Daniel Goleman: What are the Habits of a Systems Thinker?

Innate systems intelligence is present from our very early years. If nurtured, it can develop to surprising scope and depth in older students.

But the key to this progression is offering developmentally appropriate tools that enable students to articulate and hone their systems intelligence – whether through simple visual tools like a reinforcing feedback loop or software to build dynamic simulation models.

There is a natural interplay between tools and skills. As the old saying goes, “You need hammers to build houses but also to build carpenters.” Without usable tools, this innate systems intelligence lays fallow, much like our innate musical intelligence would if children were never given musical instruments.

Of course, it is actually worse because by the second or third grade, children would otherwise be immersed in the traditional academic process of separate, disconnected subjects and the pressure of performing on assignments given by the teacher, rather than understanding the challenges of real life.

Like all intelligence, systems intelligence must be developed or it will atrophy. So, it is little wonder that, for most children, there would be less and less evidence of this innate systems intelligence the further students go through traditional schooling.

This is why one of the major breakthroughs of the last twenty years is the development of a whole suite of these basic tools, created by innovative teachers across the pre-K-12 curriculum. Recently, educators have been recognizing tools for developing each habit. Here are some examples:

Habits of a Systems Thinker

  • Recognizes the importance of time delays when exploring cause and effect relationships
  • Finds where unintended consequences emerge
  • Changes perspectives to increase understanding
  • Identifies the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships
  • Recognizes that a system’s structure generates its behavior
  • Uses understanding of system structure to identify higher leverage actions
  • Surfaces and tests assumptions
  • Checks results and changes actions if needed: successive approximation
  • Seeks to understand the big picture

The habits of a systems thinker are helping educators bring a coherent overall framework to a field that has had many pioneers in various school settings. We are now witnessing that seeing the big picture, identifying circles of causality, understanding how the structure of a system produces its behavior, and recognizing the benefits of looking at problems from different perspectives can help educators focus on deeper thinking skills across virtually all curricula and ages.

My new book with Peter Senge – The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education is now available. You can download the ebook here.

For additional information and resources about the Habits of a Systems Thinker, visit Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation: www.watersfoundation.org.

Additional Resources:

Focus Back-To-School Bundle

Rethinking Education: Educating Hearts and Minds

Focus Classroom Posters

Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth

Illustration: Bryant Johnson