I’m All for Systemic Change! But, uh…Which System?

Last week, I heard aarguing-characters-shows-disagreement-discussion-or-dispute-100206611 passionate conversation between a teacher and an administrator about how to transform learning in their school district. The conversation circled around questions familiar to school reformers.  Who has the power to make significant change? Who needs to be thinking outside the box? Who needs to listen to the other side? In other words, who needs to transform first, to make system-wide transformation possible?

The subtext in this familiar (and sometimes painful) debate is this:  What is the teacher’s role? What is the administrator’s role? And also, whose fault is it when transformation gets stuck?

That conversation made me think about other conversations (debates? arguments?) I have engaged in over the years. They usually involve a whole list of “if only” statements:

  • If only teachers would let go of those methods that aren’t working . . .
  • if only administrators would listen to teachers . . .
  • if only teachers would respond to individual students’ needs . . .
  • if only administrators would come work alongside me in the classroom for just one day . . .

You get the idea. The blame game.

The problem with this kind of talk is that each perspective is focusing on only one “place” in the larger system—either the classroom or the administrator’s office. They are, however, parts of the larger whole. So where do we begin if our goal is to set conditions for systemic, transformational change?

  • at the classroom–where teachers are the most likely to help individual students learn?
  • at the campus–where an innovative and perceptive leader can make a huge difference to both students and teachers?
  • at the district–where leaders can set conditions that shape interactions up and down the system?
  • in the policy arena–where decisions about resources and priorities are powerful levers?

And those are just the formal layers of the system. What about other networks of influence?

  • families?
  • advocacy groups?
  • the business community?
  • publishers and software companies?
  • researchers and teachers in higher education?
  • community-based organizations?
  • foundations and others who might fund our initiatives?

Whew. Clearly, we are not just dealing with one big, unified system. We are working in many systems simultaneously—and those systems are nested, overlapping, and massively entangled!  They are also constantly moving and changing, adapting and self-organizing in unpredictable ways. Schools are made up of large numbers of highly diverse, interdependent individuals, groups, and communities. Each one plays a particular role in how the system functions, and each brings unique agendas and histories.

So where do we begin?

We begin anywhere. We begin everywhere. In complex adaptive systems, patterns emerge from the way individual agents in the system behave—in the ways they do their jobs and in the ways they communicate with one another. And if our goal is to transform the system—to encourage patterns like innovation, responsiveness, adaptation, and joy—we cannot expect school change to begin only in the classroom or only in the boardroom. Everyone in the system needs to behave in coherent ways. Everyone in the system needs to follow a short list of “simple rules.”

Everyone needs to set conditions for others to engage in innovative, responsive, adaptive, and joyful behaviors.

Transformation doesn’t move from the top down or from the bottom up. It emerges from individual actions throughout the system.  So let’s move beyond those arguments about where to begin. Let’s just do it. All together. Now!

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