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Systems

With this post I would like to introduce a broader perspective in connection to Premise Number 3 – “Structure Drives Behavior”. And I want to begin by stating my belief in systems. In short, I am a systems thinker and practitioner.

When you stop to think about it, we are all embedded within an infinite number of systems. Systems rule our day-to- day lives because every outcome Is the result of an interconnected series of events. Our physical bodies are made up of circulatory, nervous, muscular, digestive, immune and other systems. Transportation systems dictate the speed from which we can get from one place to another. The heating in our home is a system; intended to produce a desired temperature by balancing inside heat/cooling loss with outside conditions. You get the point.


But I also think that we use the term “educational system” a little too loosely, with an unintentional disregard for the potential that systems thinking and systems applications hold for educational change. And, because structure drives behaviour (premise number 3), we need a way to explain what structural changes could actually be put in place to help our public education systems to move forward? So systems thinking can help a lot in this respect.


Donella Meadows was a leader in the field of systems thinking. But Meadows, who died unexpectedly in 2001, was unable to fully predict or account for the impact that global communications and social media are now playing on institutions such as public education. Nonetheless, I believe that her approach to systems theory holds merit as a means to explaining how structures can be modified to drive behaviour.


To illustrate this point, I have developed the following stock and flow diagrams to compare an old word and new world view of school systems. For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, I would highly recommend Meadow’s book Thinking in Systems. But let me also offer you a brief introduction as to how to read these diagrams.


The overall culture of a school can be interpreted as a stock; a foundation or accumulation of knowledge that has been built up over time. This knowledge stock, pivotal to any school, is illustrated by the central box in each diagram with “Old World Knowledge Stock” in diagram 1 and “New World Knowledge Stock” in diagram 2.


The arrows entering and exiting the knowledge stock in each diagram represent flow. The optimal level of in-flow and out-flow is maintained through feedback loops, with the in-flow balancing feedback loop of each diagram represented as “B and reinforcing feedback loop represented as “R”.

In the traditional “old world view” of Diagram 1, a school’s knowledge stock is optimized by finding the best balance between teacher information push and gaps in student learning. A reinforcing feedback loop to the school’s knowledge stock relies upon the pre-global communication need for the teacher to act as primary information source for students to learn.


Disparities to the information stock of the school that result from gaps in student learning are managed through the balancing feedback loop of student interventions. In other words, formalized procedures are put in place to address the needs of those students who, for a variety of reasons, are either unable or unwilling to respond to the information push provided by their teachers.


In the new world view of Diagram 2, a school’s knowledge stock is optimized by finding the best balance between teacher information facilitation and gaps in student learning. The reinforcing feedback loop to the school’s knowledge stock in this system view relies upon the teacher’s ability to act as a guide/coach for student learning. This new relationship between teacher and student is the result of our continually increasing ability to access and share information through globally accessible networks. And the widespread use of these networks is, of course, now happening outside of the formal structure of schools anyway.


Disparities to the information stock of the school in this system are managed through a balancing feedback loop of teacher collaboration. In other words, with the individualized needs of all students now accounted for through the “teacher as guide/coach” reinforcing loop, schools need to create opportunities for teachers to continually share information and expertise. Of course, like students, this opportunity is increasing exponentially for teachers through global communication networks.


There is an important consideration to make at this point. The ability of any school to successfully undertake change efforts must be tempered through flexibility, understanding, patience and care. Successful change is rarely achieved without hard work that is aligned with clear objectives. Thus, it should not go unnoticed that the balancing and reinforcing feedback loops of both diagrams feed into the need for an effective and living school improvement plan.


I can appreciate that this new world system view of schools could be misinterpreted as devoid of the core element of education, that is, the art form of teaching that inspires students to achieve. After all, in education we want to attach the teaching and learning process with the face of the student. So system thinking in education is, unfortunately, often misunderstood as lacking the human element. But I will challenge this assertion.


The system lens is simply a view of “the what”. It helps us to understand what school structures should look like before we proceed to “the how”. Structure drives behaviour. So if we agree on the structural changes that are necessary for our schools, we can begin to encourage and support the behaviours necessary from everyone to engage and support students in the learning process.

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