Introduction to systems thinking

From Ed•sy•clopedia
Systems thinking for education

Interactions, feedback loops & alignment
Edsyclopedia icon systems thinking for education.png
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.

A system is a set of elements that are connected to each other by feedback relationships and organised in a way that achieves a function.[1] Ecosystems are a very familiar example of a system.

Components of systems thinking

Table 1 shows a simplified illustration of the elements, relationships, and functions of the marine ecosystem.

Simplified illustration of the components of a system
System Elements Relationships Functions/emergent properties
Ocean life ecosystem Sun, chemicals, water, fish, seaweed
  • Sun shines
  • Water is heated by sun
  • Fish get oxygen from water and put carbon dioxide into the water
  • Seaweed takes carbon dioxide from water and light from sun to grow; it puts oxygen into the water
  • Fish eat plants, excrete nitrogen, die, and decompose to fertilise seaweed
  • Fish eat other fish
  • Plants use nitrogen to grow
  • Sustain life
  • New species evolve
  • Struggling species become extinct

The elements of the system are its visible components, but the crux of the system are the feedback relationships between the elements, which produce the functions, or emergent properties of the system. Often, the functions of the system are not the explicit goal of any individual system’s element. [1] Sun, water, chemicals, plants, and animals all interact to produce the marine ecosystem. But the sun does not shine so the seaweed can grow, and the seaweed does not grow so that it can feed the fish.

Though systems are made up of their elements and the relationships between them, they exist as ontologically distinct “things” from those elements and relationships. Studying the individual animals and plant of the marine ecosystem reveals some useful information, but studying the interactions between the species and how these interactions produce system functions can reveal a great deal more.

Because the system’s properties are produced by interactions between elements, interventions in the system that focus on one element can have unintended consequences. To take a specific example from marine life, in the Pacific Northwest killer whale populations have been steadily rising since the mid 1980s—a victory for conservation of this endangered species. At the same time, though, Chinook salmon populations have been declining. Both species are protected under different provisions of the endangered species act, but provisions of the law only allow for interventions that protect individual species. There are no provisions for interventions to support the ecosystem when both a predator and prey species are designated for protection.[2] An element-by-element approach is insufficient in this case; a solution that takes the interactions and the overall system into account is needed.

Systems thinking for education

It can be easy to grasp the connection between the feedback relationships and emergent properties of tangible systems, like that of ocean life, but it can be harder to see these connections in social systems like education. This is why developing a framework for studying education systems that clearly identifies the elements, relationships between them, and resulting system functions is so helpful.

Education systems are made up of elements that include people acting in specific roles, like teachers, students, and parents; organisations, like schools and ministries; and things like classrooms and teaching materials. These elements interact with each other via relationships: the parents send their children to school, the teachers teach the students, the teachers are employed by the school, and the school is managed by the ministry, and so on. As with the economy, the functions are revealed by the results of the interactions among the elements, but they might include: teaching foundational skills, ensuring a minimum number of years of schooling are reached, or socialisation to a national identity.

Elements, relationships and functions of an education system
Elements Relationships Functions/emergent properties
Schools, ministries, teaching, and learning materials
  • Parents send children to school, into the teachers’ care
  • Teachers teach students
  • Teachers are employed by schools to teach students
  • Schools are managed by the ministry
  • Parents and communities pressure ministry for education policy in their interest
  • Ministry sets standards for teaching and learning materials
  • Teaching foundational skills
  • Ensuring minimum years of education
  • Socialisation into a national identity

Applying systems thinking

Poorly performing education systems face many problems. Poor teacher training, poor teacher attendance, poor teaching materials, high dropout rates, and poor learning outcomes are all symptoms of a poorly performing education system.

One way to think of these symptoms is as potential “proximate determinants” of the low learning outcomes of a particular child. A child might emerge from her basic education without foundational skills because her teachers were not adequately prepared to teach her, because there were inadequate or inappropriate teaching and learning materials in her classrooms, because she dropped out of school, or because of some combination of these and other factors. We could point to any one of these as the “cause” or proximate determinant of her low learning outcomes at the end of primary school.[3]

To improve outcomes, the interactions between teachers and students have to change. Those who want to help facilitate that change often begin by asking: “What needs to be different about this classroom for the student to emerge prepared?” This line of thinking leads to a focus on all of the symptoms mentioned above. A well intentioned NGO or government official interested in improving outcomes might observe that there are no textbooks in a classroom. Having identified this symptom, they might reasonably think: “There are no textbooks in this school, so we will provide textbooks. Students will be able to study at home now, follow along better in class, and their learning will improve.”

The problem with this symptom-only way of thinking is that it fails to acknowledge that the teacher and student are embedded in a larger system. It doesn’t ask why there are no books in the classroom in the first place. Failing to develop a diagnostic understanding of the problem can lead to a false conclusion about the cause, and to an intervention solution that has little effect on learning (see the example below).

Since education systems in developing countries face so many constraints, symptom-only thinking is tempting. Examples abound of project or programme interventions that look like the “symptom treatments” in the right-hand column of Table 4. Textbooks are missing, so provide them; teachers are absent, so monitor their attendance and enforce it with payment rewards or punishments; students drop out, so provide cash incentives for them to stay in school; and so on. Moreover, the symptom-by-symptom approach is also conducive to the “project dominated” approach to education aid favoured by many donors, making it even more attractive to the sector.[4]

Symptom by symptom treatment of the education system
Symptom Symptom treatment (programme)
Students lack textbooks Provide textbooks
Weak teaching Teacher training
Teacher absenteeism Cameras in classrooms
Students drop out Scholarships
Weak management Management training
Poor teacher motivation Raise teacher salaries

All too often programmes are designed to address one of these symptoms, are implemented faithfully, and yet fail to improve learning outcomes. When a programme fails to have the desired impact, it is tempting to look for a devil in the details, some aspect of programme design or execution that could be tweaked to produce better performance. But often the devil is in the system, not in the details.[5] The programme failed not because of a design flaw, but because of its overall incoherence with the rest of the education system.

One example is a 2009 study of the distribution of textbooks to Kenyan schools. An RCT found no effect of the books on pedagogy or average test scores, but a positive effect on test scores of the best performers. The authors noted that the textbooks were in English and so were inaccessible to most of the students, who could not read English well. The books were the standard government textbooks for this grade level, so the fact that they were in a language that most children could not read reflected the overambitious, elite orientation of the Kenyan curriculum at the time. The intervention was designed under the assumption that lack of resources for textbooks was the constraint to performance in Kenya. But, as the evaluation revealed, the deeper cause of poor performance in the Kenyan system was a curriculum that moved too quickly and left students behind.[6] This type of systemic misalignment is common in education systems in low- and middle-income countries.[7]

A second example can be found in a study of a teacher policy reform effort in Indonesia in the early 2000s. The 2005 Teacher Reform Law, as originally proposed, aimed to improve teacher quality by providing financial incentives for teachers to receive higher certifications that were meant to include rigorous external assessment. Pressure from teacher lobby groups diluted the law, and the certification process eventually adopted was a much weaker portfolio submission process and two-week training for those who did not pass. The reform ultimately resulted in the near universal doubling of civil servant teacher salaries.[8] [9] Researchers worked with the government to randomise the rollout of these increases so that teachers in a group of treatment schools were able to have higher pay sooner, allowing for an assessment of the effects of the salary increase. They found that while teachers were more satisfied with their jobs, the pay increase had no effect on teacher attendance, subject knowledge, or student learning.[9] Changing just one element of teacher’s employment—their salary—without changing anything else about the system that the teachers were embedded in did not change their behaviour.

A final example comes from a more recent study conducted as part of the RISE Programme. In this case a randomised evaluation studied a large-scale management reform meant to improve teacher performance initially implemented in Madhya Pradesh, India, and then scaled to hundreds of thousands of schools nationally. The programme was modelled on state-of-the-art management approaches, and process evaluations revealed it was implemented faithfully. The results? No impact could be detected on any of the performance indicators the study followed: student absence, teacher absence, monitoring and support by managers, or student test scores. The bureaucrats responsible for implementing the programme filled out paperwork and developed plans for improving schools, as they were required to, but when it came to transforming these plans into actions and changes in teachers’ behaviour, the programme broke down. The authors found a “disconnect between the programme’s objectives and how it was actually perceived by those implementing it” (Muralidharan and Singh, 2020, p. 20).[10] In other words, there was an incoherence in the system, not in the details.[11]

These examples do not prove that providing more textbooks, higher teacher wages, or school improvement plans do not contribute to student learning. Instead, they show that attempts to address these individual problems without considering the wider system are likely to fail.

The shortcomings of the symptom-by-symptom approach underscore the need for a framework that can illuminate the true functions and incoherences of education systems. With a clear picture of these, policymakers can design reforms and interventions that bring the system into alignment with learning objectives.

Note: maybe include a glossary or FAQ section to clarify common misconceptions (e.g. misconception that if you can't fix the whole system then there isn't anything you can do)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Meadows, D.H. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction, Vt.: ark:/28722/h21j9797p
  2. Marshall, K.N., Stier, A.C., Samhouri, J.F., Kelly, R.P. and Ward, E.J. 2016. Conservation Challenges of Predator Recovery: Conservation Challenges of Predator Recovery. Conservation Letters. Vol. 9 (1): 70–78.  
  3. Pritchett, L. 2015. Creating Education Systems Coherent for Learning Outcomes. RISE Working Paper Series.15/005.  
  4. Niño-Zarazúa, M. 2016. “Aid, Education Policy, and Development.” International Journal of Educational Development, Aid, Education Policy, and Development. Vol. 48 (May): 1–8.  
  5. Silberstein, J. 2020. “When the Devil’s Not in the Details: The System Failure of a Large-Scale School Management Reform in India.” RISE Programme.
  6. Glewwe, P., Kremer, M. and Moulin, S. 2009. Many Children Left Behind? Textbooks and Test Scores in Kenya. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Vol. 1 (1): 112–35.  
  7. Hwa, Y., Kaffenberger, M. and Silberstein, J. 2020. Aligning Levels of Instruction with Goals and the Needs of Students (ALIGNS): Varied Approaches, Common Principles. Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE).
  8. World Bank. 2013. “Teacher Reform in Indonesia: The Role of Politics and Evidence in Policy Making.”
  9. 9.0 9.1 de Ree, J., Muralidharan, K., Pradhan, M. and Rogers, H. 2018. Double for Nothing? Experimental Evidence on an Unconditional Teacher Salary Increase in Indonesia. The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Vol. 133 (2): 993–1039.  
  10. Muralidharan, K. and Singh, A. 2020. Improving Public Sector Management at Scale? Experimental Evidence on School Governance in India. RISE Working Paper Series. 20/056.  
  11. Silberstein, J. 2020. “When the Devil’s Not in the Details: The System Failure of a Large-Scale School Management Reform in India.” RISE Programme.