All Systems Go

Systems ThinkersSarah Simon’s 2nd grade class is in the midst of reading Charlotte’s Web and talking about all of the things that go on in the barn at Zuckerman’s farm. Turns out, the story is very fertile ground for systems thinking. And it’s a perfect opportunity to see and hear why students are so invested in this exciting new way to learn.

Walking around the room, I see students seated at their table groups with 4 or 5 of their peers.  Each works on a large piece of poster paper— on them I see some drawings and cut-out photos but mostly I see that students’ posters are full of circled words, connected to others by lines, like ideas on a web diagram.

Marco R. shows off his systems map

Marco R. shows off his systems map

“This is my systems map,” Marco R. tells me, “It’s about the animal system on Zuckerman’s Farm in Charlotte’s Web.”  I look closer to see how Marco has identified the various animals in the book—geese, cows, cats—and how their roles on the farm are interrelated.

Sarah and Associate Teachers Jessica Collins and Molly Kirkpatrick gave kids their initial taste of systems thinking and systems maps on the first day of school. The teachers helped students identify all of the systems that make a classroom operate smoothly: the morning meeting system, the lining up system, the hand-raising system. “The kids learn to appreciate,” Sarah says, “how each system has its particular purpose and, working together, helps to make for a functional and efficient learning environment.”

Class systems in Sarah's Classroom

Class systems in Sarah’s Classroom

Since then, students in all three of Wildwood’s 2nd grade classes have been looking for systems everywhere.

Teacher Stefanie Grutman recently told me about an interesting request that her 2nd graders made: They wanted homework. “They’ve been so excited about finding systems,” Stefanie says, “that they all said they wanted to take the weekend to identify all the systems they notice outside of school.”  So her students eagerly brought their work home—uncovering all of the component parts and rules that govern the way our world and society work. Students identified plant systems, food systems, a sleep system, “even a system underlying the Hebrew alphabet,” Stefanie tells me.

I think about Stefanie’s students as I talk to more kids in Sarah’s class; I begin to understand better why systems thinking is so appealing to these 2nd graders.

Audrey S. and Laurel H. proudly share their systems maps

Audrey S. and Laurel H. proudly share their systems maps

“It’s fun to find connections,” says Laurel H. “Once you figure out one system, you find another one that connects to it,” she continues. “It never ends!”

I realize that systems thinking causes students to intently focus on the Life Skills of Curiosity and Organizing—through what educators would call divergent thinking.

A 2nd grader's home systems

A 2nd grader’s home systems

Divergent thinking is an essential component of creativity—finding relationships and connections between two seemingly disparate ideas can help train students to find novel solutions to complex problems. It also allows them to go deeper into any topic that they’re studying.

This really strikes a chord when I ask another student, Audrey S., why she likes making systems maps. “It lets you put together your own information book about a topic,” she says.

Systems maps in Stefanie's classroom

Systems maps in Stefanie’s classroom

Systems thinking validates the kinds of divergent thinking that kids naturally do as they seek to make sense of their world.

For Wildwood students, systems thinking reinforces these essential skills and provides foundational tools needed for navigating their increasingly complex worlds.

~ By Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching, and Learning

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