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Is System Dynamics the Missing Subject in our Educational System?

Is System Dynamics the Missing Subject in our Educational System?

Is System Dynamics so valuable that we should encourage its inclusion in our educational system? This year, presentations at International System Dynamics Conference (ISDC) supported this hypothesis. The President of System Dynamics Society, Shayne Gary, noted a growing trend in appreciating systems thinking as a useful tool to explain complexities. The ever-expanding requirement to cope with a complex world opens room for increased utilization of System Dynamics in our daily life. The power of the method was proved in the global study “Limits to Growth” fifty years ago. Jorgen Randers reflected on this Anniversary by comparing the initial study results with today’s worldwide situation[1]. The project signals one of the most important features of System Dynamics, the capacity to describe phenomena and present their behavior in time, on a global scale.

“Fish Banks has a long history and has been successfully implemented in learning at pre-college, college, and adult levels.”

A major practical application of System Dynamics is as Interactive Learning Environment (ILE). Without the necessity to build a model, these applications allow direct visualization of the system, game playing, storytelling, or simulation of behavior. Notable are two general formats: desktop and online. Will Fisher used the System Dynamics game Fish Banks to explain environmental economics[2]. The students play actors in the fishery system, trying to maintain it. By changing the system parameters they were able to see how the system responds to the altered policies. Results show an easy understanding of the topic, increased awareness about the system, and ‘enthusiasm’ to play. Fish Banks has a long history and has been successfully implemented in learning at pre-college, college, and adult levels.

In another presentation, Juliette Rooney-Varga and her team studied how the use of the online simulation platform helps to change public opinion about climate change, especially at the level of public decision-makers [3]. In their work-in-progress study, they investigated, at which level readymade online interactive medium EN-Roads helps the transformation of insights and action of the politicians towards climate change. Although at the preliminary stage, the results brought some facts that simulation improves overall attitudes toward climate change.

“Lectures that utilize System Dynamics influence change in students’ thinking, enhance capacity to understand calculus, and increase skill in mathematical modeling.” Diana Fischer

Teaching by applying System Dynamics modeling is another practice. Diana Fisher presented work from her long experience in educating pre-college students[4]. She stressed how lectures that utilize the method influence change in students’ thinking, enhance capacity to understand calculus and increase skill in mathematical modeling. Fisher noted that modeling with System Dynamics is not learned quickly but requires support from the institutions and commitment by the learner.

Another approach to practicing System Dynamics in teaching was reported by Zimmermann[5]. She utilizes the participatory group model building method in her classroom environment and has developed instructions to teach System Dynamics through collaborative methods. The benefits of this approach are both learning the use of System Dynamics and also learning group dynamics and participatory processes.

“System Dynamics enhance understanding of complex macro-economic situations, increases soft skills, and improves analytical thinking with a possible wide range of applications with an overall positive impact at the social level.”

Programs to use System Dynamics have been developed at the country level. In Turkey, an environmental and climate change education program at the middle school level has been developed[6]. Students are taught via the direct application and changes in the System Dynamics model. The results are increased knowledge about the subject as well as a proactive attitude to create actions to fight climate change. The students reported interest in seeking environmental-friendly solutions and wanted to continue with the class during the next term. One activity within this program was an online platform for teachers to learn systems thinking and Systems Dynamics. In another case, David Wheat and the Ukrainian team highlighted experiences from the ten-year-long project to learn economics through System Dynamics[7]. The project developed capacities in Ukraine in cooperation with Bergen University. Activities were done in university settings, at the pre-college level, and at the National Bank of Ukraine. They also organized an annual conference, established a competence center, developed a system for scientific cooperation, and incorporated the program into the Ukrainian educational system. Now, without external aid, project members remain enthusiastic and continue the project. The outcomes proved that the use and teaching of System Dynamics enhance understanding of complex macro-economic situations, increases soft skills, and improves analytical thinking with a possible wide range of applications with an overall positive impact at the social level.

“Postponing the decision to involve System Dynamics in the regular curriculum is a loss of opportunity to improve the education of our children and the population in general.”

The 2022 ISDC showed System Dynamics as a useful tool to improve our teaching process with remarkable potential. This didactic instrument supports the learner to focus systemically on the topic and discover internal relationships that sustain or change behavior, expanding cognitive potential through visualizing the nonlinear problems in an array of feedbacks. Teaching System Dynamics extensively from childhood up through the academic levels could enhance children’s holistic understanding of real-world problems, increase their structural thinking capabilities and develop mathematical modeling skills. Our strategy should be to incorporate System Dynamics as a regular tool in our educational system, utilizing it in different formats and adapting the method to each topic. Holistic penetration of System Dynamics in our society was predicted by its founder Jay W. Forester and the method itself was created with the purpose to describe and explain the behavior of any system. Such a powerful method should be considered among the essential capacities for the new era of human development. Postponing the decision to involve System Dynamics in the regular curriculum is a loss of opportunity to improve the education of our children and the population in general.

 

Presentations: 

[1] Jorgen Randers: “From Limits to Growth to Earth for All – Overshoot and collapse in a 100-year perspective”

[2] W. Fisher: “Teaching the tragedy of open access: a classroom exercise on governing the commons”

[3] J. Rooney-Varga at all: “Can interactive simulation impact what policymakers say and do on climate?”

[4] D. Fisher: “A Model-Building Lesson on Global Warming & Potable Water Availability for a High School Science Class” and “Creating and Building System Dynamics Models From the News (Workshop)”

[5] N. Zimmermann: “Participatory modeling in an introductory systems thinking and System Dynamics class”

[6] M.C. Alibeyoglu et all: “An Educational Program Design: Environmental Education with Systems Thinking and the World Climate Game Project”

[7] David Weat et all: “Learning Economics with Dynamic Modeling in Ukraine, in Collaboration with Norway”

 

 

Changed!

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Fernando Redivo
Fernando Redivo

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2 thoughts on “Is System Dynamics the Missing Subject in our Educational System?

  1. Is System Dynamics the Missing Subject in our Educational System? The question is inadequately worded; the answers are probably myriad. To improve the question, differentiate between conceptual/philosophical system dynamics and its carriage of mathematical modeling. The first subject is already embedded in education, in the sciences and humanities. Systems thinking is cultivated far and wide. The second subject is not, at least not normally. Moreover the second requires aptitudes that are not possessed in many or most students, for various reasons, and thus it requires a level of discipline and commitment that may be impractical for them. I believe that conceptual/philosophical skills of system dynamics are present throughout our educational systems, though the name is not. Mathematical modeling is likewise present, only selectively and at higher levels, but also not generally called system dynamics. Maybe a related question, more basic, is: should the term system dynamics be admitted into core curricula as a peer discipline of others that are already well established?

  2. Ilir, you point to some important System Dynamics (SD) applications that have been used successfully to enhance the learning experience for students. I have used SD modeling with algebra students for decades (ages 15-17). These are regular algebra classes, not honor classes. These students followed guided model-building lessons that asked them to anticipate the behavior of the model segment they just created, then explain the discrepancy between the anticipated behavior and the model output. They also modified models to remedy deficiencies in the model behavior or to test policies to solve a problem that the model output displayed. In an SD modeling course students have shown that they can research a problem, build an original SD model, and explain the behavior of the model. So I feel strongly that ALL high school students can build and explain the behavior of SD models. In algebra the students would build only small models. So I disagree with Robert Becker (above) that aptitudes for building SD models is not possessed by many or most students. I believe that ALL high school algebra students should be required to build models as an integral part of learning algebra (and pre-calculus, and calculus).
    I don’t think it is required that we refer to SD modeling using the words system dynamics but certainly we can use the words systems modeling. Or we could just call it stock-flow modeling (initially).
    The group of educators who are part of the Systems Thinking Association in Turkey have shown how they can build the skills of children as young as 6 years old to create behavior over time graphs (BOTGs), and simple hand sketched one-stock, an inflow, and an outflow model diagrams to study dynamics happening in story books. Middle school students work with multiple stocks and flows in analyzing human body systems and population-wealth generation-emissions models. These are simulations. There is no doubt in my mind, from my decades of working with SD and high school students that students can build these simulations.
    I do not use lecture when I have students use SD. I always have students build the models. Sometimes these activities are guided model-building packets that students use, other times the lesson is more free form.
    So infusing SD in precollege education is not limited by the students ability or interest, it’s limited by convincing the teachers (who are the gatekeepers) that learning to use SD is worth their time. To convince the teachers I think two elements are necessary. Firstly, it is important for the SD expert to develop a relationship with the teacher so the teacher feels comfortable working with the expert in a collegial fashion. Secondly, the SD expert has to have examples that directly relate to the teacher’s curriculum, ideally using examples for concepts that tend to be troublesome for students to understand. That means the SD expert has a lot of homework to do. But developing the relationship is key. Teachers are very protective of their students and their curriculum is already packed with concepts they need to teach and techniques they have used in the past. So the SD expert should not expect the teacher to give him/her very many days to work with the students.
    You may think that convincing an administrator is the most time efficient way to progress, but I have seen and experienced much resistance on the part of teachers when they are told by an administrator that they (administrators) want the teachers to try a new method of instruction in their classrooms (because there seems to be a new, new method every year or two). I suggest the infection method using a teacher as a vector is the best way to progress.
    The Systems Thinking Association educational leadership in Turkey takes a systemic approach, training teachers, talking to administrators, talking to university professors in charge of teacher education, talking to national educators in charge of setting national educational standards. As a long-term strategy, the STA in Turkey has a solid approach to educational change.

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