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A Systems-Thinking Primer for Administrators

With systems thinking, you'll have new models and mindsets to help you find leverage points for lasting change.

School systems are complex – and so are their challenges.

Have you ever felt like you are encountering one problem after another, only to find that they are all interconnected? Digital equity gaps impact access to communication systems, leading to more frequent absenteeism, which cripples achievement, in turn damaging the school culture and making it harder for you to find and retain high performing teachers...

Effective leadership starts with the ability to step back, identify these interconnections, and take advantage of leverage points within the system to make the most impactful changes.
Systems thinking can help you develop the mindset and skills you need to better understand the big picture of your school system. Simply put, systems thinking involves “recognizing the interconnections between the parts of a system and synthesizing them into a unified view of the whole.” Armed with a systems-thinking mindset and set of practical tools, you’ll be better able to identify the underlying factors of a problem, instead of reaching for a temporary solution that could create more problems down the road.

It’s easy to see how a deeper understanding of the systems within your district can help you influence positive change – the hard part is knowing how to begin. Depending on your comfort level with the topic, you may want to start the same way we did - by learning the role of systems thinking in K-12 leadership, becoming comfortable with the basics, and rolling out some practical tools in small doses.

A collective outlook is richer than any single vantage point.

Know the Possibilities

If you could sum up your responsibilities, how many of them would fall under the umbrella of "systems leadership"? 
By aligning your thinking to the types of challenges you face, you can reduce the likelihood that you’ll suffer from a “mismatch between how real-world systems work and how we think they work,” as Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera put it.

1) Bringing people together

An ancient Sufi story tells the tale of a new creature’s arrival in a village of blind men. Each man touched a different part of the creature and declared what it was: a snake, a rug, columns, and so on. Only by uniting their perspectives would the blind men be able to determine that the creature was an elephant. The same is true about people in different corners of a school system. When you only experience one part of the system (as most people do), you will have a flawed understanding of how it functions as a whole.

But we can, according to systems scientist Peter Senge, triangulate: we can “get different people, from different points of view who are seeing different parts of the system to come together and collectively start to see something that individually none of them see.” A collective outlook is richer than any single vantage point. 

2) Taking advantage of leverage points

Not every action is equal. There are points within a system – leverage points – where small actions can lead to significant change. Systems thinking can help make it easier to identify these points of high impact.

The experts in systems thinking and learning at Quest Schools show how mapping a problem can help you find a leverage point. They use excessive hallway noise as an example. A hasty response to this problem might be to increase the number of teachers corralling students or to add new rules, but mapping the issue reveals alternative, previously unconsidered options, like finding a way to reduce the number of kids waiting for the elevator, thus reducing overall hallway crowding.   

3) Boosting sustainability

Systems thinking is a widely utilized approach across many disciplines, notably ecology and sustainability. Ours is a world of change, and sustainability (the ability to be upheld or maintained) is, in so many ways, what our school districts need most. Darcy Winslow of the Academy for Systemic Change says we must ask, “What do we want to sustain? Because what we love is what we will conserve.”

Employment practices, school finances, and curricula are continuously transforming. The better we are at identifying what we need to nurture to keep systems running smoothly, the more prepared we will be to nudge them in the right direction.          
Managing changes in the school system takes up the lion’s share of your job.

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

A system 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. 
You don't have to achieve systems-thinking mastery before putting a plan into action. 

Adopt the Mindset

How can you introduce a systems thinking mindset, from the kindergarten classroom to the business office, the administrative team to the school board, and beyond? Here are three tips for getting started.

1) Borrow a process

It can be helpful to have a simple process in place for applying systems thinking to complex problems. In Linda Booth Sweeney’s six-step process, she suggests telling the story, naming the elements, sketching the behaviors over time, making the system visible, looking for leverage, and finally, sharing and testing. Adapt this process to suit your district’s needs and put it to use in classrooms, board rooms, and everywhere in between. You don't have to achieve systems-thinking mastery before putting a plan into action. 

2) Create intentional interconnections

Systems thinking is the antithesis of the silo mentality. Senge advocates for getting “different people, from different points of view, who are seeing different parts of the system to come together and collectively start to see something that individually none of them see.” How might this look in your district? It often starts with getting groups of people who typically make decisions separately together in the same room – your curriculum admins, business managers, principals, student services directors, etc...

One strategy is to host round table discussions for hot-button issues. Select a facilitator, establish basic discussion guidelines, and send invites. The key is to include anyone who may offer perspective on the issue. It might seem obvious to invite administrators, parents, and teachers to discuss chronic absenteeism, but what about health care professionals, counselors, psychologists, bus drivers, community members, and students of all ages? At the very least, you’ll educate a diverse group about an important issue; at best, you’ll expose leverage points and discover creative solutions.

3) Integrate it into the curriculum

Systems thinking shouldn’t be exclusive to adults. In fact, it can be a great way to develop the “collective smartness” our next generation will need. After all, kids are elements within the system and the sole reason for its existence – let’s teach them how systemic change works so they can help refine our schools and communities for generations to come.

Systems thinking can be incorporated at any grade level and in any subject, and high quality resources aren’t hard to find. The Q Design Pack includes teaching tips, ideas for the classroom, connections to standards, and a trajectory of concepts and questions for grades 6-12. A quick search for "systems thinking in the classroom" will help you find more practical resources like this TED Ed video about feedback loops and these media-based resources.

It has been 10 years since Sir Ken Robinson’s call for a “radical rethink of our school systems,” and there is no better time to take action, starting with embracing systems thinking. It has the potential to transform not only how you lead, but also how you view your role as a leader. You can't control the outcomes of a system, but you can ensure the actions you take make the greatest impact.

This primer is just the tip of the iceberg. If you are ready for a deeper dive into systems thinking, consider searching #systemsthinking on Twitter or following the Waters Foundation (@WatersFDN), an organization dedicated to applying systems thinking to classroom instruction and school improvement. 

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