Systems Thinking

Understanding how connections and feedback loops work in complicated systems helps students build systems thinking and complex problem-solving skills.
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About this Micro-credential

Key Method

Using simulations of complex real-world systems to see the effects of specific changes on the whole system helps students understand how complex and dynamic systems work and builds systems thinking into their learning and problem-solving skillset.

Method Components

The educator leads students through a guided simulation experience (role play, game, or computer simulation) that helps them understand how systems work. After the simulation, the educator guides a discussion about the experience. Simulations and discussion can be conducted individually, in small groups, or in whole-group instruction. For recommendations on grade- and subject-appropriate simulations, or sims, for study see

Post-simulation discussion topics

  • The events that occurred
  • Problems that arose
  • Which system dynamics were involved (diagram these if possible)
  • Changes that could improve the outcome
  • Lessons learned about systems from the simulation experience
  • Repeat the simulation with suggested changes, record the results, and debrief

Suggested preparation

  • Guide a student discussion on:
    • What a simulation or sim is (simplified model of reality)
    • Why a sim is useful (experience of how complex systems work)
  • Explain and discuss basic system ideas (a system is made of interacting elements that function as a whole) and show useful system analysis tools (cause-effect and feedback loops, changes-over-time graphs, stock/flow diagrams, cycles, models, simulations.)
  • Highlight the importance of discussions, debriefs, and capturing personal observations, assumptions, and changes in developing deeper understanding based on the experience of the simulation

Suggested review

  • Students discuss how simulations are different from reality and how they are the same.
  • Students discuss how lessons learned from the systems simulation experience could be applied to the real world and their own lives.

Research & Resources

Supporting Research

Learning how parts of systems interact is essential for developing an understanding of complex natural and social systems. Simulations or sims (role-plays, games and computer simulations) provide engaging opportunities to experience and understand how complex, dynamic systems work.


Submission Requirements

Submission Guidelines & Evaluation Criteria

Following are the items you must submit to earn the micro-credential and the criteria by which they will be evaluated. To earn this micro-credential, you must receive a passing evaluation for Parts 1, 3, and 4 and a “Yes” for Part 2.

Part 1. Overview questions

(200-word limit for each response)

  • Activity Description: What kind of project activities did you and your students engage in to become more proficient in systems thinking with simulations? Please describe the learning activities and strategies you used.
  • Activity Evaluation: How do you know your students increased their proficiency by engaging in the systems thinking activities and what evidence did you collect that demonstrates these learning gains?

Part 2. Evidence/artifacts

Please submit work examples from two students (such as links to writing, audio, images, video, or other media) that demonstrate progress toward the systems thinking competency, including such items as links or videos of the computer simulation used, observations, predictions and debriefs of the results of changes to the sim, diagrams of system feedback loops, evidence of presentations of the results, and other relevant items.

Part 3. Student reflections

For the two students whose work examples were included above, submit student-created reflections on their experience of the systems thinking activities. Use the following questions as a guide (200-word limit for each reflection):

  • How did interacting and studying the simulation help you and your group better understand how systems work and how they can change?
  • How did this learning activity change your view of how systems thinking can be used to make systems work better or be more useful?

Part 4. Teacher reflection

Provide a reflection on what you learned, using the following questions as a guide (200-word limit):

  • What was the impact of engaging your students in the systems thinking activity?
  • How will experiencing these project activities shape your daily teaching practice in the future?

Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under:
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Download to access the requirements and scoring guide for this micro-credential.
Requirements for Systems Thinking
How to prepare for and earn this micro-credential - in a downloadable PDF document

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