Publication Date



Social System Design Lab, Washington University in St. Louis


The iceberg is a classic metaphor that is applied to many disciplines beyond systems thinking. The metaphor describes a situation in which what you see (the tip of the iceberg) is only a small portion of what you can’t see (a large, hidden mass of ice below the surface). In systems thinking, we use the iceberg metaphor to think about what is “under the surface” driving the individual events that we see: (1) Patterns of events over time, (2) System Structure that give rise to these patterns and, (3) Beliefs, Mindsets and Goals that inform the design of system structures.

This purpose of this brief is to unpack the Systems Thinking Iceberg as a way to organize reflection and dialogue about systemic challenges in education.

Series Number

Methods Brief Series 1.01: Systems Thinking Foundations

Document Type

Research Brief