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Systems Thinking

Systems theory is the understanding that a system is comprised of interrelated parts, which all interact with each other. A system is bigger than the sum of its parts. In education all of the educational parts or components are important. These include the teachers, parents, administration, politicians, community leaders, students, and the environment in which the system exists. These components interact not only with each other, but with this surrounding environment….

A system has characteristics. These include: resistance, atrophy, entropy, homeostasis, agent, and friction. We must understand what each of these are and how each affects the entire system. For instance in a school system without continual support for teachers to change, the teachers tend to remain the same in that system and to go back to their old ways they had before the change process began (homeostasis). We need to understand about characteristics, such as resistance, and see it as a natural response to any significant change. When we identify and understand system characteristics, we can then address problems related to them.

An open system as a school system is both dynamic and complex. There is an exchange of energy across boundaries of the system and its environment. We must recognize the interrelated parts of the systems and understand the interconnectedness and unique relationships among them. Changes are not just cause and effect. If the school is an open, dynamic system then it strives through interaction and coordination with many other systems in the environment . . . coping with ambiguity and uncertainty by changing itself and the environment . . . deals creatively with change . . . develops increased capacity for self-correction redesign, . . . and self-renewal.(Banathy, 1991).

Systemic change is a comprehensive change and not a piece meal approach. It is substantiative and not cosmetic. In systemic change there is a paradigm shift or a replacing of the whole. If we want the entire learning system to change, we must use this holistic approach. We recognize that a fundamental change in one aspect of a system requires fundamental changes in other aspects in order for it to be successful. (Reigeluth, 1994)

Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the whole, recognizing patterns and interrelationships, and learning how to structure those interrelationships in more effective, efficient ways. (Senge and Lannon-Kim, 1991). It is a global conception of the problem and an understanding of the interrelationships and interconnections. (Gentry, 1995)

A systems thinker must know the components very well and then must understand the complex relationships among the components as well as the relationship which exist between the whole system and its environment. When you make change, it affects all of the components and levels of the system — classroom, building, district, government, community. A strategy for systemic change is to involve all of these components in dialogue. An on-going dialogue needs to be guided by a facilitator, who shows care and commitment. These components must communicate, communicate, communicate. They must first agree that everything is open to question and to dialogue. Everyones assumptions and mental images must be brought to the table and viewed by the other component members. Only when all perceptions and assumptions are identified can there be productive consensus towards a shared vision.

The shared vision is the image created by this diverse group of people. It provides ownership to these people. First the people must have a common understanding of why schools need to change and develop a shared purpose of the schools. Each person come to the dialogue with his or her own unique school and life experiences and his or her perception of what education should be. People are products of their own school systems and their mental models all differ. Reaching consensus is extremely time consuming, but it is essential for ownership of the shared vision. This ownership is critical. This group needs to articulate the mental image of a successful learning system. These individual components of a system often dont speak the same jargon. Different people may actually want similar things, but they dont agree on what the words themselves mean. An example of this is the basics. What does each group of people think this means?

As systems thinkers we must understand the complexity of the change process. To change one piece (or component) of this system changes other parts of the system in often unpredictable ways because of their interconnectedness (Carr, 1996). We must be able to identify the influentials and the resisters, use diagnostic tools to rate the concerns of the members in the group, assemble the right mix of people, relate to all these people and then lead them through the process of the planned change. A systems designer must bring a sensitivity to the uniqueness of the people with whom he or she deals. Care and commitment of and to these people is essential.

A change agent must help to change the mental models or mindsets of the individuals involved. For school reform to be successfully implemented we must all change the way we see the world. We must think in entirely new ways. If we agree that true school reform is needed, then every part of the organization must change. This includes the learning process, the instructional system, the administrative system and the governing body. School reform from a systems approach is designing something new and not just remolding an existing system. In school reform the learning need must be articulated. Later a set of instructional values consistent with the vision will be developed and methodology designed.

The image of the new school system must be a vision in the minds of the people involved. These people must know what it looks like, how its parts will interact, and how they will then evaluate it. Most importantly, they must agree on this image.

The components of the system must network and do team learning. The network must be dynamic and evolving as people come and go to that system. These people must also become learners if they are to design and implement a learning environment. A dynamic school system is a community where everyone is continually learning — the educators and community members right along with the children.

A system thinker views leadership as designing. The leader is a facilitator and not the person with all the right answers. He is not a controller or limited to being a charismatic short term leader. The systems thinking leader should be both teacher and steward for the people he leads. He is a listener, who brings team learning skills to the people who are involved in the change. During major paradigm shifts, educators will experience professional insecurity and a crisis state. A leader for the change must understanding these anticipated emotions.

As a change agent for school reform we must identify the needs of the learners and the community around that system and then create ideal visions to best meet those needs rather than just identify the problem in the existing system. This is systemic change. The stakeholders must change the nature of the learning experiences, the instructional system that implements it as well as the system which administrates it and its governing body. Too often the focus has been on peripheral change (as block scheduling, inclusion) and not on how the students would actually look after the desired change. Will they be more engaged with learning and have high interaction with the learning experience and with others? Will they develop both academic and interpersonal skills from the learning activities? And can we teach our children to be systems thinkers in the classrooms? I think we can, but to do so both the structure and the process of their learning experiences must change.

This article by Kathy Popp was originally found at www.ed.psu.edu/insys/ESD/systems/theory/KPSystems.html.

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