School Climate & Safety Opinion

System vs. Symptom Thinking

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 10, 2015 5 min read
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Schools systems are like ecosystems with interdependent parts, each maintaining a vital process that contributes to the life of the whole. The vital process for schools, is obviously educating students. We are fifteen years into the 21st century and are still holding conversations about what schools should look like for today’s students. One reason for this may be it seems like expecting a cruise ship to make a sharp right turn. Even so, fifteen years should have been enough to make the turn don’t you think? Why the ongoing struggle?

There are some legitimate boundaries, established by legislation and mandate that can thwart educators’ efforts to break from the 20th century model and redesign how teaching and learning takes place. But even greater are the boundaries that exist in the minds of everyone, educators and community members alike, based upon their own experiences and expectations. In a recent conversation we had with teachers and leaders from independent schools, who are not under the same oversight by departments of education, we found even they were balancing their vision and the expectations of the parents and the communities in which they operate. In this fast changing world, many yearn for that which remains familiar but we cannot allow that yearning to constrain our forward motion. The design of teaching and learning of the past, influences the present, and the future for all.

Keep the System in the Foreground
We cannot continue to force new ideas into the old construct and expect great growth or new results. The sharing of great ideas is constant and the ability to share these ideas through digital sources abounds. Scanning the environment and finding solutions to perceived problems is much easier with all the access technology offers. But it takes time and a willingness to step away from closely held beliefs and perceptions to discover the root cause of a problem and the best systemic solution. Accomplishing this with those who have views different from one’s own is essential. Otherwise, we create a narrow tunnel with solid boundaries as we struggle to move ahead.

Educators, like most others, are quick to respond to problems and weaknesses in their scope of responsibility. It may seem the sensible thing to do, respond with a solution, but, in many cases, it is not. Certainly, in issues of safety, there is a call for quick thinking and rapid response. But, so many of our problems are not about safety.

Too often we respond to a symptom with a solution rather than stepping back and looking at the larger picture and searching for the deeper, systemic cause. It is a natural and reinforced reaction to fix it and move it off the desk. But the improvement of teaching and learning is a much broader frontier than one in which problems are met with new solutions daily. We learn from chemistry that a catalyst is a substance that causes a chemical reaction but is not affected itself. The problem remains even though some visible change appears in the environment.

This is not a practice seen only in education. It seems it is a human tendency. Unless taught otherwise, we respond to the information that is in front of us. And there seems to be value placed on speed of that response. Yet, we must learn to resist the tendency to respond too quickly. Never before have we had such access to solutions and researching best practices or the newest pilots has never been easier. But, leaders know that solutions that work and last require processes that support them and the learning journeys they require. They must be supported by the system.

The sense of all of this can be found in science. Accepting the school systems are truly systems, we turn to Lazlo’s idea of “wholes” and “heaps” as complex entities. He separates “whole” from “heaps” by describing a pile of rubbish.

Adding another can or removing a pop bottle makes only a quantitative difference to the pile--it becomes that much bigger or smaller. No other characteristic of it changes (p. 25).

Lazlo refers to Plato’s thinking on the subject.

...two people, by challenging and responding to each other, can come closer to the truth than either one could by himself. The outcome of such a dialectic is not merely the knowledge of the one added to the knowledge of the other. It is something which neither of them knew before, and which neither would have been capable of knowing by himself (p. 26).

Instituting change is a mighty undertaking that includes vision, communication, collaboration, creativity, knowledge and heart. John Kotter’s 8 Steps comes to mind, establishing a sense of urgency, creating a guiding coalition, developing a vision and strategy, communicating the change vision, empowering broad-based action, generating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and anchoring new approaches in the culture (Kotter. p.21).

Even something as vast as integrating technology was often met with a quick-fix mentality rather than Kotter’s 8 steps. Certainly there are changes happening in school systems; integrating technology, implementing the common core, project based, flipped, and/or visible learning, integrating curricula, establishing partnerships...no matter the changes, a systemic implementation is the only way to insure its sustainability.

Students coming to school late or recurring absences, rising levels of students’ being disrespectful, low enrolment in certain electives, poor math or reading scores, are examples of problems that often receive quick fixes. There are those everywhere who would attest to the problem remaining even with the quick fix in place. And worse, often there is not a return to evaluate the “fix”. We are left with a system held together by a lot of band-aids over problems and little healthy growth happening.

The question is where does a leader want to spend his or her energy? Is it in the beginning while examining the emerging problem or gathering storm? OR, do we need to learn the lesson of Sisyphus who over and over pushed the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back again? Mythology tells us he was being punished for actions of his lifetime but there are days when good educators feel like him. Our eyes are raised to the top of the hill and the goal for which we strive is there. But, over and over, we start up and then roll back only to begin again. Progress isn’t made regardless of the determination or the effort. We need a new answer, one that lies in the ability to see the big picture and address the interdependent system in which we work. There we can image and discover new truths through collaborative communication and a lasting difference can be made. It won’t be by adding one thing or removing another but by finding the source and resolving it, not by treating only the symptom.

Kotter, J.P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press
Lazlo, E. (1996). The Systems View of the World. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

Other Leadership360 Posts including Kotter’s 8 Steps:

Is There Time to Lead Change Well?

Teacher Evaluation 3.0

Curriculum Reviews

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.