or decrease.

We distinguish between hard variables (measurable) and soft variables (not measurable, but always scalable). Formulating good variables is one of the most important but at the same time one of the most difficult parts of systems thinking. 

Characteristic of a system is that the elements within a system work together and influence each other. There is a structure. There is a relationship between variables or elements of a system. This relationship can be positive and negative.

Positive relationships between variables

The relationship is positive if an increase in one variable leads to an increase in the other. Or (and this is sometimes confusing) if a decrease in one variable leads to a decrease in the other. So a positive relationship means here: both variables ‘go in the same direction’. If we put the variables in patterns of behavior, they both increase or decrease.

A positive relationship is often indicated with a ‘+’.  But, in general, to avoid confusion, the ‘S’ for ‘the Same’ is used . If relationship is Same, we put an S at the arrowhead.

Same

Negative relationship between variables

The relationship is negative if an increase in one variable leads to a decrease in the other or vice versa. So negative here means: both variables ‘go in a different direction’.

If we put the variables in behavioral pattern graphs, one variable increases and (therefore) the other decreases.

A negative relationship is often indicated by a ‘-‘. But, in general, an ‘O’ from Opposite is used. 

Opposite relationship

Reinforcing and stabilizing loops

In some cases, the relationship between two variables is one-sided. An example:

Money-materials

reinforcing stabilizing loops systems thinking jan jutten
The more financial resources a school leader has available, the more opportunities there are to purchase new materials. The other way round, this is not the case.

In many situations there is a two-sided relationship. In such a case we speak of a causal loop.

Causal loop systems thinking reinforcing relationship
As the involvement of the participants increases, the return on the meeting will also increase. This is also the case the other way around: if team members experience that a meeting is beneficial, this will affect their involvement. Note: this story is plausible! So it will not always be the case everywhere. When a relationship is two-sided, there is a causal loop. We note this as follows:

Involvement-return

Causal loops therefore offer the possibility to visually represent cyclical thinking in systems thinking. Two or more variables influence each other back and forth. Now we distinguish two types of loops in the system language: reinforcing and stabilizing.

Reinforcing loops: positive feedback

With reinforcing loops we see a form of feedback that ensures ever-increasing growth or decline. Then it can be in nature or in all kinds of human affairs. An example:

Running causal loop app
See how causal loop diagram work

If the number of birds increase, there will be more eggs. The more eggs, the more birds etc. etc. 

The system language uses an R in the middle of the loop to indicate that we are dealing with a reinforcing loop. Sometimes you also see a snowball. An appropriate symbol because of the expected snowball effect.

reinforcement reinforcing causal loop systems thinking jan jutten

Thus, a reinforcing loop can mean a continuous increase as well as a continuous decrease. This seems confusing: a continuous decrease in the variable is also called an amplifying loop.

If there is an amplifying loop, you will hear people say, “We are in an upward (or downward) spiral!” or “This has a snowball effect!”

Stabilizing loops: negative feedback

Most systems exhibit, as it were, a built-in resistance to too great a change. Despite the fact that there is so much talk about change in schools, we see many things remain the same. It seems as if the system itself is looking for balance. Stability is very important for a system to survive. After all, continuous growth or decline is not possible.

This stability is achieved through the so-called negative feedback. Stabilizing loops are also called balancing. Hence the use of the letter B in the diagram.

The stabilization processes ensure that a system never strays too far from its ‘natural’ range. It is as if they are some kind of built-in intelligence of the system.

If we put a stabilizing loop in a causal loop, it looks like this:

Balancing loop
Balancing loop

If the hunger increases, I will eat (more). This reduces hunger. If the hunger decreases, I will not eat, which increases the hunger again. The system balances itself in this way.

Stabilizing loops are always linked to a goal. Just as if the system knows “how it should be” and does everything in its power to achieve it again. Stabilizing loops are constantly aimed at keeping the system at a desired level. They resist change in one direction. They cause change in the opposite direction, canceling out the previous effects.

One of the properties of stabilizing loops is that they are much less visible than reinforcing loops. They ‘quietly’ ensure that everything remains as it was. This is much less noticeable than changes. Take your body temperature as an example. The body is constantly trying to keep this temperature constant, without us noticing it. If there is a fever and the temperature rises, we notice it immediately!

In summary: the most important rules for causal loops

Systems always consist of combinations of positive (S) and  negative (OP relationships, of combinations of reinforcing and stabilizing loops.
The term positive or negative feedback can be confusing. In systems thinking it is understood in a different way than what is normally understood by it. In any case, positive and negative has nothing to do with compliments or disapproval. Positive feedback here means: feedback strengthens the process: the more people there are, the more people are born. Positive feedback therefore always leads to change in the same direction. Negative feedback perpetuates a certain situation: if I have too little food, I get hungry. When I eat then my hunger decreases and balance remains in ‘my system’ called body !!
It is of great importance with causal loops that the influence of the variables is mutual. If this is not the case, you can work with behavioral pattern graphs, but you cannot make a causal loop out of it. 
All variables used in a causal loop must be scalable. That means they can increase or decrease. If the chosen variables do not meet this criterion, working with causal loops causes problems and therefore frustrations.

Source: Natural learning – systems thinking in a learning school, Jan Jutten

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