Systems Thinking, Systems Design

Information Workshop INF1005H, section 0105, Winter 2018, University of Toronto Faculty of Information

  • Official course operations are on Blackboard

Time and place:

Instructor: David Ing

A. Course objectives

Much of education is organized along disciplinary lines.  Information professionals often work in contexts, where transdisciplinarity may be better approached with systems thinking.  (Note that it's systems in plural, and not the singular!)

A.1 What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a perspective on parts, wholes and their relations. It includes

  • (i) systems theory (in an intellectual pursuit of episteme (know why));
  • (ii) systems methods (in a pursuit of techne (know how)); and
  • (iii) systems practice (in a pursuit of phronesis (know when, know where, know whom).

Types of systems in which we might intervene include mechanistic systems (e.g. machines), biological systems (e.g. plants, animals), social systems (e.g. human beings) and ecological systems (e.g. watersheds). The systems sciences have an aim towards a unity of science, investigating the isomorphy of concepts laws and models in various fields, helping useful transfers from one field to another.

The emphasis on systems design in this Information Workshop orients the content towards (ii) systems methods and (iii) systems practice.  In the background is (i) systems theory, which can be used to "improve" a system of interest as the designer gains more insight into choices on challenges by stakeholders and the environment at large.

A.2. What is the goal of the workshop?

With the short six weeks of this Information Workshop, the goal is familiarize students with a breadth of systems-based methods that can be applied in the overlapping domains of information professions.  In small teams and in the classroom meetings, students will sharpen their use of systems terminology, and gain an appreciation for the variety and diversity of systems approaches.

Each student comes to the class with his or her own disciplinary lenses.  Through dialogue, the class as a whole will engage in sensemaking exchanges that will broaden the perspective of each individual.

A.3 What prerequisites are expected?

There are no subject prerequisites for this course.  Skills that will favour success include the capabilities to (i) read journal articles quickly; (ii) mesh in a small group that will lead a short discussion for the whole class; (iii) write short personal appreciation diaries as blog posts; and (iv) express ideas in a visual medium (i.e. an infographic).

B. Course Learning Outcomes, and Relationship to Program Learning Outcomes

Course Learning Outcomes
Program Learning Outcomes
  1. Students will have collectively learned and individually internalized a systems vocabulary applicable across physical, biological, social, ecological and information domains, both for describing phenomena and for intervening in situations.
  1. Students understand and are conversant with fundamental concepts, theories, practices, and the diverse horizons of information disciplines, and can respond to changing information practices and needs of society.
  1. Students will have, (i) in groups, led a classroom discussion on one systems approach, and (ii) as individuals, engaged in critical thinking about impacts on stakeholders and constituents of current systems models and future designs.
  1. Students develop knowledge and values appropriate to their future exercise of economic, cultural, and/or social leadership, and thereby provide leadership in defining the social responsibility of information professionals to provide information services for all, regardless of age, educational level, or social, cultural, or ethnic background.
  1. Students will have: (i) as individuals, written personal appreciation diary logs reflecting their perspectives on systems research; and (ii) in groups, produced an infographic visually highlighting systems concepts and themes resonating with their interests.
  1. Students develop the ability to contribute through research and publication, to the continuous expansion and critical assessment of the body of knowledge underlying the information and archives sciences.
  1. Students will have been introduced to systemic perspectives on information, including the design of inquiring systems, dialogues, and participative techniques.
  1. Students develop an understanding of the development of theory concerning information, where it is found, and how it is used.
  1. Students will have exercised collaborating online with visual systems modeling tools.
  1. Students develop an understanding of the application of new technological developments to the preservation and communication of information, and in the identification of the impact of such developments on society.
  1. Students will be introduced to the systems thinking communities open for ongoing learning, meeting locally, internationally, and over the Internet
  1. Students continue in life-long intellectual growth beyond graduation.

This workshop is oriented towards experiential learning in groups, and structured dialectic between individuals.

C. Activities and assessment

Since each group can be seen as a systemic whole, the grading for the group presentation-facilitations and infographic will be the uniform for all members.  Differentiation amongst individuals shows up in the written work.

Content Due
Group work 50%
25% Group presentation-facilitation of research reference cluster (single topic) In classes: Jan. 17, 24, 31; Feb. 7
  • Presentation materials online by start of class
25% Group infographic poster and presentation (cumulative for course) In class:  Feb. 14
  • Infographic poster online by start of class
Individual work 50%
8% Personal appreciation diary log for Day 1 Monday, Jan. 15, 9:00 a.m.
8% Personal appreciation diary log for Day 2 Monday, Jan. 22, 9:00 a.m.
8% Personal appreciation diary log for Day 3 Monday, Jan. 29, 9:00 a.m.
8% Personal appreciation diary log for Day 4 Monday, Feb 5, 9:00 a.m.
8% Personal appreciation diary log for Day 5 Monday, Feb 12, 9:00 a.m.
10% Personal concluding appreciation synthesis at Day 6 Monday, Feb 19, 9:00 a.m.

This workshop promotes:

  • (i) a high-level understanding of systems methods (amongst the class of students, as a collective); and
  • (ii) an appreciation for systems methods of most relevance (to an individual).

Learning is encouraged in an co-responsive mode, where all participants have the opportunity to lead a discussion, and to critically challenge constructively.

C.1 Group presentation-faciitation of a research reference cluster

For each class, every student should be prepared to actively engage in discussion.

  • Reading in breadth may give a bigger payoff than reading in depth!
  • Budget 2 hours to read selectively from articles for both research clusters to be covered on Days 2, 3, 4 and 5.
  • If you don't like what you're reading, move on!

For parts of Days 2 to 5, each of 8 student groups will present their understanding of a research cluster, and lead the class in discussion

  • Groups of 3 (or 4) students will be formed on Day 1.
  • Budget 4 hours to prepare slides or materials to lead the class, to include:
    • Showing some (2 or 3) system models that demonstrates the gist of the approach.
    • Describing what you perceive are the key ideas of the approach.
    • Projecting why you would (or would not) use this approach (over another approach).
    • Situating when and where would you use (or not use) this approach.
    • Surfacing details about the approach you have found unclear, and would benefit from deeper inquiry.
  • In the timeboxed preparation time, you don't have learn everything!
    • Present what you've figured out, use the collective intelligence of other class members to extend the knowledge
    • Access the instructor as a fallback subject matter expert.
  • Target about 1 hour for presentation and facilitation
    • Slides and/or materials should be available (online) at the beginning of the class
    • The style to lead the class is at your discretion:  more factual, or more opinionated, or more entertaining

Consensus within each group on interpretations of the research reference clusters is not necessary. 

  • Multiple perspectives may be reflected in dialectic (i.e. exposing shades of grey between black and white). 
  • Critical thinking on systems ideas is respected. 

An early decision on a collaboration tool may accelerate preparation

  • Google Slides has proven to be useful for rapid artifact development, allowing both concurrent editing and export to a variety of formats.
  •, combined with Google Drive, creates web-friend SVG artifacts.
  • Etherpad Lite or Google Docs may be helpful in concurrent outlining of text.
  • LibreOffice Draw plays well with LibreOffice Impress, if you prefer a desktop solution.
  • Please be explicit with licensing on your artifacts.  The instructor prefers CC-BY-NC-SA; otherwise, a copyright requires formal communications for reuse.

There are some sample presentation slide sets from the February 2016 class at Aalto University.

  • These are examples, not exemplars.  The roughness of some presentation decks may encourage Information Workshop students to NOT overprepare.
  • (Some of those slide decks took advantage of the fancy three-screen projector at the Aalto University Urban Mill).

C.2 Group infographic poster and presentation

By the conclusion of Day 5, students will have been exposed to a variety of systems methods.

For Day 6, each group should prepare and present an infographic poster on their impressions about the system approaches most relevant to their research.

  • Budget 4 hours to prepare the infographic.
  • What does systems thinking now mean to you (as compared to the beginning of the class)?
  • Which 2 or 3 approaches most resonated with your group?
  • When might you apply these system methods in your research (or in your life)?

The final artifact should be produced as a web graphic.

There are some sample "Eight infographics from 'Systems Thinking 2 (2016)'" at

C.3 Personal appreciation diary logs

After each class, each student will write an personal appreciation diary logs that tracks individual learning.

  • The personal appreciation diary logs can be completed as a public blog post on the Internet (preferred) or limited to class participants on Blackboard (less preferred). 
    • Writing openly in public welcomes comments and responses by a larger audience who may contribute to your learning.
  • Writing an appreciation diary in public requires two steps:  (i) blogging, and (ii) social sharing.
    • (i) Blogging is easy.  If you already have a blog on which systems thinking ideas are not inappropriate, you can use that.  If you don't have a blog, you can sign up on Wordpress at for free.  (If you decide that you want to move your content elsewhere in the future, it's easy to export and migrate from Wordpress).
      • If you enjoy being recognized for your work, link your blog to your social media channels.
      • If you are new to blogging, and don't want to initially reveal your identity, create a blog with a pseudonym.
      • If you wish to keep your blogging strictly within the class, there is a blogging feature in Blackboard.  Other students (but not the whole world) will be able to respond to you.
    • (ii) Social sharing ensures that your writing is noticed. 
      • One place where systems thinkers congregate is on the Systems Science Community at We can have a new thread there for each class day, where you can append a comment with a one-sentence synopsis that describes your appreciation blog, and a pasted web link.  Alternatively, you can promote your writing as an independent new entry.
      • If you want to instead leave your notification on Blackboard, there will be forum entry there, to which you can respond.
  • The writing should reflect ideas that resonated with you, personally.
    • As a blog, the style can be less formal.  Write quickly, and try to NOT overthink.  You should target about 45 minutes to complete (if you are a native English speaker).
    • Four or five paragraphs (maybe 750 to 1000 words) is sufficient length.
    • Cite 2 or 3 references at the bottom of the entry, and use a proper citation style.  If you're looking for a way to ease managing references and citiations, try Zotero.
  • If you can't think of anything else to write, try these questions:
    • Which 2 or 3 system ideas from today are resonating to change the way you think (and which ones might remain a mystery)?
    • Why are those systems ideas significant in your research, your work and/or your life?
    • Where could you see applying (or avoiding) using these systems approaches?
  • The instructor will leave comments on the blog post, and recap trends and themes in the class that follows.
    • Students are welcomed to leave their comments on each others' blog posts.
  • Samples of blogging and posting are still public from a class taught at Aalto University in February 2016.

C.4 Individual concluding appreciation synthesis

After Day 6, students will have had the opportunity to discuss eight approaches to systems methods. 

The concluding blog post should reflect a synthesis of the entire course (not just a single week).

  • Target an hour to reflect on the most significant ideas on systems methods gained over the past 6 weeks.

The grading scheme for all of the work above follows Faculty of Information scale, (e.g. A+ "truly exceptional work", ... B "good work", B- "adequate work").

D. Support and accommodation

Students with diverse learning styles and needs are welcome in this course. If you have a disability or a health consideration that may require accommodations, please feel free to approach the instructor and/or the Accessibility Services Office as as soon as possible. The Accessibility Services staff are available by appointment to assess needs, provide referrals and arrange appropriate accommodations. The sooner you let them and I know your needs, the quicker we can assist you in achieving your learning goals in this course.

E. Information about iSchool Workshops

This workshop series is exclusively available to the iSchool community. iSchool professors, Inforum librarians, current students, alumni, and a collective of professionals and academics from each program and concentration, work together to create these unique rosters.

F. Creative Commons Licensing in Instructional Setting

Students are permitted to tape-record, photograph, video-record or otherwise reproduce lecture presentations, course notes and other similar materials provided by the instructor.