Why School System Leaders Need to be Systems Thinkers

With each iteration of a new technology or a policy change that shifts the way people work and learn in education, it is becoming increasingly complicated to lead education systems. I am beginning to think that part of the difficulty is that education organizations are rarely viewed as systems and thus not treated as such. But what if systems theory and thinking could help education stakeholders understand just how interconnected the work we do is (or could be)? What if a systems approach could rally organizations behind their short and long-term goals and ensure that fewer and fewer outliers slip through the cracks as they work towards successful education outcomes?
It is an approach worth exploring – and at the very least, a metaphor for how education system leaders and their teams can lead and learn in their respective school districts. Here are the broad strokes:

1) A system consists of interrelated parts that impact one another in a process that usually produces outputs. Relationships are the associations that occur between the elements.

This will resonate with education leaders who see beyond the ‘structure’ and ‘roles’ people serve in their districts and focus more intently on the value of the interconnected work their teachers and staff perform. As technology (both EdTech and the enterprise-level software used to manage the organization) becomes more ubiquitous in daily operations, system leaders will need to ensure that increased collaboration occurs so that districts can move toward meeting student learning goals in unison as opposed to creating isolated pockets of innovation.

2) Organizations are not static but in a constant state of ‘flux’.

The bureaucratic nature of our publicly funded school districts has been deemed ‘necessary’ in order to maintain order and maximize efficiency through departmental-style organization (as it has in government, business, etc.). This creates a very routinized view of the work education leaders, teachers, and administrative staff do every day that is simply not true.
In an increasingly changing educational landscape (i.e. policy reforms, technological advancement, etc.) our education systems are in a constant state of transformation and unpredictable change. How system leaders and their teams respond to these changes is the mark of a true systems thinker. It is this type of thinking that will move our districts into the future and will serve to eliminate the “red-tape” challenges that plague the work of educators. Designing and leading complex, adaptive school systems should be the emphasis of future education reform efforts.

3) Remember that education systems are “open” and have permeable boundaries that permit an exchange with multiple environments.

Unlike other systems that may be closed or isolated, school leaders need to remember that they lead in an open environment that includes exchanges across the system that are heavily impacted by outside forces. While this can be seen quite easily in districts through their interactions with the local community or through the impact of legislative changes on school operations, advances in technology seem to be having the greatest impact. This has shifted how system leaders work towards their goals:

  • Preparing students for higher education and the workforce
    • i.e. the move towards providing personalized learning opportunities for students through 1:1 device programs
  • Fostering a collaborative and adaptable work environment for staff members
    • i.e. seeking out flexible means of communication and collaboration between different departments and their interdisciplinary teams

Moving Forward

So how do we implement this thinking into leadership practice and organizational management? Below are 3 strategies to get senior education leaders leading and learning in complex, adaptive systems.

  1. Empower your staff to create goal-oriented subsystems. This allows teams to work toward objectives and encourages all members of the organization to take the initiative/be creative in their efforts to reach system-wide goals.
  2. Visually map your system beyond the traditional organizational chart. Get to know the system and the relationships that uphold many of the functions stakeholders take for granted. When you are making decisions, weigh how the outcomes of your thinking impact not only the structure of your organization, but the actors and the relationships that underpin it. Be sure to update this map constantly and track the impacts decisions, interventions (internal or external), etc. are having on your organization.
  3. Interact with all of the stakeholders in your organization. You cannot expect to lead a nimble and complex education system from your office by sending out emails and memos. This is not an overnight process but with effective planning it can be managed. Use the opportunity to understand deeply the work these people do and how it fits into the system you are currently leading and learning in.

I am aware that seeing past the bureaucratic elements of our current education systems may be difficult (especially for those whose work in school districts has become routinized and repetitive). However, my hope is that the next-generation of dynamic education leaders will have not only the vision but the drive to lead and design sustainable systems that embrace the complexity of the digital education paradigm. The time to do so is now.  
For more on leading complex and adaptive school systems, check out:

Jason Ribeiro is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada specializing in Educational Leadership. Follow Jason on Twitter, @jason_ribeiro.

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