Revitalising Education Through Systems Thinking

Feb 04, 2021


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There has been renewed interest in systems thinking as our world becomes increasingly interconnected. It has become imperative to develop the necessary skills to understand complex systems and how to manage them effectively. As a conceptual framework and a body of knowledge and tools, systems thinking is not new and it has been studied and practiced for over 50 years.

At a basic level, a system consists of interrelated or interdependent parts that form a unified whole. Businesses and other human endeavours are all systems, which are bounded by an intricate web of relationships. Educational institutions are also systems – their work impacts the learning of their students and the quality of our future workforce, and at the same time, they are constantly influenced by government policies and the needs of the economy.

Systems thinking is a key characteristic of organisational learning. It involves taking a holistic approach towards issues. Rather than focus on seemingly isolated events, thinking in systems enables us to distinguish patterns of behaviour and understand the underlying systemic structures.

When applied to schools, systems thinking can revitalise the learning experience as well as improve the outcomes of the education system.

Systems Thinking in the Classroom

In Schools That Learn, Peter Senge (2011) who popularised organisational learning, makes an argument regarding the need for a systems approach and learning orientation in schools. As opposed to an ‘industrial age’, factory-like style of education, a holistic approach to learning embraces diverse learning styles and an interdisciplinary curriculum. It engages students by requiring their active participation in the learning process, and by showing them that what they are learning has relevance to the world around them.

Classroom teaching becomes an interactive system between the teacher and the learner. It is not a linear, independent process; rather it is a dynamic one that accepts feedback from the learner and uses it to constantly develop. The most effective teachers embody the systems thinking perspective and leverage it to guide their lesson designs or classroom interactions. “[Teacher’s] jobs have shifted from dispensers of information to producers of environments which allow students to learn as much as possible.”

Systems thinking tools such as casual loop diagrams and behaviour over time graphs, are utilised during lessons so that students can learn how to use such tools to identify and decipher systems. There is an emphasis on critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, rather than on the rote memorisation of facts. Students who are able to understand and work with systems will later join the workforce as professionals who are able to adapt readily to different situations and systems, and who are skillful at managing the complexities of growth and competition in an increasingly connected economy.

Improvements to the Education System

Fostering a learning environment requires the courage and willingness to innovate and experiment. This can include introducing exciting new technology, trialling new methods of learning, or implementing comprehensive changes to the system.

Systems thinking can also spark educational reforms on a national level. Finland’s education system is often regarded as one of the best in the world. It is bold and unconventional – there are no mandated standardised tests and no lists of top performing schools, and students usually only have a couple of classes a day.It is also constantly innovating and improving its education system – as Ms Irmeli Halinen, Head of curriculum development with Finnish National Board of Education explains, this is driven by the awareness that schools are connected to and part of a larger system: “We are often asked why improve the system that has been ranked as top quality in the world? But the answer is: because the world is changing. We have to think and rethink everything connected to school. We also have to understand that competencies needed in society and in working life have changed.”

Finland’s National Curriculum Framework 2016 introduced “phenomenon-based” learning to schools. Schools are required to have extended periods of teaching that move away from traditional subjects (Math, Science, History, etc.) and towards broader, multi-disciplinary topics such as “climate change” or “community”. Students are taught to apply different perspectives and a variety of problem-solving skills to cover each “phenomena” holistically. This gives students a clearer understanding of the complexity of the real-world and equips them with the necessary skills and knowledge to navigate society’s complex systems. 

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