After addressing the early morning complications, a systems thinking leader would find time to step away from the chain of challenges and make efforts to see possible patterns, and examine the causal factors that contribute to the problems that pop up.

They have the tools to develop a deep understanding of how the school is structured to maximize adaptability, innovation and success. To help understand what systems thinking looks like in a school or district, let’s explore some key habits of systems thinking that specifically pertain to school and district leadership.

Habits of a Systems Thinker for School and District Leaders

Multiple Perspectives

Systems Thinkers actively change perspectives to increase their understanding of the system. They resist the urge to come to a quick conclusion about how people think or what people feel. Systems thinkers intentionally get to the sources that fuel the pulse of a system. They are strategic in how they distinguish and learn valuable information from multiple stakeholders. So instead of depending on a vocal few, they have formal and informal structures to help them uncover and understand diverse perspectives. Staying abreast of diverse perspectives builds understanding of the here and now. Systems thinkers consider how mental models affect current reality and the future. Mental models are developed over time from the interpretations we make about the world we experience.

Here are some ideas of what school leaders can do:

Giving voice to all stakeholders:

Principals and their leadership teams develop and conduct weekly informal interviews of about three to four questions. The interviews can focus on school priorities, identified areas for improvement and/or general indicators of climate and culture. A principal from Sacramento, Calif. said, “We listed all our stakeholder groups — e.g. students, parents, teachers, classified staff, community members and so on. We each volunteered to seek out a stakeholder group. We know by the end of the month that we will have a sound representation of the responses to our questions. We are gathering up the information, organizing it and then plan to send it out to everyone. That way all school community members will have the same “big picture” view that we gained by conducting the interviews.”

Let’s hear from the kids:

Some schools are inviting students as active partners in school improvement efforts. Going beyond the token representation of a few students serving on select committees, some schools are involving large groups of their students in school wide problem-solving efforts and strategic planning processes. Student perspectives become a priority when making plans for school improvement. After all, school success is about students and their achievement. As the primary focus, students should be central to the process.

System Structure

Systems are perfectly designed to produce the results they get, so systems thinking leaders pay careful attention to system design in terms of structure. System structure involves the ways the various parts work together and affect one another. Much like a NASCAR technician makes adjustments to a premium racecar, adds new parts and fine-tunes engine components to ensure maximum performance, a school leader must understand the parts of the school and how those parts work together for optimal performance. The parts are both human — e.g. relationships, attitudes, expectations and motivations — and non-human — e.g. curriculum, policies, schedule and budgets. Leaders know that a system’s structure generates its behavior. Understanding system structure is not a solo venture. It takes a team and the perspectives of all stakeholders to truly understand and make visible the structure of complex systems. Visual mapping tools help with this process and assist in developing a group understanding of both the behavior of the system and its causes. The ability to identify patterns and trends is the first step in helping us see how the parts work together. It is important for school leaders to see how the current system design generates current patterns and trends. If you don’t like what you are getting, the first place to look is within.

Here are some ideas of what school leaders can do:

Have teams draw simple behavior over time graphs of important system trends. The graphs are based on individual or small group perceptions supported by a wide variety of evidence. Time is placed on the x-axis and the changing variable is located on they-axis. Here (In Graph 1) are some examples from a staff beginning to implement project-based learning (PBL):

Then ask, “What is causing a change in this particular variable? Does a change in one cause a change to happen in another?” By identifying causal links between variables, an interdependent map of essential system trends begins to emerge. In the examples above, do you see any element having a causal influence on another? For example, as the quality of staff collaboration increases, would that affect the quality of teaching or staff commitment to a new initiative like project-based learning? If the quality of teaching increases, would that increase student engagement and then decrease the number of discipline referrals? Causal maps help explain the circular nature of complex cause and effect. Sometimes the cause takes time to produce an effect. Much like a story, the cause and effect links can help track the possible ripple effects that take place in your school. How does a change in one aspect of my school cause changes throughout the system overtime? This process of building a causal map helps school leaders identify possible leverage actions. The map (Graph 2)can help you see how a change in one element can reinforce changes in other elements.

In this case, the school decided to focus efforts on boosting the quality of staff collaboration as they were introducing PBL instruction. Their original map was more complex than the example above as there were other factors at play, but the essence of their system shows how adult collaboration impacts students.

Short-Term, Long-Term and Unintended Consequences of Actions School leaders do not have the benefit of crystal balls or the ability to predict the future, but they can take advantage of a systems thinking approach when choosing a course of action. Systems thinking leaders carefully balance the time needed when making decisions, keeping in mind short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of actions. Sometimes, decisions need to be made quickly with little time for reflection. In those cases, commonsense, instinct and the importance of safety come into play. There are other times however, when the consideration of consequences of an important decision becomes a priority. By surfacing and testing assumptions of potential outcomes, systems thinking leaders can carefully weigh consequences of decisions. They also consider an issue fully and resist the urge to come to a quick conclusion.

Here are some ideas of what school leaders can do:

Ask yourself these essential questions before taking action:

  • Who will this decision affect and how will it unfold?
  • What will the consequences be if I take this action tomorrow, and what will be its effects a year from now?
  • Knowing we may not reap immediate results, is the initial implementation dip worth the longer-term benefits?
  • What are the benefits and the trade-offs if we take this action?
  • How can we minimize the impact of the trade-offs?

There are visual diagrams of archetypical situations that are effective tools when considering consequences of important decisions. These causal loop archetypes are helpful in preventing traps if consequences are given greater consideration.

As one example, the “Fixes that Backfire” spells out the unintended consequences of actions that work to solve problems. This visual tool helps determine the potential impact of unintended consequences on the original problem to be solved. This archetype helps explain why a short-term fix can actually come back to make the original problem symptom worse. Think of the quick fix when dealing with a misbehaving child. A teacher may quickly instruct the child to go to the office as one way to solve the problem. The unintended consequence of the teacher not directly addressing the misbehavior could cause the student to be thankful to be out of the classroom, which would then reinforce a repeat of the misbehavior when the child returns to the classroom.

Successive Approximation and Connections Systems thinking leaders are learning all the time. Systems thinking is not something you can read about in a book and expect to master without practice. By continually checking results and changing action when needed and practicing what is called “successive approximation,” systems thinkers embrace the adaptability needed for successful school leadership. With practice, systems thinking leaders are able to transfer their understanding of various aspects of their system to novel challenges, new initiatives and growing expectations. They are able to make meaningful connections within and between their school systems. For example, consider the factors that contribute to an epidemic or rapidly growing virus. The strength of the germ and the number of contacts between the infected and uninfected population determine the rate at which the infection spreads. This understanding can be very useful for leaders as they work to positively “infect” or influence the culture of their school and community. Having a compelling message supported by strong values and vision and growing a network that helps make contact and communicate the message in a variety of ways can have significant impact. Systems thinkers make connections and transfer their understanding of the dynamics of one system’s structure to another when considering action.As systems thinkers influence the design, behaviors and outcomes of systems they must be learners, and inspire others to continually expand their capabilities to shape and prepare adults and children for the future. One of the very first pioneers to bring system thinking to K-12 education was the former Dean of MIT’s College of Engineering, Dr. Gordon Brown. “You are not preparing your students for the world you have lived in, or even the world of today, but for a future you can barely imagine,” says Dr. Brown. There is no better time for schools to embrace a future orientation and the habits and tools of systems thinking. Because systems thinking leaders understand the interdependent nature of their system, they look beyond the outcomes of any one action and anticipate the long-term consequences of decisions. They actively practice habits and tools of systems thinking to manage and simplify the growing complexity of the education system. Teachers and students in classrooms around the world also use these same habits and tools.In summary, reflect on what you now know about systems thinking. On a blank sheet of paper jot down some key words or phrases that systems thinkers pay attention to as they lead their schools and districts. Use the one-page Habits of Systems Thinker handout ( to help you reflect on your responses.

Tracy Benson Ed.D. is president of System Thinking in Schools at The Waters Foundation. Visit As an internationally recognized capacity building service provider, they bring the value of systems thinking habits and tools to school districts and community-based organizations worldwide.

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