Introduction to Working Systemically

Most of us can recall learning about icebergs in our elementary school science class. Perhaps the most fascinating fact we remember is that approximately 90% of an iceberg mass lies below the surface of the water, with only a small portion of the iceberg visible above the surface. The expression "tip of the iceberg" can be applied to a problem that is viewed superficially; the larger manifestation of the problem lies below the surface.

One might ask, "What do icebergs have to do with systemic change?" Senge, et al. (2000) use an iceberg analogy to illustrate the necessity of looking below surface events in order to understand and then solve school problems. Rather than viewing each situation as an isolated event, Senge, et al. suggest probing deeper to identify trends and patterns in the behavior of an organization (e.g., a school system) to begin revealing the actual source of the problem. However, while identification of these trends and patterns is important in determining key variables over time, this information is inadequate to address the root cause of the problem.

For deeper understanding, Senge and his colleagues suggest delving into systemic structures to reveal underlying forces (and interactions among these forces) that
contribute to the observable trends and patterns in organizational behavior. By exploring this deeper level, one can discover fundamental aspects of the system that allow the problem to continue.

Senge, et al. advocate looking even deeper to consider mental models existing within the organization that perpetuate systemic structures preventing a solution to the problem. Such mental models, which are shaped by the values, beliefs, and attitudes of individuals within the organization, influence both individual and collective notions of how the district or school should work. The authors propose that systemic thinkers go beyond merely recognizing such models to really questioning their validity. Challenging these mental models often helps get to the root cause of the problem and set the organization on the path toward systemic change.

What, then, does systemic thinking have to do with district and school improvement? In 2004, Dennis Sparks, former executive director of the National Staff Development Council, noted,

Every system is specifically designed to produce the results it is getting. The interconnectedness of all parts of the educational enterprise means classrooms, schools, and school districts are tied together in a web of relationships in which decisions and actions in any one part affect the other parts and the system as a whole. (p. 245)

Working systemically for educational improvement thus means "giving attention to the interrelationships among multiple aspects of the system so that each is supportive of the others" (Cowan, 2006, p. 597).

In contrast, three traditional approaches to improvement that have shaped school reform efforts during the past half century have included the following:

  • A "fix the parts" approach that focused on strengthening key components of the education system, such as curriculum, instruction, and assessment
  • A "fix the people" approach that promoted improvement through staff training and professional development
  • A "fix the school" approach that highlighted using an organizational development perspective to improve individual schools

SEDL (formerly Southwest Educational Development Laboratory) has developed the Working Systemically approach to integrate all three. This approach, which is drawn in part from the work of Sashkin and Egermeier (1993), is broad in nature, includes a focus on accountability, helps build strong school cultures that foster professional and student growth, and encourages innovation and continuous improvement (SEDL, 2000). As such, it is designed to produce the changes necessary to increase overall student achievement significantly.

Next Page: SEDL's Working Systemically Approach: A Process Grounded in Research