The Basics and Benefits of Systems Thinking

Page 2 of 3: Systems in our Lives

Habit Cards
Solar System

Now that you have had a brief overview of the benefits of systems thinking, let’s take a look at what we mean by “a system.” A system is a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent parts or components that form a complex and unified whole. Ecological systems and human social systems are living systems; human-made systems such as cars and washing machines are nonliving systems. Most systems thinkers focus their attention on living systems, especially human social systems. However, many systems thinkers are also interested in how human social systems affect the larger ecological systems in our planet.

Systems have several defining characteristics. Let’s explore the characteristics of a system using a classroom as a working system example. A classroom system can be viewed as a home school experience, or nested in a traditional public, private or charter school setting.

Every system has a purpose or goal within a larger system. Example: One purpose of a classroom system is to provide students with learning opportunities so that they can develop skills that will help them be successful in life.

All systems have parts that are arranged in a specific way for the system to carry out its purpose. Example: What happens when classroom systems expect all children to learn the same way at the same pace, with no consideration of prior learning, language or skills? Parts of a classroom system include the curriculum, teacher expectations, students and their capabilities, instructional resources and more. The relationships between these parts affect how teachers meet the diverse needs of all learners.

Systems change over time in response to feedback. The word feedback plays a central role in systems thinking. Feedback is information that returns to its original source such that it influences that initial source’s subsequent actions. The cause generated an effect and the effect feeds back to influence the initial causal source. Example: A teacher presents a lesson and observes evidence that some children are learning and some are confused. Examples of evidence could include enthusiastic responses, puzzled faces, blank pieces of paper or busy scribbling. The evidence a teacher observes feeds back to what he decides to do next in the lesson.

Your understanding of the systems in your life and work will affect your decisions, your actions and the way you choose to live. In The Foundations of Systems Thinking, we have identified five basic life systems that involve people. Each system is represented by a circular icon. These sample systems are included as illustrations and anecdotal examples to help you see everyday applications of systems thinking.

Well Being Example


Personal well-being as a system involves your physical, emotional and social health. It also considers your state of being happy and prosperous.

Well Being Example


Your workplace considers systems that could include paid employment, a volunteer position, your life’s calling, or any role you play where you make a contribution to others.

Well Being Example


Your community could be a place where you reside or a place where you belong. It could be a town, city, an affiliation or network. Your community involves relationships that are formed around a common purpose.

Well Being Example


This system considers all of the people you choose to identify as your family, both immediate and extended, and may include people of all ages.

Well Being Example


As a place for learning and preparation, school is a system that is common to all of us. Your school could be a public, private, charter or home setting and could be a system that you attended or any other place of learning.