All Systems Go!

Increasingly, I hear people talking about the need for “systems change” and “systems thinking,” and when I do I always wonder what people mean when they say it.

My own interest in systems thinking began a few years ago when I read Peter Senge’s classic The 5th Discipline. It influenced me so much that I dedicated a full chapter to the subject in my new book American Schools. Overall, though, I haven’t seen a lot of work in education based on systems thinking. But that seems to be changing.

I’m particularly excited about Michael Fullan’s new book, All Systems Go: The Change Imperative for Whole System Reform, which I just finished and highly recommend. Not surprisingly, the book begins with a foreword from Senge, who grounds the origins of our current system in the Industrial era. “That’s why they were organized like an assembly line,” he writes. “That’s why they were based on standardized timetables governing each part of the day (complete with bells and whistles on the walls), and fixed, rigid curricula delivered by teachers whose job was first and foremost to maintain control, much like an assembly-line foreman.” Senge urges us to imagine a very different challenge today. “The challenge of our time is not economic competitiveness. The challenge is to build not only “sustainable” but also regenerative societies — ones than enhance natural and social capital.”

Amen. And in the pages that follow, Fullan shows how that work is taking place in a number of different places around the world. He cuts to the chase on page one: “If there is one thing you should remember¬† . . . it is the concept of collective capacity,” which Fullan defines as “generating the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching.”

Fullan says, and I agree, that collective capacity is the hidden resource we fail to understand or cultivate. Instead, we overvalue single-resource strategies — making smaller classrooms, raising salaries, drafting common standards, etc. — when what we need is an investment in compound resource strategies. Smaller classrooms mean nothing, after all, unless the move is coordinated with relevant professional learning for teachers that helps them employ new teaching strategies. And adding national standards will mean nothing if the end result is merely more national exams and less high-quality locally driven assessments using the standards as a common frame. But this is what we do, over and over again. We’re playing a game of chess as though it’s checkers, making one move at a time.

This does NOT mean that all we need to do is give people more opportunities to collaborate. What Michelle Rhee understands, I think correctly, is that collaboration, or student voice, or democratic governance, is not an end in itself (as I alluded to in a previous post titled, “To What Do We Owe Our Fidelity?”) What is required instead, and what Rhee fails to grasp, is disciplined, strategically-employed collaboration that fosters a shared vision of how to create the optimal learning environment for children (and, by extension, adults). As Fullan writes: “Quality instruction requires getting a small number of practices right. These practices involve knowing clearly and specifically what each student can or cannot do, followed by tailored intervention that engages students in the particular learning in question, and then does the assessment-instruction-correction process on a continuous basis.”

Fullan provides myriad examples throughout the book, but a particularly illustrative one comes from Ontario, where government officials realized they needed to provide resolute leadership on some core priorities that could impact not just the government education agencies, but also district and local school leaders. The government realized that if it wanted to engage the whole system in a coherent, focused effort, it needed to do three things:

  1. focus on a small number of ambitious instructional goals
  2. create an instructional capacity capability to help coordinate the efforts of the many players (government, district and local ed leaders)
  3. change the culture of the state education ministry so that it had greater internal coherence and a commitment to work in a true two-way partnership

As someone living in DC, I read Fullan’s case study of Ontario and saw an immediate disconnect between what they did and where we’re headed. In particular, check out this quote:

The gist of the strategy is to mobilize and engage large numbers of people who are individually and collectively committed and effective at getting results relative to core outcomes that society values. It works because it is focused, relentless (i.e., stays the course), operates as a partnership between and across layers, and above all uses the collective energy of the whole group. There is no way of achieving whole-system reform if the vast majority of the people are not working on it together.

To me, that last word sums up why I worry that Michelle Rhee will not be able to move the city any further on its overall reform efforts. In work this massive and important, how we speak, and not just what we say, matters greatly. (This is what I was trying to get at in my recent review of the new film The Lottery as well.) Fullan’s book convincingly demonstrates that systemic reform is difficult but possible. It also demonstrates, once again, that until the tenor of our national conversation suggests a deep awareness of, and commitment to, working together to achieve results, our efforts at developing collective capacity will remain agonizingly out of reach.