What is a system?

The concept of a “system” is found in many contexts including reference books, school curricula, and scientific research.
Below are just two of many definitions of a system.

  1. “A system is an entity that maintains its existence and functions as a whole through the interaction of its parts.” O’Connor & McDermott
  2. A system is a collection of elements that interact with each other over time to function as a whole.

Download our Characteristics of a System handout.

What is a systems thinker?

A systems thinker is one who has internalized the habits of systems thinking.   “The Habits of a Systems Thinker” are supported by a set of concepts and visual tools.  These concepts and tools are used to increase understanding and communication about situations in both the short term and long term, looking at both the details and the big picture. It is a language of relationships, that is used to help students understand systems, and how and why systems are continuously changing over time.

What are the habits of a systems thinker?

The habits of a systems thinker are ways of thinking about an issue or system being studied.  Using a variety of systems thinking strategies is one way to practice the habits while working to achieve a wider view of how a system functions. View the “Habits of a Systems Thinker” page or purchase cards/posters.

What are strategies/tools that systems thinkers use?
Behavior-over-time graphs

Behavior-over-time graphs show how variables change over time. The variable is always represented on the y-axis and time is always represented on the x-axis.


Causal loop diagrams

Causal loop diagrams show causal relationships and circular feedback.   Causal loops may contain two or more variables and generate either reinforcing or balancing behavior over time.


Connection circles

Connection circles are another strategy to identify any feedback loops present.  After creating a connection circle, an extension is to identify the feedback loops, “pull” out those loop elements on another page, and draw just those elements within a causal loop diagram.


Stock/flow maps and computer models

Stock/flow diagrams show the accumulations and rates in a system along with what impacts them both directly and indirectly.  Stock and flow icons are the basis of system dynamics computer models. Dynamic computer models show relationships in a system visually and mathematically, allowing students to ask “what if” questions about how a system works.


Ladder of inference

The ladder of inference is a visual tool that illustrates how what people notice develops into strongly-held beliefs that are reinforced over time.


Iceberg visual

The iceberg visual illustrates that to see the “big picture” of a system, one must see beyond the events that occur to see the underlying patterns of change over time, the underlying system structure, and the mental models held by those involved in the system.


What are key systems thinking concepts?

Many systems concepts are embedded either explicitly or implicitly within the habits of a systems thinker.  These include:

  • Change over time
  • Accumulations and rates
  • Interdependencies/circular feedback
  • Time delays
  • Unintended consequences
  • Short/long-term consequences
  • Leverage
  • Mental models
What is dynamic modeling?

“Model building is central to our understanding of real world phenomena. We all create mental models of the world around us, dissecting our observations into cause and effect. Such mental models enable us, for example, to successfully cross a busy street. Engineers, biologists, and social scientists simply mimic their observations in a formal way. With the advent of personal computers and graphical programming, we can all create more complex models of the phenomena in the world around us. As Heinz Pagels (1988) has noted, the computer model process is to the mind what the telescope and the microscope are to the eye. We can model the macroscopic results of microphenomena, and vice versa. We can lay out the various possible futures of the dynamic process. We can begin to explain and perhaps even to predict.” -Bruce Hannon and Ruth Matthias, Dynamic Modeling

How do educators know if these methods are useful in instruction?

Some educators choose to use an Action Research process to measure progress over time.  In addition, a set of rubrics based around some of the key systems thinking concepts can be helpful in assessing student skills and understanding.

Download the systems thinking rubrics.

How can I measure my own understanding as an instructor?

Many methods exist for tracking your own progress over time.  Keeping a journal of ideas and experiences can be helpful.  In addition, you may choose to self-assess progress in specific areas through an Instructional capacity rubric.

Download an instructional capacity rubric.

What is Collaborative Action Research?

Collaborative Action Research is a process to investigate the impact of a particular practice.  People work together to identify a question of interest.  They then create a plan to collect and analyze student data in a variety of ways to help address the question of interest.  In exploring the impacts of systems thinking, one question might be, “To what degree does the use of graphs and stock/flow maps impact the students’ ability to interpret and synthesize informational texts?” Collaboration during the action research process and when sharing findings adds value to the professional development process.  See some of the findings.   

Reflection and collaboration are essential to learning and skill development.  Linda Lambert, from California State University, contends, ‘We don’t learn from our experience as much as from processing our experience – both successes and failures.  Self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-direction are critical to learning and development.’  Learning collaborative groups, or user groups can provide meaningful structures that support self-assessment and reflection.  

What should I do if I want to learn more about systems thinking?

Visit the “Professional Development” section of the website to see what opportunities are already available in your region.  You can also contact us directly to inquire about scheduling a workshop in your area or to learn more about other potential collaborations.

Our WebEd online learning modules are free and allow both novices and those with some systems experience to explore systems thinking concepts and tools at their own pace. 

How many years has the Waters Foundation been doing this work?

The initial work began in 1987 and has continued to the present, spreading from what started with just two teachers and their students to hundreds of schools in the US and around the world.  See the history of the Waters Foundation.

What schools are implementing systems thinking in my area?

Over time, there have been many schools throughout the United States and internationally that have implemented systems thinking strategies within the classroom and/or organization.  Feel free to contact us, and If we know of schools in your area, we’ll be happy to share that information with you.

Is it possible for me to visit a school or classroom?

We are able to make arrangements for small groups or individuals to visit classrooms in a few of our demonstration school sites.  Please contact us for additional information.

You may also view videos of classroom activities and hear students talk about their experiences.  

Is there funding available?

At this time, the Waters Foundation is not able to directly fund organizations, groups, or individuals to attend workshops or implement this work.  Groups have attained funding from a variety of sources including Title IIA grants, Title I funding, STEM grants, Race-to-the-Top funds, and site professional development budgets. Visit the Get Started section of the website to see more possibilities.