Systemic Change in Schools
The professional literature on systemic change in education is vast. For purposes of this discussion, systemic change is defined as holistic self-examination, redefinition, renewal, and reformulation of fundamental principles, beliefs, and practices that drive the entire organization toward attainment of its goals. Such an encompassing definition is based in part on the notion that schools exist in an open system, with a dynamic interchange between internal and external environmental influences. To maintain equilibrium in such an environment, schools have to adopt practices that contribute to their survival – a notion that is referred to as organizational resiliency in the present discussion. The synergistic impact of any organizational adjustment is organizational ecology.
Schools that are kept off balance cannot concentrate for sustained periods of time on goal attainment. Therefore, the institution needs to engage in practices geared toward organizational self-renewal. Ongoing self-renewal results in goal attainment and the survival of the organism. Systems thinking coupled with organizational resiliency and organizational ecology provides a useful way of viewing the systemic school change problem.
A common thread running through recent research pertains to the systemic nature of change in school organizations. That is, the change affects every aspect of the institutional environment, having the potential to throw off balance the delicate ecology of the school as an organism. Educational entities must have a way of monitoring the ecological impact of change on school outcomes. Systems theory provides a way of looking at the problem. System theory is not a theory in the true sense of the term. Rather it is a framework for viewing interactions occurring in most living systems.
General systems theory can shed light on transactions that take place in complex social systems. In the 1950’s Ludwig von Bertalanffy detailed a general systems theory to encompass all levels of science ranging from the investigation of what occurs in a single living cell to what occurs in society at large. Later, Miller expanded and developed the theory, broadening its applicability to a range of living systems.
Viewing a phenomenon from a systems perspective draws our attention to the influence of the larger environment, the complex interdependencies that exist within that environment, and the impact of subtle changes on the organism as a whole. Looking through the lens of systems theory, cause-effect relationships become problematic – a single factor is rarely the cause of an outcome. Rather, the cause is associated with a complex and sensitive interplay of subsystems within the larger entity. Thus, the concept of subsystems is coupled with that of multiple-causation.
These ideas can be translated into schools. Schools function in an open system in which a close relationship exists between the school organization and its surrounding environment. Any system needs to have a continual inflow of energy to maintain a viable connection between structure and supporting environment. In schools, this interchange is associated with an endless, cyclical transaction between school and the surrounding environment. In this relationship, organizational behavior is contingent upon forces that extend beyond the self-contained context of the school. It then becomes necessary to study “the relationships between human behavior and the context (environment, ecology) that are characteristic of the organization” (Owens, 1998, p. 44).
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Reed, L. C. (2017). Transforming school culture: A case study approach. Chicago, IL: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.