System thinking for elementary students

By Hiroki Oura - January 2012


Assaraf, O. B.-Z., & Orion, N. (2010). System thinking skills at the elementary school level. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(5), 540-563.

The authors of this study argue that elementary-aged children are capable of a certain level of abstract thinking that allows them to engage in system thinking even though schools do not often introduce these concepts until middle school or high school. Complex systems are an essential element of science education because they contain important ideas across science domains and are a part of national science standards. However, because elementary-aged children traditionally were not considered to be able to engage in abstract thought, most science textbooks lack content that helps younger students develop a systematic and integrated understanding of complex phenomena.

Informal educational settings may be able to introduce system thinking and help students integrate abstract ideas even if schools do not because the learning environments endorsed by the authors are achievable in out-of-school program settings, especially those that connect with students over a sustained period of time. This article concludes with a hierarchy of levels that ISE professionals interested in engaging learners in system thinking could use to guide program development.

Developing system thinking skills is not a simple matter. Researchers have argued that it goes beyond basic recall of facts to include skills such as evaluation and invention in higher-order thinking. The authors define higher-order thinking as “non-algorithmic, complex, capable of producing multiple solutions, involving nuances in judgement and uncertainty, utilizing self-regulation, finding structure in apparent disorder, and being fruitful (p. 542)”. The authors developed and examined an earth system-based curriculum, with a focus on the hydro-cycle, for 4th grade students at seven elementary schools in a small town in Israel. They evaluated students’ actions and artifacts through their drawings, word associations, repertory grids, interviews, assessments of reading and language competence, and observations in the classroom.

The system thinking hierarchical (STH) model that shaped this analysis may be useful for ISE educators in understanding and planning for the elements that are involved in developing system thinking:

1. The ability to identify the components of a system and processes within the system. 

2. The ability to identify simple relationships between or among the system’s components. 

3. The ability to identify dynamic relationships within the system. 

4. The ability to organize the systems’ components, processes, and their interactions, within a framework of relationships. 

5. The ability to identify cycles of matter and energy within the system—the cyclic nature of systems. 

6. The ability to recognize hidden dimensions of the system—to understand natural phenomena through patterns and interrelationships not seen on the surface. 

7. The ability to make generalizations—to solve problems based on understanding systems’ mechanisms. 

8. The ability to think temporally: retrospection and prediction. Understanding that some of the presented interaction within the system took place in the past, while future events may be a result of present interactions.

Key findings of the study included that for students, system thinking development consisted of several sequential stages arranged in a hierarchical order. Despite minimal initial system thinking abilities, most students did achieve meaningful progress in system thinking. The main factors found to influence the differential progress were the students’ initial system thinking abilities and their level of involvement in the inquiry-based indoor and outdoor learning activities.