Looking Beneath the Surface: Systems Thinking on the Journey Toward Transformation

Insights   08 October 2020
By Katie King, KnowledgeWorks


We often talk about broken systems. But, according to systems thinking theories, the outcomes of a system are not a fluke; they are the result of how the system is structured.

Katie King
Director, Strategic Foresight Engagement

Transformation can often feel instantaneous. We experience a ground-shaking external event, and all of a sudden, we find ourselves standing in a whole new world. COVID-19 and a national reckoning with racism feel like transformative events. But, these events alone cannot autonomously shift us into positive, long-lasting change. Only people can do that.

To dismantle the oppressive systems and structures whose limitations have been made abundantly clear and have only worsened during 2020—in education and many other domains—requires a surge in leadership and public will. It demands that we shift our thinking. 

To paraphrase Sun Tzu: To defeat one’s enemy, you must know your enemy. And, to know your enemy is to think like your enemy thinks. Therefore, to dismantle an oppressive system and replace it with a liberating one, we must engage in systems thinking.

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a set of theories, tools, language, and mindsets that give definition to (or crystalize) our understanding of the complex and interconnected world around us. Such a broad definition begs the questions: Where does one start? And, who has time to pick up these skills when managing the day-to-day chaos of educating young people during a pandemic?

The team at KnowledgeWorks aimed to answer both these questions in their recent publication, Looking Beneath the Surface: The Education Changemaker’s Guide to Systems Thinking.

The publication introduces a set of systems thinking tools to help education stakeholders gain insight into the systems to which they belong and identify how they might foster change. And, it provides opportunities to put these tools into practice and work toward systems change here and now, one step at a time.

Creating system-wide change in any domain, particularly one as complex as education, is a Herculean challenge. But, we don’t have to bite everything off at once.

What is a System? 

Systems are groups of interdependent components that interact to create a complex entity that is more than the sum of its parts. It is most grounding to look at the natural world for examples of systems at work. 

If you look at the millions, billions, or trillions of cells that make up any organism, it’s right to wonder how they became so intricately connected. How have they formed a complex organism, rather than just an enormous pile of cells? 

If you go for a walk in the woods or a dense forest and observe every species of plant, animal, and insect in isolation, this natural world might seem a bit basic. But, when you zoom out and observe the ways in which the diversity of flora and fauna are interacting, it’s once again right to wonder how this system came to be. It’s almost like magic.

Our human-made systems can feel like magic, too—albeit, not always the good kind.

As human beings, we live within many social systems. Think about a conventional classroom. It includes a teacher and students. It includes physical objects, such as tables, chairs, windows, and walls. It includes policies and procedures, such as behavioral expectations and processes for asking for help. It includes feelings, beliefs, and mindsets, such as how connected students feel to one another, students’ and teachers’ implicit racial biases, how a teacher perceives students’ academic abilities, and what a teacher, student, or family sees as the purpose of education. Each component is a relevant part of the system on its own, but none of them exists independently. 

A conventional classroom is a system because its components interact and affect one another, creating a unique whole. And, the classroom is part of many other systems, such as the school campus, the district in which it is situated, and the broader education system at the state and federal level.

The classroom is also part of systems that may seem unrelated to education, such as being part of students’ family systems, the local economic system, and a neighborhood or community system (which themselves are made up of people, places, physical things, rules, and beliefs). 

Systems are all around us, and defining where one starts and another begins is an impossible task. They are ever-present and shape our lived experiences in ways that we often do not comprehend or notice. We are products of systems, and systems are products of us.

How Do Systems Work?

To change systems, we must have a basic understanding of how they work.

A system’s behavior is determined by its structure.

People often try to fix problematic system behavior by changing the system’s individual parts.

For example, when an organization, company, or school is achieving less than desired results, a common reaction is to replace its leader. However, because a system’s structure determines its behavior, the outcomes are unlikely to change a great deal unless that new leader works to restructure the underlying system. A single person or factor cannot alone override the dynamics and interactions of the existing culture, individuals, policies, and norms that remain.

Recognizing that a system’s behavior is shaped by its structure deepens our understanding of how a system’s behavior comes about and why change efforts often fall short. To transform a system, we must change its structure—not just its parts. 

Systems are interdependent, with circular cause and effect.

We tend to think about cause-and-effect relationships in a linear fashion and too often miss their more common, circular nature. Circular cause-and effect relationships—also known as feedback loops—fuel systems. These relationships are on autopilot, and they are why so many systems, both natural and human-made, can keep functioning without conscious maintenance.

For example, consider the conventional school funding model and the feedback loop that keeps many schools in communities of color perpetually underfunded.

Historic and present-day discriminatory home lending practices (e.g., redlining) have segregated people of color into communities with undervalued residential homes and business real estate and paired it with unjust interest rates on mortgages and business loans. When school funding is secured by levying property taxes on the homes in a community and those homes are undervalued, the neighborhood schools receive less funding. 

Now, when a family is looking to move and sees a neighborhood with a school that has a great deal of resources, that family will be more attracted to that neighborhood. If that family is White, they will buy a home and will continue increasing the value of real estate in that neighborhood.

But, if that family is non-White (even if they have the exact same financial profile as the White family), their increased odds of being denied a bank loan or offered an outrageous interest rate increases their odds of needing to buy a home in a more economically depressed neighborhood. 

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

You can already begin to see the secondary and tertiary impacts of this feedback loop. Economically depressed communities lead to little or no access to good-paying and stable jobs. Low-paying jobs lead to a struggle to fulfill basic needs (e.g., food and internet access). And, on and on the negative feedback loop goes. 

This is a frustrating reality, but seeing how interconnected our systems are and how the factors involved can simultaneously be both causes and effects can help us begin to develop a different understanding and imagine different approaches to solving some of our most intractable problems.

Systems achieve the results they are designed to achieve

We often talk about broken systems. But, according to systems thinking theories, the outcomes of a system are not a fluke; they are the result of how the system is structured. 

For example, millions of American students do not have internet access. Because Covid-19 has made distance learning a necessary reality, those students are not receiving the education to which they are entitled. It is a frustrating and unfortunate outcome. But, it is not the result of a crack in an otherwise solid foundation.

The broader institutional system of incentives, policies, and beliefs that govern how the internet is distributed and accessed in this country leads consumers, internet providers, and local governments to make choices that drive the inequitable distribution and access we see today.

Observing this inequitable outcome is easy. But, when we treat such an outcome as what we should expect from the structure that created it, rather than something that could be avoided if we simply tried harder, we can begin to have a different conversation—one that acknowledges the outcome we would hope to see and begins exploring a system that would support that desired outcome.

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 lived experiences. Mental models are necessary to help us simplify the complex realities in which we live.

However, in this attempt to simplify, the lived experiences of others (individuals and groups) are often dismissed if their dismissal does not negatively impact (or even positively impacts) another person’s or group’s place in the world. This dismissal happens both implicitly and explicitly. And, as those mental models are passed down and advanced from generation to generation, massive, deep-seated barriers are created for those who have been ignored.

For example, mental models are dictating almost every aspect of the United States’ COVID-19 response. From mask wearing, to vaccine development and public trust of its effectiveness once available, to testing availability and uptake, to business and school closures: individual and group mental models determine what is put in place, how people respond, and, ultimately, the outcomes we experience. 

Disagreement about the response speaks to disagreement in how people see the world. Unfortunately, we often do not see our own or others’ mental models at work. They so often operate so far in the background that we aren’t even aware to look for them (or if we are, how to identify or make sense of them).

This makes collaboration and shared action difficult. But, it’s far from impossible to bring these mental models to the surface. All it takes is an initial spark of awareness and a lot of intentional practice.

Systems Thinking in Practice

When we understand that we are living among, upholding, and creating systems all the time, we have a responsibility to think about our choices and our work differently. Systems thinking offers specific tools and language and can also add structure to efforts that are already underway, such as those to bring learner-centered education to every child and community. 

The following principles for developing a systems thinking mindset are at work in many of those efforts and can continue to be cultivated for more sustainable transformation.

Make mental models explicit

Once we recognize that we all have mental models and that they affect our beliefs, our actions, and our systems’ behavior, we can no longer allow those mental models to remain hidden. In particular, we must make explicit the mental models that underlie the conventional education system and the vision of a learner-centered education. 

Doing so requires grappling with longstanding underlying assumptions, which is hard work and can lead to painful realizations. However, surfacing mental models is not about assigning blame. It is about articulating what often goes unsaid so that we can move forward with transparency about what we believe learning can and should be. 

Listen to, reflect on, and act in response to the myriad experiences within the current system

If we acknowledge that our view of a system—including its components, the way it operates, the problems we observe, and the options for improving it—and how we interact with it represents only one perspective, we have no choice but to seek out others with different experiences to begin forming a more complete picture. 

This principle reinforces the need to center decision-making processes on the experiences and voices of learners, families, and community members—particularly those who have been most marginalized or excluded by the system in question.

Accept ambiguity and uncertainty

It is critical to know that true and objective understanding of a system is impossible. Every system has intangible elements that cannot be meaningfully defined. And, because our lived experiences within systems vary, we’ll always be missing a few pieces of the story (unless we find ourselves inside a utopia where 100% of our community is fully participating in the redesign process). 

Similarly, systemic problems are complex and do not have singular solutions. Systems thinking can lead to deeper insight and more meaningful collaboration, but it does not lead to cure-all solutions or to certainty about the path ahead. The target is always moving, and we must become comfortable moving with that reality. 

Sustainable change requires iteration and ongoing learning.

Systems change work is never done. Transformation can happen, but it will never be complete because both the circumstances surrounding any given system and its internal factors keep evolving.

This reality can be frustrating. It can also be liberating because it can inspire us to continue to learn, experiment, and grapple with the big questions that we must address to align education systems with emerging community needs and to make our solutions equitable for every learner. It invites us to think about our education system as something that is living and growing with us, rather than as a finished product.

Looking Beneath the Surface

Any system will achieve the results it is designed to achieve. When those results are aligned with futures that assume and advance inequity and racial disparity, we have an obligation to learn more about the system that is producing those results and to make every effort to change it.

Decades of well-intentioned education reforms prove that we cannot achieve sustainable change without addressing the fundamental structures of our systems, including the silencing and undervaluing of the system’s central users: young learners, parents, families, and communities. 

Education stakeholders need a different set of tools and mindsets to inform their change efforts. Systems thinking offers a place to begin, as well as a practice that can inform ongoing organizational learning.

We are in systems and of them. We respond to them and shape them every day through our (in)actions and (dis)beliefs. Those (in)actions and (dis)beliefs also hold the power to change systems, and with that, to change the future of learning. We must look beneath the surface together and commit to the ongoing work of aligning our systems with our highest ideals.

Five, ten, or twenty years from now we will discover whether or not the chaos of 2020 led to a lasting move toward justice; a return to status quo; or a different, less-desirable future. No matter the result, we will be able to look at the surge (or lack thereof) in leadership and public will that led to its creation.

We hope that Looking Beneath the Surface: The Education Changemaker’s Guide to Systems Thinking will improve our chances at realizing a more just and equitable future of learning. We know it can if a growing group of transformational leaders is willing to put the resource into practice and lead their communities forward. Are you one of those leaders?

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