Learning to Connect the Dots: Developing children's systems literacy

How can can adults nurture children’s capacity to “connect the dots” through everyday conversations and activities? How can educators build an environment that leads children to see the patterns that make a difference? In this article, educator and writer Linda Booth Sweeney points out that thinking about systems means paying attention to the interrelationships, patterns, and dynamics that surround us – and that children are naturally attuned to this. In cultivating systems literacy, you build upon this natural understanding to help promote this integrated way of thinking for the children in your life.


The road construction project around the local rotary had been going on for over a year. As a result, the whole town was cranky. One afternoon, my son and I drove the rotary just before 5:00 p.m., along with throngs of irritable commuters, anxious to get home. Tempers were short and the sound of car horns pierced the air. Pointing to the tangle of traffic in front of us, my then four year-old asked: "Mommy, what happens when everyone says me first!?"

I was used to his asking questions. Typically, Jack asked about categories (“Animals aren’t people, are they?”), or how things work (“Why do bees kiss the flowers?”) or facts (“How hot is the center of the earth?”). This question was different; this one had to do with causes and consequences. I considered talking to him about the cost of maximizing individual gain, but held back and asked instead, "What do you think would happen if everyone said me first!?”

He pressed his nose against the window, paused, and said, “Well, there might be a lot of accidents. Or maybe even a huge crash!"

"Can you think of other times when everyone says me first?" I was thinking about overfishing, gas guzzlers, and our overcrowded community pool.

Jack responded, "You know how you said it's not good to let the water run when we brush our teeth, ‘cause if everyone did that the reservoir would go down?’ Well, it's kind of like that."

At the age of four, he was aware enough of the general notion of systems – two or more parts that interact to form a whole – to make a complex observation: the rotary and the reservoir were common resources. Like water, air, and playgrounds, these are resources that many people use, and for which no individual is solely responsible. Moreover, in asking the question, “What happens when everyone says me first!?” he recognized the impact of individual decisions on the larger whole. Without knowing it, he stepped right into the middle of the greatest dilemma in commons-related issues: each individual action is defensible on its own, but they can combine to have a devastating impact on the larger whole.

Many children intuitively grasp the nature of systems, as Jack did. They can see, for instance, how a common but limited resource, such as water, air, land, highways, fisheries, energy, or minerals becomes overloaded or over-used, and how everyone experiences diminishing benefits. However, these children don’t always have many opportunities to develop those insights into a systems awareness that will serve them all their lives. Parents, educators, and other adults can help them learn to “connect the dots”: to see beyond the surface, to recognize interconnections and dynamics among people, places, events and nature, and to begin thinking about how to use those interconnections to improve their world.

Where do our children learn to think this way? How do you nurture a child’s natural intelligence about systems and help him or her to become systems literate? How can you confirm for your children what they already know: that their world is interconnected and dynamic, a tightly woven web of related, interacting elements and processes, and as such, is indeed meaningful? How can this insight become an underlying learning aesthetic with which they can build their lives?

Why systems literacy matters

Children today are growing up in a world in which oil spills, global warming, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, institutional malfeasance, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict are commonly at the top of the news. For children to make sense of these trends, they must become aware of the causes and consequences in a slew of interconnected systems, including families, local economies, the environment, and more. Ideally, we want our children to take what author Edith Cobb, author of The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, calls “a reticulate approach”1 (resembling a net or network) to knowledge and sense-making.

To be literate means to have a well-educated understanding of a particular subject, like a foreign language or mathematics. In many fields, the knowledge must be both comprehensive and abundant enough that you are capable of putting it to use. Systems literacy represents that level of knowledge about complex interrelationships. It combines conceptual knowledge(knowledge of system principles and behaviors) and reasoning skills (for example, the ability to see situations in wider contexts, see multiple levels of perspective within a system, trace complex interrelationships, look for endogenous or “within system” influences, have awareness of changing behavior over time, and recognize recurring patterns that exist within a wide variety of systems).

When people aren’t literate about systems, too many human activities are like those cars jammed into the roundabout: unaware of the pattern that connects them and, thus, prone to exploitive and destructive results. Systems literacy is a prerequisite for realizing the kinds of aspirations that people increasingly have in an interconnected world, but that seems impossible to achieve from a fragmented point of view. As the poet, novelist and essayist Wendell Berry puts it, “We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption that we can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself. But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back together. For the parts can be reconciled to one another only within the pattern of the whole thing to which they belong.


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