I co-taught Systems Thinking to classes of 6th-8th graders after school for 10 weeks through a program called Citizen Schools.
Why Systems Thinking?
Traditional schooling doesn't prepare students to understand real-world systems such as the environment, banking, food, economics, sustainability, healthcare, etc. Students who do get to learn statistics or calculus too often don't learn these in the context of the systems they have been immersed in all their lives.
Systems Thinking teaches students to develop an understanding of the interdependence of systems and to question what the goals of systems should be. What's the goal of education? Of healthcare? Of the economy?
Learning is more engaging when students interact, play games, and ask questions. Below are examples of activities/ games we implemented in the classroom. Each week, we taught a different system so that students could learn a breadth of systems but meanwhile go through the exercise of questioning the goals and behaviors of each.
Description: Students simulate the spread of an epidemic
Lessons Learned: exponential growth, drawing graphs
Setup: 30+ students ideally, Time: 10 minutes for game, 10 minutes for debrief
How it Works: In this game, student interactions cause a disease to spread. Initially, we have just one patient zero. Each round, students interact with each other and this causes the disease to spread exponentially. Students log their own infection statuses on a worksheet. At the end of the infection simulation, the group collaborates to graph the total infections over time, demonstrating exponential growth.
Materials can be found here from the Creative Learning Exchange.
The Mammoth Population Game
Description: Students simulate the rise and fall of a population of 20 woolly mammoths
Lessons Learned: extinction, exponential decay, graphing, probability
Setup: 20 dice per team, teams of 4-6
How it Works: Teams start with a population of woolly mammoths, represented by the 20 dice. Simulate one year passing by rolling their dice. The dice rolls determine 3 outcomes - Woolly mammoth either die (get removed), are born (add additional dice), or live another year (no change). Here's the fun: Assign rules to simulate births and deaths of the population. For example:
- Rolling a 1 or 2 can mean new births
- Rolling a 3 or 4 can mean nothing
- Rolling a 5 or 6 means the woolly mammoth died
Modify the probability of birth and death by changing the rules for these faces. Also, modify the rules mid-game to demonstrate how an introduction of a new variable can impact the population growth rate (i.e. hunters emerge, and rolling a 4 now means death from being hunted; death probability jumps up to from 33% to 50%).
Materials can be found here from the Creative Learning Exchange.
Desert Island Jobs
Description: Students engage in small group discussions about what jobs are needed in a new desert island
Lessons Learned: human needs & crucial services, need for specialists vs. do-it-yourself, difference between dessert island jobs and jobs in a machine-driven society & why
Setup: Groups of 4-8 students with a facilitator
How it Works: Teacher facilitates a discussion where students imagine they are shipwrecked on a desert island. If they had to create a society from scratch, what kinds of jobs would be necessary to have on their island? Give them time to write down their thoughts; prompt them to think about the jobs people have today and whether those would be relevant for their island. Finally, facilitate a group discussion asking students to share what jobs they selected. During this share-out, push on the following:
- Is that job really necessary and relevant on a desert island? (e.g. a computer scientist)
- Is that a specialized job or something every person would do for themselves? (e.g. a chef)
- Piggyback off already selected jobs to identify other relevant jobs (e.g. if police, then would there need to be courts and judges?)
- Optional: As students list jobs, look up the average salary someone with that job would make today. Over many searches, students begin to get a sense of which jobs are high-paying and which are relatively lower paying. Close the discussion challenging them to think about why some jobs pay more than others in today's world (Supply and Demand for Labor), and whether those jobs would have similar statuses on the desert island.
Close with a discussion about careers - which pay more and which pay less? Have students write down what they want to do for their careers. What preparation is required to get there? Is their career choice going to be relevant 20 years from now?
We also projected data:
- Top earning occupations
- Jobs that are becoming more automated
- Average cost of college
- Student Debt
This activity is extremely open-ended and has many potential directions it can go. Ultimately, we want students to question the nature of work, what determines something's value, what types of jobs are out available and how do those distributions change over time? Is college and schooling necessary to do various jobs?
The Chocolate inequality game
Description: Students get a bag of chocolates distributed evenly among the class. Students then pull a card from a standard deck, which determines their wealth rank in society and how much candy they're allowed to take from others.
Lessons Learned: fairness & distribution, inequality, feelings of being rich or poor
Setup: Bag of chocolates, 20-30 students
How it Works:
- Start the activity by asking the class how they would like to distribute a bag of chocolates. Some responses might be:
- Every one receives the same amount
- Merit-based with some minimum threshold
- Show statistics/data about how different demographic groups get paid for the equivalent amount of work (e.g. for each chocolate a man gets, a woman gets x%; find these statistics by ethnicity, college degree status, etc.)
- Go around the classroom asking each student to draw from a deck of cards. First, have all face card students reveal their cards. They are given permission to take as many chocolates as they want from the non-face card students. Some kids here will be extremely greedy while others may feel ashamed to "steal" chocolate. Next, have the 8-10 card students turn their cards over and give them permission to take any chocolates that still remain from the students with lower numbers. Then, let the 5-7 group take from the rest. In our classroom game, we saw behavior where the students with the lowest cards began stealing from the higher groups. Some students were desperately clinging to whatever chocolates they had left, hiding these from view. We also saw behavior where students with high cards felt embarrassed taking too many chocolates from others; they felt a sense of unfairness.
- At the end of the exercise, show the actual wealth distribution numbers in your country. In the U.S. in 2010, the top 1% owned 35% of the wealth. So instruct the greediest student (based on behavior) to then take approximately 35% of the entire class wealth.
- Lastly, facilitate a discussion asking students to reflect on their experience. What card did they draw and how did they feel about it? How would they want to distribute wealth? Is society like this - a random draw of luck, or do we have a meritocracy? Something in the middle?
- Creative Learning Exchange Shape of Change Lessons
- The Waters Foundation - Systems Thinking in Schools
Banner Image by Lucas Theis