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Systems thinking for education

Interactions, feedback loops & alignment
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Introductory articles
Interactions within education systems

This article draws heavily on Spivack, M. 2021. Applying Systems Thinking to Education: The RISE Systems Framework. RISE Insight Note 2021/028.

The RISE Programme is investigating how education systems can overcome the learning crisis and deliver learning to all children. The programme has developed an Education systems framework which characterizes the system as a set of relationships, and the outcomes of the system as an emergent property of the interactions and feedback loops between the elements. The framework can be used to analyze systems to understand how they can be improved. A key conjecture of this framework is that systems deliver learning when their relationships are aligned or coherent for learning.

Functions or emergent properties of the system: alignment of relationships

Education systems deliver learning when strong relationships of accountability are aligned around a learning objective across their design elements. In other words, systems deliver learning when coherence for learning emerges as a feature of the interactions between the elements of the system [1].

Types of incoherence

There are at least two alternatives to a well-functioning system that is coherent for learning: 1) interactions among the elements of the system produce alignment around an objective other than learning; or 2) interactions among the elements of the system produce incoherence [2]. The coherence or incoherence among the relationships and their features, and the alignment of the relationship around learning or some other objective, can all be thought of as the emergent properties of the system. The emergent properties of the system are the result of the interactions between the elements. Innovation is an emergent property of an economy, just like a fish’s gills colours are an emergent property of an ecosystem. It may seem like there is an “invisible hand” creating the economy or a “mother nature” orchestrating evolution, but these features emerge from system pressures, not from any intentional plan. Similarly, the alignment of the relationships or incoherences in an education system can be outcomes of the system even though they are not intentionally created by any actor in the system.

Alignment of relationships of accountability

The alignment of a relationship of accountability is one of the emergent properties of an education system that the framework can help identify and evaluate. Systems deliver learning when relationships of accountability are coherent around learning objectives, but in many systems relationships are aligned around other objectives. Examining each relationship of accountability and its features can point towards the overall alignment of the relationship, which may be implicit or different from explicitly stated purposes. An overall alignment can be identified by defining the organisations that comprise each relationship and then asking what delegation, finance, information, management, support, and motivation look like from the perspective of both the principal and the agent in the relationship. These include:

  • Learning: Elements of the relationship of accountability are aligned around learning objectives. Clear learning objectives are delegated. Financing is sufficient and sufficiently flexible to achieve learning objectives.
  • Access and attainment: Elements of the relationship of accountability are aligned around expanding enrolment and grade attainment.
  • Socialisation: Relationship is characterised by a socialisation or ideological goal.
  • Clientelism: Relationship is characterised by short-term political objectives, education system is deployed as a tool of clientelism.
  • Special interests: Relationship is characterised by protection for special interests. Special interest groups, such as teachers’ unions that have become dominated by partisan priorities, dominate the compact relationship. Ensuring that their needs are met becomes the primary focus of the relationship of accountability.
  • Process compliance: Relationship is dominated by support functions (e.g., human resources, information technology, or procurement) and bureaucratic compliance, focus of the relationship is entirely on process compliance.

Relationships may have overlapping or complementary alignments. For example, alignment for socialisation is compatible with alignment for access, as the expansion of an ideological perspective is supported by bringing more children into the school system [2].

Types of incoherence

Incoherence in the system can hinder progress towards learning objectives. The three main types of incoherence can be described in terms of the 5x4 matrix.

  • Within a column: incoherence between the design elements within a particular relationship of accountability.

For example, within a compact relationship, executive and fiduciary authorities (i.e., the Ministry of Finance) may delegate learning improvements but only ask education authorities (i.e., Ministry of Education) for information on enrolment rates. This means that there is incoherence between what is delegated, and the information used to evaluate the ministry’s performance. This undermines the delegated objective, as ministry officials shift their focus to what is being measured, rather than what is being rhetorically delegated, weakening the overall relationship of accountability.

Example of column incoherence in the compact column
Politics Compact Management Voice & Choice
Delegation Executive and fiduciary authorities may delegate learning improvements (i.e. president's office call for a new initiative to improve test scores)
Information In regular reporting on Ministry of Education activities and justification of resources, Ministry of Eduation is only asked to report on enrolment rates
  • Within a row: incoherence between the relationships of accountability across one or more design elements.

For example, executive and fiduciary authorities may delegate a focus on access and attainment, but education authorities may try to begin delegating goals around improved learning outcomes. This incoherence in what is being delegated at different levels of the system may cause confusion. It may also result in insufficient finance and support for the learning objectives the Ministry of Education is trying to adopt.

Within-row incoherence is a particular challenge for frontline providers (teachers and school leaders), who are the only actors in the system who are the agent of more than one principal. As a result, they are particularly vulnerable to incoherence due to misalignment between their two principals.

For example, education authorities may want to change the pedagogical approach in schools. They can delegate this change, finance it adequately, provide support to help teachers adopt it, and collect information about the adoption. However, if parents are opposed to the change they can pressure teachers to stick to the old approach.

Example of coherence in a column (Management) and incoherence in rows (between Management and Voice & Choice)
Politics Compact Management Voice & Choice
Delegation Education authorities introduce pedagogical approach Parents prefer old approach and express this preference to teachers
Information Adequate financing provided to develop and deploy new approach
Finance Information on adoption of new approach by frontline collected
Support Training in new approach provided
Motivation Parents and community groups pressure teachers to stick to old approach


  1. Crouch, Luis(2020). Systems Implications for Core Instructional Support Lessons from Sobral (Brazil), Puebla (Mexico), and Kenya [1].
  2. 2.0 2.1 Pritchett, Lant and Spivack, Marla. (Forthcoming). Diagnosing Systems of Education to Overcome the Learning Crisis.

See also