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What Is Systems Thinking in Education? Understanding Functions and Interactions in School Systems

A school administrator presents to a group of teachers sitting in chairs.

Schools, districts, and classrooms are dynamic environments, full of energy and talent. Managing them calls for creative leadership and teaching approaches. Leaders in education need to anticipate how interconnected aspects of schools interact and affect each other.

Systems thinking in education offers a valuable approach for teachers working to build student engagement. The approach also helps leaders organize schools by harnessing their assets. American University’s EdD in Education Policy and Leadership trains educators to apply systems thinking and other effective leadership approaches to transforming schools for the better.

The Systems Thinking Model

An education system is composed of many interdependent components working together. How well these components operate and interact determines the system’s health.

Education systems at the national, state, and local levels consist of interacting parts, including:

  • Laws and regulations
  • Funding and funding policies
  • Schools and administrative offices
  • Teachers and staff
  • Books, computers, and instructional materials
  • Students, parents, and communities

Those seeking to improve an education system might choose to analyze the system’s parts. In this way, they can identify individual characteristics of each part and evaluate how it functions. While this approach can offer some benefits, it has limitations. It stops short of examining the relationships between the parts.

For example, limited school funding might result in high student-teacher ratios and inadequate supplies for students. These factors then lead to lower levels of student achievement which, in turn, puts further strain on teachers to help their students meet achievement benchmarks, and so on.

Responding to the growing demands placed on US education, solving problems such as achievement gaps, and dealing with shrinking school budgets are significant challenges. To face them effectively, educators need to value their system’s high level of interconnectivity and interdependency.

Applying Systems Thinking in Education

Systems thinking is a mindset that helps educators understand the complex education system in a more holistic way. Teachers and administrators using systems thinking might ask questions such as:

  • How might cuts to arts education impact student performance in math?
  • How can policies linking teacher salaries to standardized test scores affect a low-achieving school’s ability to attract accomplished teachers?

The goal is to consider several possible scenarios to find solutions to interconnected challenges.

Helping teachers solve classroom management issues, for instance, may involve addressing missing support structures in classrooms, such as a need for special education teachers, or adjusting student schedules to give time and space for children to unwind and release their energy.

As a mindset, systems thinking guides educators to deliver thought-provoking, engaging lessons. It encourages school leaders to coordinate districts and manage schools with improved efficiency. It can also replace piecemeal approaches to implementing policies with organized and systematic approaches that bring success across the board.

Specifically, educators can use systems thinking as a framework to structure classrooms and deliver instruction, while school and district leaders can apply it to their management and organizational styles. Additionally, administrators can use systems thinking as an approach to restructuring educational systems or schools.

Systems Thinking in the Classroom

Systems thinking can be a powerful classroom tool, giving students a participatory role in the learning process. By viewing teaching through a systems thinking lens, educators can help students recognize how seemingly disparate systems interact, identifying meaningful connections in the world around them. This not only deepens students’ understanding of specific subjects, but also strengthens their critical thinking abilities.

For example, teachers at Orange Grove Middle School in Tucson, Arizona, used a systems thinking approach to develop a project that strengthened their students’ abilities to analyze and problem solve. They tasked students with developing plans for a new national park that met specific design requirements: parks needed to be attractive to users, inflict limited environmental harm, and respect an Indian burial ground on the chartered land.

During the process of developing their designs, students discovered connections between the social, ecological, and economic components of the project.

Leadership and Systems Thinking

Systems thinking in education empowers education leaders to align school initiatives, improve instruction, increase efficiency, eliminate waste, and strengthen student outcomes.

For example, by closely monitoring student data, administrators can adjust budgets to allow for the purchase of the instructional materials they need most.

A systems thinking approach lets administrators build systems that do the following:

  • Recognize and adapt to changes (technological advances, policy reforms), coordinating with other parts of the system fluidly
  • Include mechanisms that allow for self-reflection and self-correction
  • Process information quickly and make it available to all parts of the system
  • Distinguish between situations that need adjustments and those that need overhauls

Discover How an EdD in Education Policy and Leadership Prepares Education Leaders to Excel

Building collaborative cultures in districts and schools calls for a holistic, innovative approach. Systems thinking in education allows education leaders to not only recognize the relationships between the different components of a school system but also use them to solve problems.

Explore how American University’s EdD in Education Policy and Leadership cultivates the knowledge and expertise leaders in education need to confront obstacles and transform schools.

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