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Habits of a Systems Thinker

Integrating Digital Technologies
Years 7-8; 9-10

This lesson introduces some of the skills and concepts involved with Systems Thinking.

Systems Thinking is ‘a holistic approach to the identification and solving of problems where the focal points are treated as components of a system, and their interactions and interrelationships are analysed individually to see how they influence the functioning of the entire system.' (Key Ideas – Technologies, Australian Curriculum)

Students are introduced to a number of Habits of a System Thinker, positive and negative feedback loops and the concept of supra- and subsystems.


Image credit: Image: Dirk Wouters/ Pixabay

Learning hook

Credit: Looks Who’s Blogging

Watch the short video on Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2 is an example of a system: a collection of parts that are arranged and connected in a specific way. Interactions between the parts within the system, and between systems, influence the stability of the system as a whole.

It's possible to have a collection of items that don’t form a system, such as appliances in a kitchen. As they are not interdependent, the removal of a toaster will not stop the fridge from working. Similarly, the order in which you place items in a backpack does not affect the usability of each item – they are a collection of items but not a system, because there is no interconnectedness.

As a class, be guided by these questions and activities.

  1. What was an overarching goal of the Biosphere 2 experiment?
  2. Try to list as many parts or components of the system (when the experiment took place) as you can. Consider plants, animals, gases, liquids, energy and soil.
  3. Lower than ideal oxygen levels were a recurring problem during the experiment, and they affected the animals – including the humans. Speculate: What do you think might have caused this?

Learning map and outcomes

Adapt this learning map to suit your student’s needs. For example for students at Year 6, a learning map might look like:

  1. identify and define a system
  2. identify and define habits of a Systems Thinker
  3. find appropriate examples for the application of Systems Thinking habits
  4. explore the concept of positive and negative feedback loops
  5. identify subsystems and suprasystems
  6. apply Systems Thinking habits to an example of digital technologies impact

Learning input

A systems thinker aims to understand the relationships within a system, and the impacts on other systems. By using a wide perspective and tracing interrelationships, systems thinkers can ‘join the dots’ to draw conclusions or make predictions. This is because they note events and patterns of behaviour and understand how these are caused by system structures such as feedback loops. They view things in circles rather than in straight lines. Systems thinkers use tools to help with their thinking such as causal loop diagrams and models.

  1. With students in pairs, allocate one of the Habits of a Systems Thinker cards from the Waters Center for Systems Thinking to each pair. Download the cards as a PDF.
  2. Ask students to view the text and image carefully.
  3. Allocate each pair 10 minutes to prepare a one-minute explanation of how this example illustrates a habit of a systems thinker for the rest of the class. Students use this Habit worksheet to record their ideas in preparation for their explanation.
  4. Have a general discussion how these habits might relate to the Biosphere 2 experiment.

Learning construction

Negative feedback loops

Feedback loops are an important element in systems thinking. There are two types of feedback loops that help explain how changes have happened within a system and why. Loops imply that feedback works in circles rather than in straight lines.

When a change is happening in a system, a negative feedback loop tends to dampen or buffer the change, leading to more stability. Despite the name, this is often a ‘good’ thing!

The causal loop diagram at right is showing that A causes B, but B has a balancing or stabilising effect on A.

A diagram titled Balancing/ Stabilising effect that represents a negative feedback loop. A is linking to B via a positive arrow. B then links back to A via a negative arrow.

The table below includes three examples of negative feedback loops. As a class, develop some other examples.

Positive feedback loops

When a change is happening in a system, a positive feedback loop amplifies or exacerbates the change. This means that change will continue in the same direction, reinforcing its effect. Despite the name, this is often a ‘bad’ thing, because it has the potential to make the system less stable over time. If positive feedback loops continue, a system may undergo ‘boom and bust’ cycles, unravel to a lower level of complexity, or collapse completely.

A diagram titled Strengthening/ Reinforcing effect that represents a positive feedback loop. A is linking to B via a positive arrow. B then links back to A via a positive arrow.

The table below includes two examples. As a class, develop some other examples.

* Teachers may highlight here that many systems like the atmosphere are very complicated and not fully understood. Both positive and negative feedback loops exist in our biosphere, and this is just one feedback loop that has been identified.

Subsystems and supra systems

It is often possible to identify subsystems, smaller systems operating within a larger one. For example, in the context of a video-sharing social media platform, an individual smartphone can be seen as a system with interconnected functions – taking photos and videos, using the app, playing music. But even the photo and video functionality is itself a subsystem with interdependent hardware (the camera) and software components (apps and image processing algorithms).

The smartphone is also part of a supra system, relying on the internet for many of its functions, interacting with users, commercial entities, developers and more.

A simplified diagram showing photo and video functionality as a subsystem of a smartphone system in the context of a social media platform for video sharing. The system is itself part of a supra system showing components of the social media platform. (Note, the smartphone is part of many other supra systems.)

Consider other systems now – this time systems of the human body. As a class, complete these statements with subsystem or supra system.

  • The nucleus is a ______________ of a cell.
  • The liver is a ______________ of cell systems working together.
  • Relative to the liver, the digestive system is a ______________ .
  • The digestive system is a ______________ of the human body.

Users as part of digital systems

When describing digital systems or information systems, systems thinkers acknowledge that hardware, software and data are not the only components of the system. Users must also interact with parts of a system, usually by following procedures and using interfaces.

Understanding the interactions of a user within a digital system is critical to the development of effective user experience.

Impact of digital innovations

Technology can have far-reaching impacts on cultures, economies and the environment. Think of the impact of older information technologies, like the alphabet or the printing press! Newer information technologies enabled by digital computing are also having impacts on many different systems.

As a class, revise the habits of a systems thinker (see the ‘Learning input’ section) by listing them:

Ask students to do the following, using the habits of a systems thinker:

  • Choose one of the rows in the table below or come up with your own approved topic.
  • Identify one or more supra systems or connected systems affected by the changes the chosen innovation has made to the chosen system (e.g. passengers and drivers using peer-to-peer ride sharing are part of a transport supra system, including private cars, public transport and taxi services).
  • Write a list of known impacts from the chosen innovation on the chosen system and on the supra system/connected systems. Consider both of these things:
    • two different perspectives within the system
    • two different perspectives from the supra system / connected systems.
  • Write a list of any future, potential impacts you foresee as the technology continues to be used and/or developed.

** Teacher should exercise caution and awareness of student sensitivities before presenting this as an option. However, this may be a useful tie-in to health topics.