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Systems Thinking

Rarely am I happier than when throwing a party. I would characterize myself as a "shy extrovert," if such a thing is possible—while I love the joy and chaos of a crowded room of friends having a good time, my greatest pleasure is really in engineering it all rather than sitting in the middle of it. I look at a good party as a fun challenge, a system to be optimized,with its dizzying array of moving parts that all need to run smoothly.

In the kitchen, there are things to thaw, things to bake, things to freeze, to chop, to assemble. Items compete for both limited space—oven, counter, fridge—and limited time. And yet, everything needs to be ready to serve at the right moment. In my house, there are inevitably elaborate cocktails to be made aplenty for all comers. There are dietary restrictions and preferences. There is the near impossible task of triangulating music that everyone will enjoy. Activities to entertain our own and our guests' children. And if you really get your system down, it all looks easy and you get to spend your evening relaxing and focused on catching up with your guests.

The moment at the end of an evening when the last guest, happy and with a full belly, closes the door behind them is a satisfying feeling sort of like clicking the last piece into a jigsaw puzzle. (At least until I look over at the dishes!) Every piece has found its right place and there is a brief sense of accomplishment from having ensured it all came together correctly.

But complex systems come in different flavors. I wish that it were so easy to apply the same kind of problem-solving processes to all the serious issues facing our world. I wish that there were a single answer and sequence of steps to follow to solve climate change, our health care system, or the global refugee crisis. I wish we could click the last puzzle piece in place and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

Computational thinking is a trendy and important topic, but it is not alone sufficient in a world where many complex problems defy our desire for correct answers. This month at SLC we take a look at how we teach students to tackle complex problems.

Jen Gilbert shares the results of our latest One-Question Survey, which show that most school librarians feel they haven't even started grappling with the core concepts of systems thinking, pointing to an enormous opportunity for professional growth and leadership. Lucy Santos Green offers those new to the topic a crash course, paired with a helpful infographic to help us draw the distinctions between computational and systems thinking skills, as well as to differentiate between the kinds of problems to which each are suited. Kristen Rowe and Jordan Mroziak share success stories from their powerful school library–university partnership, including projects integrating robotics into non-STEM fields, while Kristy Hill shows us how to move past isolated research units with elementary learners to develop critical lifelong learning skills.

We're confident that in five years' time if Jen re-posed this month's survey question, most of our respondents would report that they are actively and intentionally working to instill systems thinking skills in their students. We're excited to jumpstart a conversation with our readers this month to help spark the new ideas and experiments that will lead that shift.

Happy Reading,

David Paige, Managing Editor

Select Citation Style:
Paige, David. "Systems Thinking." School Library Connection, January 2019,
Paige, David. "Systems Thinking." School Library Connection, January 2019.
Paige, D. (2019, January). Systems thinking. School Library Connection. Retrieved from

Entry ID: 2186196

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