Circular Systems Behavior

waterHere is your challenge: Consider a 12 oz. empty glass next to a full 12 oz. bottle of water on a table, and then design a system for filling that glass with water. System solved. Pick up the full bottle and pour the water into the empty glass. Simple; we can visualize the system and see the goal realized.

Schools typically consider school improvement with a similar lens. We see and execute the system comprised of X, Y and Z to yield our intended goal such as increased enrollment or improved reading skills. Yet, as Michael Corso, Chief Academic Officer at Quaglia Institute, explained during a workshop offered by the Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College this week, systems behave in a circular movement rather than simply linear, and this has significant ramifications for school improvement.

In the example above, we now have our full glass of water but we also now have an empty bottle to consider. When new systems are implemented in schools to improve outcomes, that empty bottle may represent time lost for other initiatives or burned-out teachers who have been asked to do more. Effective school leaders see systems as a series of reinforcing or balancing loops rather than a straight line. (Reinforcing loops yield the same effect; balancing loops yield the opposite effect). These leaders are thinking ahead two or three loops to better understand the broader effect which may occur immediately or perhaps be delayed for weeks, months even years.

For example, Michael told the story of a school that implemented a plan to increase student voice. The school found though that a resulting causality, a balancing loop, was a decreased sense of teacher voice. School leaders know that many variables must be considered in the decision-making process.  When effective school leaders map a new system, they anticipate how changes to these variables, even shifts to secondary variables, can reinforce or disrupt the improvement process in the future.

With this understanding, next week’s blog will look at chunking school improvement into small, quick change ideas that can be studied and measured in the short-term to have a better sense of long-term impact.

Before moving on, though, I can’t resist a few related nuggets from Michael’s presentation:

  • “Co-efficient thinking does not sustain improvement. Working harder, faster, smarter is not a substitute for real systems change.”
  • “We often think that others should change so that my life can get better when the highest leverage for change is in the same seat as you.”
  • “School leaders are often too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet. Why? Even though the water would stop running, the level would rise in the time it would take to do so. Yet sometimes we need to act knowing it will get worse before it gets better.”

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