Use Systems Thinking

Here’s the second of five sections on facilitating organizational change (in order to integrate emerging technologies, such as video games and simulations, into a constructivist learning environment.) Again, I’m sharing a quote heavy draft…

2. Use Systems Thinking

Sytems thinking, as opposed to linear or rational-structural thinking, can be a positive tool for change agents to understand and use in educational institutions. Senge (1990) noted that “we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved” (p. 7), and he introduced “a conceptual framework… to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively” (p. 7).

This framework included the laws of systems thinking (Senge, 1990, p. 57), many of which can serve as powerful reminders to educational change agents. These include the concept that “the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back” (p. 58), “the easy way out usually leads back in” (p. 60), “faster is slower” (p. 62), and “small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious” (p. 63). He also identified systems archetypes that can be used by change agents to understand larger patterns. These included concepts such as limits to growth (p. 95), shifting the burden (p. 104), reinforcing processes (Senge et al, 2000, p. 84), balancing processes (p. 86), and delays (p. 91). Senge et al. (2000) also believed that “in any effort to foster schools that learn, changes will make a difference only if they take place at… three levels” (p. 11), the learning classroom (including teachers, students, and parents, p. 12), the learning school (including school leaders, principals, superintendents, school board members, and representatives of higher education, p. 14), and the learning community (including community members and other lifelong learners, p. 16).

Senge et al. (1999) developed a perspective that assumed “human groups, processes, and activities are self-organizing, like ecological niches” (p. 144). Fullan (2001b) later applied four principals of living systems to educational organizations: equilibrium as the precursor to death, the edge of chaos as a source for new solutions, self organization¬ as a source of emergent solutions, and disturbance as a more reliable tool for change than direction (p. 108-109). Fullan warned, though, that “there is a time to disturb and a time to cohere” (p. 116). He looked to concepts in complexity science (formerly chaos theory) to describe the process of coherence-making; strange attractors, for instance, “involve experiences or forces that attract the energies and commitment of employees… they are not predictable in a specific sense, but as outcomes are likely (if not inevitable) in the process we are describing” (p. 215).

Fullan (2003b) also suggested that change agents “must be cognizant that changing their schools and the system is a simultaneous proposition” (p. 4). This understanding will help them avoid what he calls the if-only dependency: the assumption “that the system must get its act together before people can start doing their jobs” (p. 19). He went on to note system-imposed barriers to change, such as centralization or decentralization (p. 21), role overload and role ambiguit (p. 22), limited investment in leadership development (p. 23), neglect of leadership succession (p. 24), and the absence of a system change strategy (p. 25). To over come such barriers, he suggestd that systems must enter a cycle of push and recovery, just as individuals do (Fullan, 2005, p. 44).

There will be many barriers to the adoption of video games and simulations as educational technologies. The change agents responsible for these initiatives will need to understand and use systems thinking if they hope to lead their organizations through the cycles of push and recovery necessary for the integration and diffusion of new innovations.