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Systems Thinking

For a comprehensive cover of the need and usefulness of Systems Thinking in Education read the Educational Development Trust report available here. This blog, when ready, will aim to capture some of its highlights. 

Systems thinking is an approach used to tackle complex issues that persist over time, with no successful solutions to date. It seeks sustainable solutions based on deep understanding of issues. 

“Systems thinking is different to linear or cause and effect thinking, as it recognises more complex interdependencies and how multiple components may affect each other in different ways. It also helps to differentiate between the underlying issue and the symptoms of something deeper.” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019, p. 13)

Table 1 below can be found on page 13 of the  Educational Development Trust report on systems thinking.

Traditional responses to improve education outcomes that take a piecemeal approach may have some success but are unlikely to solve the ‘wicked problems’ that different education systems around the world face. Systems thinking can help policymakers achieve faster and more sustained progress in education that results in broad outcomes for the current and future generation of children and young people.” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019, p. 11)

Key ideas and concepts in systems thinking:

  • the components of any system are not only interlinked, but interconnected – that’s why when considering reform one needs to think about the unintended consequences of proposals, underlying processes, secure stakeholder involvement and seek to understand & resolve internal tensions resulting from proposed changes.
  • the system and its components are constantly changing and adapting – expect the possibility of unforeseen results & plan mitigations as much as possible, maintain a big picture view, solutions should be iterative, experimental and co-created. 
  • a system doesn’t exist and operate in isolation; influences what happens outside of it as much as external forces influence it – solutions need to be context-specific (not just based on good practice elsewhere), external ‘forces’ need to be identified, understood and taken into account when generating solutions.
  • distinguishing between underlying causal-relationships and symptomatic ones – leads to deeper understanding of the issue, multi-layered stakeholder analysis, closer inspection  of correlation vs causation and the need to challenge existing assumptions and own biases.

Figure 1 below can be found on page 10 of the  Educational Development Trust report on systems thinking.

Figure 1 below can be found on page 10 of the  Educational Development Trust report on systems thinking.

The report also helpfully identified 5 policy tensions in any reform proposal on education which are, by themselves, “a collection of complex, intractable problems and considerations that must remain at the forefront of the minds of those leading and delivering global education reform efforts” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019, p. 11):

1. Keep a balanced focus on how to use systems thinking to address simultaneously the two ‘wicked problems’ of equitable access and quality learning.

2. To work across organisational boundaries in a joined-up way, reforming education systems to improve outcomes for all children whilst also considering the wider systemic influences so reform is not undermined.

3. Balance the desire to be evidence-informed with the reality that operating in a political, economic, social and cultural context will make this hard to do.

4. Pay equal attention to a) the change management programme and accompanying capacity development approach needed to implement a reform and b) designing the reform itself.

5. Carefully balance what the system can achieve with personal and collective responsibility for decisions that can (negatively or positively) impact the functioning of the system.

“Systems thinking expands the range of choices available for solving a problem by broadening our thinking and helping us articulate problems in new and different ways. At the same time, the principles of systems thinking make us aware that there are no perfect solutions; the choices we make will have an impact on other parts of the system. By anticipating the impact of each trade-off, we can minimize its severity or even use it to our own advantage. Systems thinking therefore allows us to make informed choices.’ (Goodman, 2018)

Adopting a systems thinking approach in education would mean (a short, but not exhaustive list):

  • thinking about all the actors and stakeholders involved in the system, their dynamic interrelationships and the need for co-creating solutions together (e.g. adjust expectations according to agency limitations of actors at each level);
  • understanding that there are no piecemeal solutions without a ripple effect of some sort;
  • thinking holistically about issues (understanding how system components work together) and transcending the boundaries of said system, like external drivers (e.g. the impact of pupils socio-economic background on their learning);
  • gaining enough trans-sectional understanding of issues across the system to grasp inter-reactions between system components (this may involve going outside our areas of expertise);
  • challenging own cause and effect assumption regarding issues in education;
  • being more critical of ‘borrowed’ reform and understanding how to contextualise solutions and their impact; etc.


Goodman, M., 2018, ‘Systems thinking: What? Why? Where? When? and How?’. The Systems Thinker Website available at https://thesystemsthinker.com/systems-thinking-what-why-when-where-and-how/ 

Ndaruhutse, S., Jones, C. & Riggall, A., 2019, ‘Why systems thinking is important for the education sector’. Educational Development Trusthttps://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/EducationDevelopmentTrust/files/17/17fec588-e413-461b-a107-78b6569304cc.pdf

Soeonline, 2020, ‘What Is Systems Thinking in Education? Understanding Functions and Interactions in School Systems’. July 28, 2020, American University’s School of Education Website, available at https://soeonline.american.edu/blog/systems-thinking-in-education# 


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