Cairns #71 – Teaching Systems Thinking

Cairns 71

Beginning of the Long Nights, 2012

The first rains of California’s winter rainy season were perfect (from a Gaian sense). They were gentle but steady, four or five days apart with warm weather in between so all the sprouting seeds got off to a strong start, raising a protective leaf surface over the ground before the pounding rains which are now coming. I am hopeful of many wonderful rain walks. Runoff and soil will probably dominate the next issue. This issue is mostly about systems thinking.


Every now and then Chrysalis passes through challenging times and each time, memories of specific challenges I encountered and overcame while hiking cross-country rise into consciousness and I feel my spirit slip into a stoical confidence that never doubts that we’ll find some way through. Might have to retrace steps, go some other way, or devise something unexpected but some way we’ll make it. That gesture of lifting up the shoulder straps to temporarily relieve the pack’s weight, take a breath, and then press on is deep in the bones. And again I say thank you to all those years of roaming and the gifts they nourish.

On the other hand, a book was just published which spotlights Chrysalis along with ten other schools in the country. Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots is an examination of teacher-led schools. The authors’ hypothesis was that if teachers had the power to shape their school, the school would exhibit those characteristics that research has found in high-performing, creative businesses. The authors list those characteristics and then use them as windows to view eleven schools, chosen for teachers having some significant empowerment in running the school. Good read.

Teaching systems thinking

Each year I experiment with teaching systems thinking to my eighth grade “What is Possible?” class. (Ostensibly, American history.) I want to share my opening lesson that went very well this year.

I cut enough ¾” PVC pipes in half so that each student in the class had a 5’ pipe. The first day we spent 15-20 minutes outside trying to balance the poles on our hands. Some of the kids knew how to do it but many of them had never done this before. Homework was to take their pipe home along with a paper that had two assignments. The first was to have a parent sign that the child had either successfully balanced the pole for one minute or had practiced trying for at least twenty minutes. The other assignment was:

“Based on your experience so far, what specific suggestions or tips would you give to someone who was just starting to try learning how to balance a pole?”

We discussed this at the next day’s class. Students then practiced balancing again and were then given the next assignment.

“Based on your experience so far, who is in control of the balancing: you or the pole? Write a well-constructed paragraph explaining your answer with examples.”

That assignment generated a really good discussion. Some thought we were in control, some thought the pole, a few thought that both were in control.

Then I experimented with using Powerpoint to structure an interactive lecture. What follows is the second draft that I will try next year. The slide text is in bold, followed by my description of what will or did happen during that slide.

So why are we balancing these poles?

(This question is a fun invitation to start connecting the kinesthetic experience with something academic.)

How many of you felt your light shining brighter when you were balancing? Why? Where did this come from?

(Chrysalis’s mission is “encouraging the light within each student to shine brighter.” This question invites students to bring their emotional experience of enjoyment (they all enjoyed balancing the poles) into the discussion and start analyzing the dynamics of balancing.)

Because you and the pole form a SYSTEM.

From Greek – putting something together 

Definition – a group of “things” PLUS the relations connecting them that, all together, form a larger “something” with interesting behaviors of its own.

(I’m rather proud of this definition of mine. In the past, I’ve pulled definitions from systems thinking texts and run into problems trying to fit them to three large categories of systems: (1) natural, abiotic physical systems such as the solar system, (2) biological systems that usually have a purpose such as the heart, and (3) human-created systems that have a goal such as a government structure. My definition blurs the specifics of purpose and why a particular system exists to make the central idea of relationships between parts more accessible to eighth graders.)

“Things” are easy to see.   “Relations” are less obvious.

However, the relationships between parts create behavior that none of the constituent parts could produce on their own – such as the pole balancing upright.

Certain patterns in these relationships emerge over and over again within a diversity of systems. Understanding these patterns can give us insights into a diversity of systems.

What is the pattern in our relationship with the pole?

Pole starts to fall.

Eyes see top of pole moving.

Brain sends message to move hand.

Hand moves the bottom of the pole beneath the top of the pole.

Top of the pole starts to fall in a different direction.

(Class corroboration of this sequence with several personal inputs from them to create emotional connections and buy-in.)

This sequence of cause and effect goes around and around.

Eye reports motion to brain

Brain tells hand to move

Hand moves bottom of pole beneath top of pole

Pole starts to fall in new direction

Eye reports motion to brain

Brain tells hand to move


This is a Feedback Loop

Feedback occurs whenever cause and effect loops back upon itself.

Pole balancing is an example of a Balancing Feedback Loop.

If the pole starts going one way, feedback guides our hand to move it back. This kind of feedback stabilizes a system.

Our bodies possess many balancing feedback loops.

         If we get cold, we shiver. If we get warm, we sweat.

Balancing feedback loops can create situations of Dynamic Equilibrium

Equilibrium – from Latin – Equi = equal, Libra = scale (as in a balance scale)

The condition of a system when competing forces are balanced, resulting in no net change.

Hand supporting underneath

Gravity pulling down

Learning to drop your hand as you move the bottom of the pole is an important part of pole balancing.

(Dropping the hand a bit as one moves the bottom of the pole back under the top is important. By dropping the hand faster than the tip is tilting to the side, the tilting is reduced.)

Before you learned to drop your hand, many of you experienced a different kind of feedback loop.

         The pole starts to fall away from you.

         You push your hand in that direction.

Because you don’t drop your hand, you end up pushing the falling pole away from you.

The pole moving faster away from you causes you to start walking in that direction.

         This pushes the falling pole even faster.

         You start running towards the continuing-to-fall pole.

This pushes the falling tip away faster than you can run and the pole falls to the ground.

The pole falling away from you causes you to make a move that causes the pole to move away from you even faster …

This is an example of what we will call an amplifying feedback loop.

         A change leads to even more change.

Instead of stabilizing the system, this feedback amplifies the change within the system.

(Technically, I am supposed to use the phrases negative feedback and positive feedback loops. But these words conjure up emotional images for kids that interfere with the actual pattern. So I used balancing and reinforcing – as used by another author. Balancing works (especially in terms of balancing poles) but I’m thinking that stabilizing draws the mind to the consequence of the feedback loop. Reinforcing gets muddled with balancing so I’m trying amplifying instead. That feels like a more direct expression of the consequence.)

This system of pole and me can experience either feedback loop. Both are possible.

Amplifying feedback loops can be helpful or harmful.

         Learning leads to more learning.

         Money invested leads to more income which can be invested.

         Trust among friends leads to greater sharing which deepens friendship.

Stabilizing feedback can be helpful or harmful.

You want to change a bad habit but a stabilizing feedback loop keeps you centered within it.

Stabilizing feedback loops maintain a steady body temperature.

So don’t think of either stabilizing or amplifying feedback loops as good or bad.

They are re-occuring patterns we will encounter over and over again in systems.

(I had more in my talk about goals and subsystems but as I created this second draft for Cairns, I decided that those topics deserve their own presentation after some other hands-on experiences.)

A month after teaching my pole lesson, I was listening to election blather. It’s easy to think there are enemies out there: illegal immigrants, the CIA, corporations, blacks wearing hoodies, different enemies for different folks. But then I thought it all might be like balancing poles. If one is working at creating a dynamic equilibrium that rises above static equilibrium, then we enter into a relationship with the world where various forces around us will always be acting to move us back to a lower, more stable level. Always we will encounter these effects. We’ll never have “peace” in the sense of freedom from these forces. But we can have greater calm if we don’t interpret this presence of downward-acting forces as the evidence of enemies out to get us. It’s just feedback with the nature of the universe, creating a dance that helps us maintain and raise this “unnatural” pole higher into the world.


During the presidential campaign, it was easy to slip into a Romney-bashing “the privileged rich see everyone else as moochers and takers.” But I remembered something from our museum days. Alysia and I worked at a small, regional natural science museum. Our director wanted the museum to grow into something larger and more prestigious so she hired consultants. One consultant’s job was to estimate how much could be raised through fund-raising. He gave the museum a list of wealthy people in the country and their phone number and told the museum to cold-call these people. Our secretary hated the job. Tom Hanks was on the list. If a tiny museum 700 miles away is cold-calling people like this, they must be receiving many calls like this each day. Unknown people asking for some of your money—now that’s an experience I’ve never had. I would think it could drain one’s spirit and make one feel like one is, indeed, surrounded by takers.

A pinch of change

Another part of systems thinking I’m teaching is my rules of flow. As I was planning the presentation, I noticed that my change bowl—a broad, ceramic bowl where I place the spare change that’s in my pocket at the end of the day—was spilling over with heaped-up change. $50 had probably accumulated within it.

That’s happened before. Our grocery store has a machine where you can dump your loose change in and the store will give back a percentage of its value. I’m a frugal, full-value guy so I would never use such a machine, but it’s an indicator that other households also have overflowing change bowls. Every time my change bowl overflows, I start putting a handful of change into my pocket and make payments with change. If something is $3.78, I pay it all in loose change. When the bowl becomes half empty, I start forgetting and change begins to accumulate once again.

So my change bowl could be a good example for my students of the rule of flow that if inflow is greater than outflow, the stock accumulates. This led me to think more deeply about change bowls. Why does the change accumulate?

The change bowl is where I park the change from my pockets at the end of the day when I hang up my pants. Why do I take the change out? Because some days the pants go into the laundry or the pants get hung in a way that the change falls out. Way back in time, I learned to take the change out of my pocket when I get undressed for bed. So a few times each week, change inflows as small amounts (usually less than a dollar).

In the morning, I put my wallet in my pocket. And my car keys. But I don’t put change in my pocket because it’s a new day. Change isn’t something you put in your pocket. It’s something that accumulates in your pocket during the day. It’s something you get, not something you take. And that’s when I realized the fundamental nature of the change bowl. It has no outflow. It looks like it does; the change is just sitting, ready for the taking. But in action, nothing flows out until it is overflowing. Once I realized that, the solution appeared. Transform my image of loose change as a tool I put into my pocket each morning, just like my wallet. It doesn’t need to be a handful. A pinch will do.

Two things happen when I start putting a pinch of change in my pocket. The first is that change flows out as I use it to pay with exact change. If something is $3.78, I’ll give the cashier a $5 bill plus seventy-eight cents in change. That is seventy-eight cents that has flowed out of my change bowl and onward to someplace else. But the second, more wondrously subtle effect is that change stops flowing in. Because I am paying the change part exactly, I stop getting change given back to me. Each morning I take a pinch of change out of the bowl; each evening I put a smaller pinch back in. My bowl is half empty and slowly, steadily dropping. A time will come when my change bowl turns into something small, just a nightly parking place for twenty or so coins.

Meanwhile, in class, if I have to make an arbitrary decision, I tell my class that I’ll just reach in to “my pinch of change” to get a coin to flip and they all smile, remembering my change bowl and the rules of flow. I occasionally bring in the bowl so they can see the level dropping. And the phrase “pinch of change” gives a certain British properness bit of fun to putting it into my pocket each morning.

P.S. Back when I would deal with my change bowl’s overflow by periodically loading my pocket with a heaping handful of change, I found that cashiers often expressed gratitude for the change because they have the opposite problem. The change that accumulates in change bowls has been drained out of cash register drawers. Several times a day, the cashiers have to sign out more rolls of change because we pay in twenty dollar bills, not a twenty plus the amount of change. Because many of us don’t put a pinch of change into our pocket each morning, precious metals are turned into tons of extra coins that are cycled around by armored trucks so that tons of metal can accumulate in millions of change bowls.


Thank you

I received more feedback from folks in response to my last Cairns, “Getting Help”, than I have from any other article I have ever written. Many of your letters contained two similar sentiments: that the going for help was suspenseful and that the story brought tears to your eyes. Thank you for this feedback.


Just learning how to play with all of this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.