Revitalizing the Schools: A Systems Thinking Approach


Fortune magazine recently labeled the U.S. school system “our most endangered institution,” highlighting a growing national concern about the quality of education in America. Steadily rising rates of illiteracy and dropouts underline a harsh reality — schools simply are not preparing students to be productive members of society.

Many corporations, which have watched their skilled labor pool shrink over the past decade, are responding with a slew of innovative approaches to education. In 1989, Fannie Mae began a ten-year mentor program in a Washington, DC high school. Sears and United Airlines, along with 14 other Chicago-area corporations, have donated $2 million to start a model school that practices school-based management. Citicorp, Exxon and RJR have donated money toward the Coalition of Essential Schools, a network of over 50 schools dedicated to curriculum reform which focuses on active, small group learning.

The Role of Systems

Thinking Out of these innovative educational programs, a vision of a radically different school system is emerging — one that is managed more like an organization, where teachers are accountable for their students’ results and principals have the power to give raises and tire teachers; a school where the curriculum stresses critical thinking skills over dry facts and learner-directed learning replaces the typical lecture format. Systems thinking holds the promise of making such a school a reality.

“Education in the U.S. is generally recognized as serving less and less well in meeting modern needs. Failures in education appear in the form of corporate executives who cannot cope with the complexities of growth and competition, government leaders who are at a loss to understand economic and political change, and a public that supports inappropriate response to immigration pressures, changing international conditions, rising unemployment, the drug culture, government reform, and inadequacies in education.”

-Jay Forrester, System Dynamics as a Foundation for Pre-College Education

Primarily, systems thinking is being applied to schools in one of two ways: as a problem-solving framework that enhances students’ understanding of a subject; and as a restructuring tool for creating a more effective educational system (see “Systems Thinking in the Classroom: Two Accounts” for an example of how systems thinking is being used in the classroom). The two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Says Jim Daniel of the Kentucky Educational Foundation (KEF), “As systems thinking creates a new culture within the school system, that change should eventually translate into systems thinking being taught in the classroom, as a problem-solving approach.”

A “Hybrid”

Since its introduction three years ago, systems thinking has come to play an increasingly important role at the Orange Grove Junior High School in Tucson. It is now being used in almost all of the science curriculum, and is in the process of being expanded to all six schools in the district.

Orange Grove Junior High can be described as a hybrid of traditional educational techniques and innovative new methods. Teachers still give grades and have one-hour classes devoted to a particular subject. But courses no longer have specific titles, such as biology or history — report cards sport such broad-ranging topics as human studies and marine studies, which emphasize the systems orientation of the subjects. Classes are scheduled in blocks (for example, science and social studies are back-to-back), so that they can be shortened, lengthened, or combined to allow students to pursue more in-depth projects in one subject or both.

Because of the flexible scheduling, teachers are able to pursue more interdisciplinary projects. For example, one class recently conducted a mock trial to learn first-hand how the legal system works. However, the subject of the legal dispute was scientific, allowing them to expand their knowledge in that area as well.

Systems thinking has sparked a dramatic change in the roles of teachers and students at Orange Grove. “In our classroom, students shift from being passive receptacles to being active learners. They are not taught about science per se, but learn how to acquire and use knowledge, scientific and otherwise,” says biology teacher Frank Draper. “Our jobs have shifted from dispensers of information to producers of environments which allow students to learn as much as possible.”

From Vermont to San Francisco

The Systems Thinking and Curriculum Innovation Network Project (STACI) began at the Brattleboro Union High School in Vermont in 1985. Four committed teachers wanted to use systems thinking to improve their teaching, but they had no computer skills or understanding of systems theory. Undaunted, they applied for and received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, and enlisted the support of High Performance Systems, creators of STELLA, to give them technical assistance and training.

Their work attracted the attention of researcher Ellen Mandinach of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), who was interested in studying the impact of technology on learning. ETS, through its affiliation with the Educational Technical Center at Harvard, established STACI to examine the introduction of systems thinking in the Brattleboro High School.

At the prompting of an Apple Computer representative, ETS decided to try a similar experiment on the West Coast. “We learned from our early experience in Vermont that teachers need lots of resources, training and support,” explains Mandinach, “so rather than pick one site in California, we decided to use a consortium of schools.” In order to create a continuity of systems learning for the students, they selected two San Francisco middle schools and the four high schools that they feed into.

Systems Thinking in the Classroom: Two Accounts

The following accounts describe the “New State Park” project used at the Orange Grove Middle School in Tucson, AZ The first is from Frank Draper, a teacher who was involved in the project. The second is front Peter Sense, who visited the classroom and discussed the project with several students.

“In this project, students had to research park philosophy, park management, land management, recreation theory, social systems, geography, ecological community theory, and politics. They then used their newly-acquired knowledge to design a new park with a $100 million budget. The park had to include land required by the park’s charter, yet deal effectively with a threatened lawsuit if they desecrated nearby Indian burial sites; be attractive to users, yet not cause appreciable environmental degradation. As the students designed the park on a computer, they used a spreadsheet to keep fiscal accountability and a STELLA model of park development/environmental degradation to keep design accountability.

“Through the process of developing and presenting their design to their peers, our students developed mental models (structured with help from us) of land use decision making that connected the seemingly unrelated facts they found during their research. In other words, we were able to accomplish learning that, for many adults, never happens. What more do we ask of educators than to prepare people to be able to find the information they need and use it in new ways?” — Frank Draper

“When I walked into an Orange Grove Middle School classroom last week, two energetic eighth graders quickly grabbed me to show me their plan for the national park. We debated about additional hiking trails (1 argued that it would bring in more visitors and boost revenues — they countered that it would lower the environmental index) and how to deal with an Indian burial ground on the park land (they proposed an information center on Indian culture). After twenty minutes I was convinced that they knew a lot more about the economic-social-ecological system of a national park than I ever realized existed. But they were still not satisfied and planned to rethink their economic projections the next day. Afterward I learned that my two tutors were both former ‘disciplinary problems’ in the old authoritarian classroom system.” — Peter Senge

Mandinach describes STACI as an “implementation project” whose focus is on developing materials, training teachers, and providing resources for those teachers to develop systems-based curricula for the classroom. But she adds, “Ultimately, it is a study of the impact of systems thinking on students, classrooms, and schools.

“What happens to teachers, their instruction, and the classroom environment when a systems approach is used? You cannot introduce systems thinking into a school without changing the structure of the school. Do teachers start to cross disciplines, or communicate differently with each other and with their students? And, ultimately, do kids learn more effectively or efficiently using systems thinking? These are the types of long-term questions we are trying to answer.”

Precollege Education

Project Professor Emeritus Jay Forrester, the founder of system dynamics, has been the driving force behind the precollege education project at MIT. Funded by John Bemis of Concord, MA, the project is staffed by MIT undergraduates who are exploring ways to introduce systems thinking into local schools. The project is only a year old and still at a “beginning point,” says staff advisor Nan Lux, but in the past year the students have put together several tutorials for I I teachers at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. The interactive tutorials, explains Lux, are intended to “grab teachers’ attention and show them another way to teach their subjects.”

One of the most exciting things to come out of the project is the idea for creating a central clearinghouse to track the work being done on systems thinking in education. Although the plans are still in the works, Forrester sees the center as a “focal point to maintain communication between the network of schools, to expand the presently available training seminars for teachers, and to assist teachers in preparing their new materials for wider dissemination.”

Kentucky — Starting Over

In 1989, prompted by a lawsuit in which 23 Kentucky school districts charged that funds were not being distributed equally, the Supreme Court declared the entire Kentucky state educational system unconstitutional. This watershed event sparked a complete restructuring of the state educational system. The result: the Kentucky Educational Reform Initiative (KERA), has been described as an “integrated, comprehensive, systemic effort to change public schools.”

KERA will have wide-ranging effects on the way schools are structured and classes are taught. The end result, according to Jim Daniel, will be to “change the educational system to an outcome-based system.” By 1996, schools will be graded on how well students solve problems, work in teams, and make the transition to higher education, the workplace, or the military.

KERA also established baseline performance goals for the schools: those schools that perform above the base range will receive more money and resources, while those who fall below the range will be penalized. In order to foster choice in the school system, school districts will be required by law to publish their rating. If a school is declared in “crisis,” parents can take their children out of the school at the state’s expense.

Successfully implementing KERA may prove even more challenging than drafting the legislation. To help facilitate that process, KEF has created the Institute for the 21st Century, a two-year leadership education and training program for educators. The goal of the Institute, says KEF’s Daniel, “is to use a systems thinking approach to produce leadership teams of change within ten selected school districts.” Each of the ten district teams participating in the project was nominated by a business partner and was selected on the basis of its commitment to change.

The ultimate goal for the Institute is to foster innovation in education. In the type of school they hope to create, says Daniel, “teachers won’t go to school to lecture students. Instead, they will act as resources and as facilitators for those students.”

The Nordic Experience

In the Nordic countries, systems thinking was introduced as a result of their efforts to bring computers into the schools as interactive educational tools. Says Professor PAI Davidsen of the University of Bergen, “System dynamics filled that vacuum between the available technology and the educational goals of the schools.”

The highly centralized educational system in the Nordic countries required a different approach. Rather than bringing systems thinking directly to the schools, it has been introduced in the graduate teacher’s schools. The idea, according to Davidsen, is to “train the trainers” — to teach educators how to use systems thinking, and let them develop tools and curriculum that will integrate systems thinking into the classroom.

Initially, computer simulations were used only to support the current curriculum by illustrating key concepts. Now educators are exploring more inter-disciplinary activities. For example, in a systems thinking study of the marine pollution, students can trace declining fish population to an overgrowth of algae caused by chemical fertilizers. This leads to a study of crop farming and fish farming and their interaction — economic, cultural, and sociological. Understanding the many interrelationships requires further study of government regulations concerning both industries, the biological systems of aquaculture and agriculture, and the methods by which pollutants are transferred to and within the sea.

Computer models, explains Davidsen, remove the constraints of traditional educational material. “Computer models have a high degree of interaction, unlike textbooks. In effect, students can create their own course material, giving them a degree of creativity that is missing when working with textbooks.”


Early results of the use of systems thinking in the classroom have been anecdotal, rather than empirical, but they are encouraging. Frank Draper, for example, has witnessed a remarkable change in his classes: “Not only are we covering more material, but we’re covering it faster and the students are learning more useful material than ever before.”

Preliminary results from the ETS study at Brattleboro reveal interesting differences in skills acquired by students taught with traditional teaching methods versus those who were taught with a systems approach. In a general physical science class, so-called “traditional” students were able to identify and define patterns of speed and motion on simple graphs, but had difficulty with more complex problems. Systems students, on the other hand, were more adept at synthesizing parts of problems to understand the entirety.

Another set of students in a physics class were given a story problem to solve, first using the traditional quadratic equation approach, then by designing a model and testing various hypotheses. After the exercise, students commented that when working with quadratic equations, the numbers did not have concrete, real-world meaning. But with the model, they were able to demonstrate theoretically and practically what the problem and solution meant.

Systems Thinking Tools for the Classroom

As the interest in using systems thinking in education continues to grow, so does the need for new tools to support those efforts. One of the most widely-used systems thinking tools has been STELLA, a modeling language that runs on the Macintosh developed by High Performance Systems (see “In Review: ithink,” Dec. 1990/Jan. 1991).

“STELLA is a visual language that provides a new frame of reference for looking at problems,” explains Lyn Swett of High Performance Systems. “It combines the brainpower of humans with the technical abilities of the computer in order to help students think dynamically.” Swett feels that one of STELLA’s biggest benefits is its effect on classroom dynamics. “STELLA puts the teacher in the role of facilitator, which creates a more dynamic interaction between the teacher and students.”

The Nordic countries have also made tremendous strides in creating educational software based on the Mosaikk/SimTek collection of simulation software for the IBM-PC and compatibles (see “In Review: Mosaikk/SimTek,” May 1991). Much of their work has been focused on creating vivid connections between the abstract results of a computer simulation and the real-life phenomena it represents. This is done through the use of animation and colored graphics that make the link between the behavior of the simulation and the structure of the system being simulated more apparent.

The latest innovation Nordic educators are working with is digital video, which allows video and audio images to be digitally recorded on disks and integrated into a simulation model. This will allow one more degree of student interaction in the learning experience, because they will be able to include their own photographs, text, audio tapes, and video clips in the simulation models they create — opening up new learner-defined ways of exploring complex, dynamic systems.

Although the results of the Brattleboro study are preliminary, ETS’s Mandinach notes that students “seemingly achieved a more conceptual understanding of the content and solution processes by using the systems approach.” A more thorough implementation and systematic examination of the curriculum is in progress and will continue over several years to determine the impact of systems thinking on general problem solving skills.

While many communities are making significant progress in introducing systems thinking into the schools, they are a long way from achieving the visionary school described at the beginning of this article. The main roadblocks are a lack of resources to fund innovative projects and the knowledge and experience to restructure the existing school system — two areas where businesses can play an important role.

Getting involved in the school system can no longer be viewed as a charitable activity — it is vital to businesses’ survival because the labor pool on which they draw is the product of that school system. As Vivian Ruth Sawyer of Humana, a partner in the Kentucky reform initiative, points out, “We owe that responsibility to our stockholders for the long-term prosperity of our business.”

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