Start with the Basics
Systems thinking can be applied to almost every discipline, and advanced mathematical or scientific knowledge is not a prerequisite. It all starts with, as Senge
puts it, recognizing that we live within “webs of interdependence.” If this is your first foray into systems thinking, begin with the basics: learn the definitions, get to know some simple models, and start observing systems thinking in your everyday life.
1) The definitions
is a set of connected parts that form a complex whole. Every system has elements, interconnections, and a purpose. The elements
of a school system tend to be the easiest to identify: the individual schools, administrators, teachers, students, materials, business offices, technology, and more. Interconnections
hold the elements together. Rules, routines, and schedules are essential interconnections, as are the grading system, instructional strategies, expense reimbursement processes, and even the habits and attitudes of the people. The purpose
is the reason for the system’s existence – to educate students, to maintain a high-performing internal culture, and to prepare the next generation of citizens.
A system is altered when any element, interconnection, or purpose is added, changed, or taken away – so families, cars, and classrooms are systems, but a shelf of books or a bowl of candy is not. Managing changes in the school system – for instance, when a teacher resigns, a new evaluation program is approved, or a new compliance consideration comes along – takes up the lion’s share of your job. Unfortunately, many school systems still rely on the linear, cause-and-effect thinking of the industrial era, rather than employing the mental models that best cultivate a deeper understanding.
2) The models
Systems thinking models can help make thought processes more concrete and stimulate productive conversations. Even a few simple models can help shift the purpose of conversation from finding a quick fix to developing a sustainable solution.
The iceberg model
, as it implies, leads you beyond the surface to progressively deeper levels of understanding. This model encourages you to look past the actual event and make patterns, structures, and mental models visible. Try applying the iceberg model to a critical event your team has experienced, like a sharp dip in test scores or a shortage of substitute teachers.
A behavior-over-time graph
maps out multiple instances of an event to help you identify emerging patterns and develop theories for the causes of behavior within the system. This is a great tool for moving past individual events and better understanding trends like administrator turnover or student behaviors.
A feedback loop diagram
can show how parts of a system influence one another. You can create a feedback loop diagram for any complex problem you’d like to understand better: ACT scores, staff morale, time-intensive processes, and more.
3) The habits
With an awareness of systems thinking, you can start to differentiate systems thinkers from non-systems thinkers by observing their habits
and the type of questions they ask.
Are they satisfied with first impressions, or do they change perspectives to find more ways to look at an issue? Do they stick with a cause-and-effect mindset, or do they try to anticipate unintended short- and long-term consequences? Are they constantly putting out fires, or do they take the time to seek patterns and trends? The hallmark behaviors of systems thinkers encourage flexible thinking, perspective seeking, and actively questioning assumptions.