System Thinking Skills at the Elementary School Level

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This study deals with the development of system thinking skills at the elementary school level. It
addresses the question of whether elementary school students can deal with complex systems. The sample included 40 4th grade students from one school in a small town in Israel. The students studied an inquiry-based earth systems curriculum that focuses on the hydro-cycle. The program involved lab simulations and experiments, direct interaction
with components and processes of the water cycle in the outdoor learning environment and knowledge integration
activities. Despite the students’ minimal initial system thinking abilities, most of them made significant progress with
their ability to analyze the hydrological earth system to its components and processes. As a result, they recognized interconnections between components of a system. Some of the students reached higher system thinking abilities, such as identifying interrelationships among several earth systems and identifying hidden parts of the hydrological system. The direct contact with real phenomena and processes in small scale scenarios enabled these students to create a concrete local water cycle, which could later be expanded into large scale abstract global cycles. The incorporation of outdoor inquiry-based learning with lab inquiry-based activities and knowledge integration assignments contributed to the 4th grade students’ capacity to develop basic system thinking abilities at their young age. This suggests that although system thinking is regarded as a high order thinking skill, it can be developed to a certain extent in elementary school.
With a proper long-term curriculum, these abilities can serve as the basis for the development of higher stages of system
thinking at the junior–high/middle school level
Original languageEnglish GB
Pages (from-to)540-563
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Research in Science Teaching
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2010


  • earth sciences
  • environmental education
  • system approach
  • system thinking


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