Systems are everywhere…but what do we really know about them?   

Time for a pop-quiz: What do you know about systems?

As an educator and parent, I regularly wonder how we can help young people thrive in this human-impacted era many now called the anthropocene. What do they need to learn—whether in school, on a farm, in a lab, or at the kitchen table? There are of course many skills needed, but one obvious one often gets overlooked: to understand human impact on Earth’s systems, we need to understand systems. A system, unlike a collection or a “heap of stuff,” is composed of parts and processes that interact over time to serve some purpose or function. The climate, your company, a school, your family, your body, these are all systems. And systems are everywhere.

When I was invited to write about systems thinking for EarthEd as a tool to help students more confidently navigate life on a changing planet, I had to pause: how much “thinking about systems” do we adults do? In my chapter, I included a set of core systems ideas that can be taught to students across the grade levels.

For those of us who weren’t taught systems thinking in school (which is most of us), don’t worry. You already have an intuitive understanding—but there is still a lot we can all learn. If you want to see what you already know and what you want to learn more about, take the self-quiz below. Rate your understanding using this scale:

  • 1 point: This is new to me
  • 2 points: Some understanding and lots of questions
  • 3 points: Good understanding though I know there’s more to learn
  • 4 points: I could teach this stuff


How do you rate your understanding (on a scale of 1-4) of this partial list of core systems ideas?

  • There are such things as systems. A system, unlike a “heap of stuff,” is composed of parts and processes that interact over time to serve some purpose or function.

CHALLENGE:  You probably won’t have a hard time naming mechanical systems like a car or a computer. Can you think of five living systems?

  • Systems, as a whole, can exhibit properties and behaviors that are different from those of their parts.

CHALLENGE:  What types of properties and behaviors are produced by the interaction of the parts within systems?  Give 2-3 examples.

  • Simple systems can work in predictable ways; dynamic systems exhibit more complex and unpredictable behaviors.

CHALLENGE:  Turn the volume up on a radio and the sound increases.  That’s an example of a simple or linear system.  Now think about an example of a dynamic or a nonlinear system where, for instance, a small change can have a much bigger impact.

  • Change occurs through closed loops of cause and effect called feedback loops. There are two types of feedback loops: reinforcing (positive) and balancing (negative), which either amplify or control change.

CHALLENGE:  Give an example of two feedback loops:  one reinforcing (or positive) and one balancing (or negative).

  • Different, complex systems share similar patterns of behaviors such as “escalation, boom and bust, and limits to growth. These often are called “systems archetypes” or “kernel structures.”

CHALLENGE:  Name a recurring pattern of behavior in complex systems. Explain systems archetypes to a friend.

  • Making systems visible, using tools such as connection circles, behavior-over-time graphs, causal-loop diagrams, stock-and-flow models, and computer simulations helps students visualize, understand, and test ideas that are applicable throughout science, engineering, history, literature, and more.

CHALLENGE:  Get out some post it notes or a pad of paper.  Create a causal loop diagram based on a newspaper article or a conversation you are having.  How about stock and flow?


20 or above: Fantastic! You should teach systems thinking to people in your community.

15-19: Still more to learn but you have a strong understanding of systems. Share it with friends.

14 or below: Great—you’ve come to systems thinking at a time of growing maturity, accessibility. The learning opportunities abound. (For general tutorials on systems thinking, see the Waters Foundation modules, the PBS Learning Media Systems Literacy collection, and the FutureLearn course.)

Wherever you are, you join a legion of people around the globe who are finding systems thinking principles useful in decision making across a diverse set of communities. As I noted in the State of the World report, and say here too, as systems become the context for learning, students will move beyond discrete lists to seeing patterns of interaction that more closely match the interdependent, complex world in which they live, which will provide us with the opportunity to respond to the interlinked social, environmental, and economic challenges we face living on a changing planet.

Note: I didn’t include answers to the questions. Those of you who know the answers—feel free to post them in the comments below! I’ll post some possible answers next week in the comments as well.


Linda Booth Sweeney is an American systems educator, author, and cofounder of the Society for Organizational Learning Education Partnership. You can learn more about her work and systems at

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