The Principal's Principles

A Middle School Principal, striving to make the world a better place, one day at a time.

Systems Thinking, Part II

As I posted before, I am thinking a lot these days about engaging our staff (certified and non-certified) in a process to build a “learning organization.” This has led me to Peter Senge’s book “The Fifth Discipline.” Today I read and spent some time reflecting on the second part of the book, which offered many things to think about. In any work such as this, there is so much information offered that invariably, one cannot process everything. Senge offers so much depth and so many examples, that at times, I find myself having to put the book down and give myself some time. The systems thinking lessons that I took away this time included:

– “Many of today’s problems are caused by yesterday’s solutions.”
By failing to take a step back and see the root of a problem, organizations often try to find a quick fix that invariably leads to deeper issues. Consider a group of students who does not succeed on an assessment. To improve their grades, they are offered an extra credit opportunity they take advantage of. When the material they did not succeed on becomes a prerequisite for the next lesson, those students will struggle.

– “We must see circles, not lines.
Linear thinking often fails to see the consequences of someone’s actions. For instance, Student A misbehaves and chronically ends up in the Assistant Principal’s office, leading to disciplinary action (we will call this line of linear thinking 1). The Assistant Principal of the school has high expectations, assumes that students know appropriate behaviors, and does not articulate to Student A what he expects (we will call this line of linear thinking 2). Systems thinking calls on us to see the cycle between the two lines of linear thinking. As a system, Student A and the Assistant Principal fail to see how they cause their own circumstances, the student faces discipline while the AP remains frustrated.

– “The harder you push the system, the harder the system pushes back.
When difficult circumstances arise, more of the same only makes matters more challenging. A teacher has a student who does not complete work during class time. When left on his own, this student focuses more on doodling than math problems. As a result, this student loses free time during lunch of after school. During this time, left on his own, the student continues not to work. Hs grade continues to suffer, and he becomes frustrated and begins to act out, creating more frustration for the teacher who wants the student to succeed.

– “Don’t push growth; remove the factors limiting growth.”
As leaders, we must create an environment for teachers to grow. While teaching has become far more collaborative, it is still very personal and at times, a very private practice. Professional growth plans only have value when the professionals the plan is meant to “grow” are invested. We must build learning organizations that promote ongoing improvement. This includes a system that focuses on a small number of initiatives and mandates.

– “Solutions must focus on the problem, not the symptoms.
A teacher who struggles with classroom management, students who act out, or parents who seem to argue over every decision are what we see, and in most cases, are symptoms of the problems. Looking deeper, you might find the teacher struggles with lesson planning or building relationships. Students may have a need for more attention than they receive, and parents may want a more significant role in their child’s education. By looking deeper and avoiding linear thinking, better systems can be built.

Part II of the book really pushed me to take a step back, to think big, and to work hard to identify problems. Realizing that many of the problems we face as an organization are caused by decisions that have been made call on me as a leader to critically think about the long term, and unintended consequences of the decisions I make.


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2 thoughts on “Systems Thinking, Part II

  1. A. Carr on said:

    I read this work un graduate school. It was overwhelming at the time. I just read your memoir and it brought me back to the “metanoia” moment. I have to pick this work back up to fully enjoy and learn the content. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Pingback: Leaders of Learning « The Principal's Principles

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