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Aurora Institute

Systems Thinking Can Help Spark and Sustain Change

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Katherine Prince

Transitioning education systems to be competency-based represents a massive shift from established ways of doing things. It involves shifting practice, reorienting outcomes, and building understanding and shared vision among educators, learners, families, community members, and other stakeholders. Teachers have to facilitate and assess learning differently. Students have to take more ownership of their learning journeys. Families have to develop new lenses for understanding children’s development. Community members have to shift their expectations of what learning looks like, where it happens, and what supports the school’s need.

Even though competency-based education has gained significant traction over the past several years and has been getting a boost through some responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, the path forward with any transformation of its magnitude is rarely linear. For the approach to spread and put down roots, many people and organizations need to become champions and take action. Even after successful growth, on the ground can be lost, as what happened in Maine.

The movement to spread competency-based education represents a form of systems change. Any systems change requires committing to doing something differently and then sustaining that effort over time, even after the initial swell of enthusiasm has waned. Transforming systems in this way is hard, long-haul work. However, the path can be eased by using aspects of systems thinking to shed new light on how education systems are operating today, where change efforts are intersecting with long-established patterns of behavior and systemic structures, what assumptions the people involved bring to the work, and the gaps between desired and actual outcomes.

Systems thinking is a set of theories, tools, language, and mindsets that can help people grapple with the complex and interconnected world around us and make visible our perceptions of how it works. It can help us deepen our understanding of what stands between our aspirational visions and us and articulate what it might take to bring those visions to life.

Some systems thinking’s key tenets appear below.

  • A system’s behavior is shaped by its structure. People often try to change how a system behaves by altering its individual parts, or by finding initial inroads and reaching for low-hanging fruit. But a system’s structure – the way its components are organized and interact – determines its behavior, shaping both what we see happening day-to-day and what is possible long term. Structural change is necessary to sustain systems change. For example, even with a strong district-wide implementation of competency-based education, it is very hard to sustain the approach when state accountability systems remain focused on measures that are tied to seat time and reflect narrow views of success.
  • Systems are interdependent, with circular cause and effect. Everything in a system is connected to everything else. Feedback loops – where one thing affects another, which affects another, often in non-obvious ways – keep systems running without the constant care and tending of every element. When we want to make a change, it is all too easy to isolate a few elements of a system and to decide that shifting them will bring about the desired outcomes. Systems thinking provide tools for selecting which variables are most relevant to the intended change and then making their interconnections visible. When we can see how an education system is operating today, we can identify effective ways of moving toward what we want for its future.
  • Systems achieve the results they are designed to achieve. Education changemakers used to talk a lot about how broken our education systems were. More recently, more people have been voicing the reality that they are not broken. Instead, our education systems are producing the results that they were designed to achieve. Often, those results are not what people say we want from education or are not the things that we want the most. Education systems produce those outcomes because of how those systems have been organized over the years. For example, imagine that a school decided to eliminate recess so that students could spend more time on academics and then found that students were struggling to focus. While the school would not have intended for students to have trouble attending to their work, that outcome would be a result of the way the school had chosen to structure its system. Approaching change with a systems mindset can help us see what is driving the results that we are trying to change.
  • The consequences of actions are not always immediate. When we get excited about making change, we tend to want to see its effects right away. But delays often exists in systems, whether in how quickly information travels or in how long it takes for the effects of a change to occur. Delays are especially prevalent in education systems, where understanding the effect of today’s approaches on learners can take years. This dynamic means that the positive outcomes of an effective change effort or the negative consequences of an ineffective one are often delayed. For example, when a school implements a new curriculum, no one knows exactly how long it might take to determine whether that curriculum is having the intended effects. When possible, shortening delays can help changemakers acquire more timely information to guide our actions.
  • Mental models underpin systems. Mental models are the values and beliefs that influence how people understand and act in the world. They come from our experiences. Our mental models influence the decisions that we make and therefore influence how the systems in which we participate are organized. Conversely, systems shape our experiences and therefore also our mental models. We need mental models to help us make sense of the world; otherwise, there would be too much to process at the moment. But if we get stuck in those frames, assuming that things have to be or look a certain way, we can limit our perception of what is possible and can unwittingly perpetuate the very systems approaches that we are trying to change.

Systems thinking are a complex and sophisticated field, with many tools and processes available to help people understand and change how systems are operating. To help simplify the process of applying this way of thinking to education, KnowledgeWorks’ Looking Beneath the Surface: The Education Changemaker’s Guide to Systems Thinking introduces education stakeholders and changemakers to the field’s theories, language, mindsets, and tools. It introduces the core concepts of systems thinking and offers practice questions and exercises. Its four lessons focus on identifying the systems behavior that stakeholders wish to change, visualizing the structure of current system behavior, identifying possible actions and their depth of impact, and evaluating the effects of various interventions and events.

The tools and processes described in KnowledgeWorks’ systems change guidebook can help groups pursuing competency-based education and other forms of systems change:

  • Identify novel, non-obvious solutions
  • Share power and build leadership capacity
  • Anticipate possible unintended consequences of well-meaning efforts and
  • Reframe problems related to change efforts.

In using them, education stakeholders can engage in new ways of thinking and collaborating, exposing what is often unseen and articulating what usually goes unsaid. That engagement can in turn lead to new ways of being and acting. Those shifts in people’s interactions, perspectives, and pursuits can help groups begin, nurture, and sustain the movement toward competency-based education.


Blog Contributer:
Katherine Prince, KnowledgeWorks