Systems Thinking Part II: Connections

I remember a discussion I had with a class more than ten years ago when I taught in Arizona. The topic of pirated music downloads came up somehow and, while students weren’t admitting to the practice, they didn’t seem to think much was wrong with it. I recall telling them that pirated music was more insidious than causing a band not to sell a single or a CD. I explained how all the people involved in the production of the CD – from the music industry workers who packaged the discs, to the truckers who shipped them to stores, to the retail employees who placed CDs on the rack – were economically impacted by decreased sales. I remember that conversation so distinctly because it was then I realized students didn’t always appreciate “the big picture” or how one supposedly innocuous action could have such widespread repercussion.

In my last Two Profs from Ohio entry, I described how I introduce systems thinking into my research writing course using the board game Mousetrap. In teaching students to become effective problem-solvers, I want them to realize social issues are complex and aren’t neatly solved. I’ve been using Mousetrap as an entry to this discussion for many years, and as it turns out, my instinct for using a game in a writing classroom was a good one, as this 2017 article by Rebekah Shultz Colby explains.

But Mousetrap only serves as an introduction to our discussion of systems thinking. I reinforce this concept later in the semester by showing how sub-issues within an overarching topic connect and perhaps impact a solution’s effectiveness.

During the semester, one of our campus’s librarians hosts a workshop that shows students how to conduct targeted, reliable research, for example using Booleans and certain databases. This hands-on workshop allows students to discover the wealth of trustworthy information provided through academic resources, steering them (I hope!) from using Google to find sources. Since in the workshop they learn how to target, expand, and narrow their hunts, they can dig deeper for articles on a topic I assign for our next systems-thinking activity.

One of my research areas is petrofiction, and the oil industry itself is so vast that it lends itself easily to this activity. However, many issues (food, climate, health care, and others) are just as intricate and would serve as well. I ask students to find an article about the oil industry but ask them not to select just the first article that turns up in their results. I ask them to choose something that piques their interest (women and the oil industry, for example, or health concerns related to petroleum processing). They print the article to bring to class. Before class, I prepare large headings on sheets of paper that anticipate the subtopics the articles likely will fit under: economics, gender, health, environment, foreign policy, and so on. I bring a few blank sheets and a thick black marker to write down headings an article addresses that I hadn’t anticipated. I also bring twine and masking tape to class.

One by one, students share with the class what their article is about. I tape the article under the heading the student thinks is most appropriate. However, sometimes a topic could fall under multiple headings, such as “women” and “economics” or “health” and “demographics.” In this case, I cut a piece of twine to string from the student’s article to the other subtopic heading. As the class proceeds and we have more articles posted, we then can connect article to article based on how students feel they are related. Once all the articles are posted and connected, students walk to the board and see these interrelations. This visual allows us a chance to talk about how complex social problems are – and to contemplate the larger systems undergirding a particular issue.

This resource list plus my prior post provide additional information about what systems thinking is and its value to any curriculum. As George Mobus states, “Over the last decade, in teaching systems principles and methodologies to general studies students…I have observed the majority of these students undergo a distinct change in their modes of thinking about the world and even their own lives” (13). Implementing activities that explore our social infrastructures thus is a vital educational endeavor.

Colby, Rebekah Shultz. “Game-Based Pedagogy in the Writing Classroom.” Computers and Composition vol. 43, pp. 55-72. DOI: 10.1016/j.compcom.2016.11.002

EdTech Classroom. “Combining Systems Thinking and Design Thinking in the Classroom.” 22 Sept. 2021,, 24 Sept. 2021.

Mobus, George. “Teaching Systems Thinking to General Education Students.” Ecological Modeling , vol. 373, pp. 13-21. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2018.01.013

Photo by Tracy Lassiter.

2 thoughts on “Systems Thinking Part II: Connections

  1. Tracy, your content well presented and thanks for the links which I clicked as well and learned a bit more.
    Also tells me how much I don’t know and want to learn more from you to help students.

    Liked by 1 person

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