Educational change: How systemic thinking helps to push social progress

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 5, 2017

In today’s post I want to share some ponderous thoughts about how educational reforms happen, and how systemic thinking helps to support those reforms.  I am fortunate to be a working group leader in the Accelerating Systemic Change Network (ASCN;, and one of the working groups focuses on how theories and models of change can better support education reform efforts.  Those group leaders (Mark Connolly and Susan Elrod) invited us to discuss a few articles, and in this post I will share some of the ideas that came from that discussion.

The first article we discussed is from Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Systems Change in a Polarized Country.” This article was interesting in that it doesn’t address educational reform, but rather the challenge of achieving social progress in general — particularly under the Trump presidency.  This is an article I would never have read were it not for the ASCN!  Here are two questions that we discussed:


How do we change the narrative in higher education?

This was a question that deeply interested me.  From the article:

Changing systems means changing the behavior of individuals within the system, which in turn depends more on understanding their beliefs and attitudes than on hard data and academic studies. The narratives that drove the US election and continues to drive policy debates often run contrary to reality. Yet it is the narrative rather than the reality that often affects behavior.

There is a clear parallel here with our work in higher education.  After all, educational change is inherently a change in attitude and personal theories about education (see for example this recent post in Faculty Focus – Contradictions in How We Think About Teaching).

I have argued before that we need to do better in education research to communicate our work, and frame its’ messages, to better persuade faculty to try educational innovations.  We could take some lessons from climate change (see this great pamphlet on the psychology of climate change education), which has some good messages about how to communicate scientific information in a way that creates behavior change.  Historically, climate scientists just let the “data speak for itself” and didn’t weave a strong narrative.  Unfortunately, the other side (the non-scientific side) did a better job of spinning information in such a way to persuade the public.  A great book that has guided my thinking quite a bit about how to communicate education research results to faculty and administrators is Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.  Here is a slide deck that I presented about 5 years ago on these topics: Getting the Word Out: Effective Communication of our work in PER.  tldr; We need to create a strong narrative about education reform to reframe the issue in education, and empower our actors to find solutions.  Just how we might reframe our message, we weren’t sure.  We recognized that we sometimes think we are being neutral in our message, and aren’t owning up to the implicit bias or framing of what we communicate.

Is systemic thinking necessarily consistent with piloting programs at small scale?

Apparently in the non-profit sector, foundations are not as keen on funding small-scale programs to pilot-test an idea, and then take it to scale.  Rather a program that uses systems thinking “confronts the system at scale from the start.”  This is a new way of thinking, instead of finding a key strategy and then applying it writ-large, how can we instead take into account the entire ecosystem from the start?  And how might this apply to undergraduate education reform?   I personally struggled with this question, as I didn’t see the two ideas (systems thinking, and scale) as different.  For example, in my own project (TRESTLE), I feel that we are applying systems-thinking at small-scale.  We are providing small amounts of funding to a few departments in a few universities, but have built a structure that provides faculty support in terms of expertise and time, provides cross-campus communities, engages the department as a whole in shared vision, and engages administration.  That said, I can see how tackling “the system” is a different way of thinking in general about reform instead of finding some key strategy and then trying to apply that strategy globally, without tackling the underlying issues in the system itself.  Perhaps TRESTLE isn’t systemic enough, in that it is not directly addressing the reward structure in higher education, for example?


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