Exploring Systems through Objects: A Close Look at Student Work (Part 2)

Hello again!  I hope you enjoyed my previous post in this two-part series, where I discussed how I came to explore students’ diagrams from the Connecting Everyday Objects to Bigger Systems footstep in the Out of Eden Learn (OOEL) curriculum and the three different areas of focus I found in student work.  In this post, I share another set of findings as well as some questions and implications raised by my explorations in general.

How Do Students Represent Relationships between Elements in a System?

In addition to differences in what students focused on when diagramming a system connected to their chosen object, I noticed that the elements of the systems that students diagrammed fell along a spectrum in terms of the way relationships were represented.  Students’ system diagrams ranged from not having any identified elements (and thus not really appearing to be diagrams) to having elements that were not clearly related to each other, having elements connected in a unidirectional linear relationship, and, finally, having interrelated elements with multidirectional relationships.  The student diagrams below are examples of this spectrum.

In the first diagram below, the student included multiple images, but it is not clear how they are related or whether they are elements of a system:

schoolgirl229, age 11, Ghana

In the next diagram, the student identified a possible system (the use of headphones), but it’s not clear how the different parts relate to each other:

Oceanwaves, age 11, United States

As I discussed in the previous post, many students depicted a process, such as manufacturing or distribution, as their system.  Their diagrams often depicted unidirectional, linear relationships between steps in the process, such as the following:

Oooof, age 11, United States

Finally, just a few students went beyond a simple flow of steps or unidirectional relationships between parts of their system.  These students’ diagrams showed system elements as interrelated with each other, demonstrating greater complexity in the system, like this example:

Birdsworld@yumyum, age 12, Ghana

Puzzles & Ideas Going Forward

As I noticed these different themes and approaches in students’ work, the researcher in me began considering: What might be the source/s of these differences?  I wondered whether variations in the focus of students’ diagrams or in how students illustrated the relationships between system parts might be related to their development (for example, do older students demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of the complex relationships between parts in a system or more frequently recognize the human agency in systems?) or related to their classroom (for example, might teacher instructions or school culture play a role in diagram focus and relationship visualization?).  Interestingly, I did not anecdotally notice any associations between students’ age or classroom and the focus of their system diagram or how they represented the relationships between system elements. This may suggest that these diagram differences are more related to variation across individual students, but these possible associations are something I hope to explore more systematically in the future.

Although these two sets of observations on student diagrams’ focus and relationship of parts seem logical and resonated with my OOEL team members, who have more experience with the student work, they aren’t the last word on what’s happening for students in the Connecting Everyday Objects to Bigger Systems footstep.  I only looked at the work of students in two walking party groups during one year, and they may not be representative of all students who might consider a system through the lens of an object or who engage in this particular Out of Eden Learn footstep.  

Even if these categories do stand, they raise just as many new questions for me:

  • What other contextual information would be useful to better understand the thinking behind students’ diagrams?
  • Why do some students not identify the people involved in a process or other system (especially after the previous two footsteps in the Core Learning Journey 2 curriculum invited them to explore their own and others’ connections to objects and bigger ideas)?
  • Why do some students illustrate more explicit, directional, or multi-directional relationships between the parts of a system?
  • How important is it for students to identify their own role in a system, and how might we support them in doing so?
  • How might we encourage students to see the elements in systems as more interconnected, rather than strictly linear?
  • What benefits or drawbacks may there be in having students draw the diagrams themselves compared to having them assemble existing images from other sources?
  • How might students’ earlier interactions with peers on the OOEL platform influence what they post for this footstep?
  • What is the role of peer dialogue in furthering students’ thinking about their selected object and system/s?

Despite these questions, there are some initial ideas for practice that my observations might suggest, whether students are exploring systems through objects on the OOEL platform or in other contexts:

  • Consider people: Invite students to think about who makes each element of the system possible
  • Insert yourself: Explicitly prompt students to consider where they fit into the system that they’re exploring
  • Look further: Ask students to consider what people or communities aren’t involved in a system – and why that might be
  • Connect parts: Encourage students to consider how each element of a system relates to each other element, in addition to how linear elements may be linked in a sequence
  • Think macro: Have students diagram how different systems themselves are related
  • Think micro: Have students drill down to consider an object within one element of their system diagram and what systems/processes may be related to that element

These are simply some preliminary wonders and thoughts that this exploration of the fascinating student work in the Connecting Everyday Objects to Bigger Systems footstep raised for me.  I look forward to hopefully reviewing more student posts, potentially developing a more formal tool/kit for supporting systems thinking through objects, as well as hearing from teachers about what may or may not resonate about these concepts!  In these times of rapid change, social divisions, increasing globalization, unequal access to resources, and other challenges, it feels especially important to offer learners tools and opportunities to make sense of the systems around them – and to consider how they may play a role in those systems.

For some other resources from Project Zero on supporting students’ systems thinking, check out the thinking routines from the Agency by Design project and the ‘Art to Systems and Back’ tool from the Art as Civic Commons project.

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