Why systems thinking is important for the education sector

Susy Ndaruhutse
Charlotte Jones
Anna Riggall

Our new report about systems thinking and its place in education transformation reflects on key published literature and on specific outputs from our own programme of research which has placed emphasis on system reform over the past five years. The work we do at Education Development Trust brings us into direct contact with education systems, and their governments. We are tasked with helping to solve intractable educational challenges. Systems thinking is a vital component part of what we do, how we understand the nature of the issues and how we support change.

Systems thinking has a past that tracks from computer engineering in the 1950s through urban planning, development and health.  It has revolutionised the conceptualisation of problems and approaches to solutions in equal measure.  In education, since the 1990s the discourse of systems thinking has increasingly permeated the fabric of donor and governmental thinking. 

Our analysis of examples from our own research work and the work of others leads us to identify six accelerators for reform at scale:

  1. Vision and leadership at all levels
  2. Teacher and school leadership capacity
  3. Data for accountability and improvement
  4. Delivery architecture including collaboration
  5. Evidence-informed policy and learning
  6. Coalitions for change

Our report concludes with a reflection on five policy tensions that suggest a need for us all to:

  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.

The SDGs have set out ambitious targets for education in 2030 looking at equitable access, quality teaching, relevant learning and ensuring children and young people are developing the skills, values and competencies needed to sustain them during adulthood and to provide a sustainable livelihood. The scale of the challenge is significant. 

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 offers a glimpse of a different future.  It 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.