One-Question Survey
How Do You Use Systems Thinking?

This month's One-Question Survey appeared to be simpler than most. We asked school librarians whether they considered systems thinking in any part of their library program. The answer came back clearly from our 160 respondents: more than 60% of school librarians reported they are not intentionally considering any part of systems thinking in their work.

Let's take a moment to consider how this month's survey is different than most. Recently, we've gathered data on reading promotion (everyone has a favorite method), gaming in the library (we're seeing an increase in librarians participating), and collaboration with teachers of the arts (a strong majority of us are seeking this out). Our collected survey data consistently paints a picture of active and informed school librarians stretching their own limits to add new skills and strategies to their repertoire in order to do their jobs well.

The question must be asked: why are these active and informed school librarians not invested in systems thinking? Systems thinking,though not new, is not necessarily a well-known concept. The number of respondents to this month's survey was uncharacteristically low. Some of us may have avoided responding to the survey at all because the topic wasn't a familiar one. If this is the case, then this could be an issue of terminology.

Lucy Santos Green's article, in this issue, about wicked problems and systems thinking skills does a great job of showing ways we already are helping students develop these kinds of skills, perhaps without our ever giving thought to the label "systems thinking." For example, teaching students how to evaluate sources and move beyond initial search results that would otherwise "satisfice" young information seekers is contributing to their systems thinking ability. Within this process, students learn to make judgments, build background knowledge, and ask essential questions that help them make connections between the information they find and how it impacts their understanding of the problem they are solving.

Systems thinking is really all about relationships and context. We don't have to do anything differently in order to have many opportunities to encourage this kind of mindset with our students. But we may need to change what we emphasize in order to positively impact how students learn. For example, one of the things school librarians may find themselves doing is helping students save or retrieve work they've done on a computer. There is often confusion over where something is being saved or what type of file is needed. This is a perfect opportunity to take a step back and ensure the student has the context they need to fully understand what they're doing. Do they know what their destination is? Is it local or cloud-based? Will they need access to it later from somewhere else? Is their work being saved in the best file format for the software they are using? It's the simplest of examples, but we are poised to have these kinds of conversations with our students regularly in a variety of settings. Our decision to be thoughtful in providing that kind of larger context is integral to adding to a systems thinking mindset in our schools.

Another way to consider systems thinking is also how we use it within our job. One survey respondent offered this insight: "Thinking about the library's place within our greater school, district, and community, means that I am always listening to what others are talking about so that I can find ways to support or bolster their initiatives, whether or not the library receives any explicit and/or external recognition….Rather than trying to convince others to care about the library, I try to infuse the library into what others already care about."

This simple and direct approach to systems thinking is exactly what we need in our school libraries. Though the terminology may still be a little unfamiliar or uncomfortable, the idea behind it isn't. Our interactions and teaching opportunities are more worthwhile and will result in deeper learning when we take care to give context to what we are teaching and help our students draw connections to how what they are doing impacts a bigger picture.

About the Author

Jen Gilbert, MSLIS, is a K-12 teacher librarian at Eminence Independent Schools in Eminence, KY and part-time faculty at the University of Kentucky. She earned her bachelor's in English teaching from Brigham Young University and her master's in library and information science from the University of Kentucky.

Jen loves spending her days in her school library, the EDhub, and promises a VIP tour to any fellow school librarians who want to check out the EDhub's impressive makerspace.

MLA Citation Gilbert, Jen. "How Do You Use Systems Thinking?" School Library Connection, January 2019,

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Entry ID: 2186060

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