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Engineering 21st Century Learning Systems

Why Talk About Systems?

Fluid, functioning systems are beautiful, and learners of all ages deserve beautiful systems to support them.

A properly functioning learning system would provide coherence by being flexible and stable in all the right ways. It would elicit desirable behaviors and support the various actors engaged in the learning.

Sadly, we need to talk about ‘the system’ that so many people blame for poor educational outcomes because ’the system’ does not support what we know about how humans learn.

We need to understand that the clunky, haphazard collection of elements cobbled together as ’the system’ actively impedes desirable outcomes. And we cannot continue to tell educators to apply more Band-Aids. No amount of good will, collaboration, qualified educators, or funding will make this dysfunctional system successful.

Several credible authors representing different perspectives have presented well-supported arguments describing this dysfunction in detail. Someone had to rebuild. 

I founded EduChange in 2000 because I was convinced that a well-tested, comprehensive system that was intentionally designed to support human learning could be celebrated rather than scorned. And I joined with educators, researchers and scientists who wanted to do more than talk about it.

The late Donella Meadows is widely known as one of the great systems thinkers of our time, and her 2008 book Thinking in Systems: A Primer helped guide the articulation of our work. Meadows defined a system as “a set of elements or parts that is coherently organized and interconnected in a pattern or structure that produces a characteristic set of behaviors, often classified as its ‘function’ or ‘purpose.’” We used this definition to ask a variety of questions about our current educational system:

  • What is the set of elements?
  • How different are those elements across geographies?
  • Across time frames?
  • What does it mean for schools to be coherently organized?
  • Is it worth trying to attain coherence across more than one school?
  • For whose benefit?
  • Can we name the interconnections among elements?
  • Can we observe patterns over long periods of time (i.e., longer than a grant cycle)?
  • What combinations of structures can produce a characteristic set of behaviors, and can there be multiple permutations of these behaviors that we can all agree are ‘desirable?’

There were other worthy questions.

Before jumping into a design, Meadows advises, it’s important to “get the beat of the system” and “expose your mental models to the light of day.” In systems thinking, patience is a virtue.

This post serves as a preface to an upcoming series of posts about the various learning systems that EduChange has spent nearly two decades designing, implementing, evaluating, iterating and improving. After working alongside teachers in more than 1100 classrooms, not including the years spent in my own, I am happy to report that it is indeed possible to design more elegant, intentional structures, with feedback loops that create virtuous cycles for diverse actors in a system that supports human learning.

We need not feel hopeless about the education system because, in reality, we are engineering it to support human learning for the very first time. And that is a very exciting prospect indeed.

My Early Lessons About Systems

Despite holding degrees from elite universities, I can say without hesitation that I learned about systems by playing music. 

I studied piano from a very young age, and become fascinated by the unbelievable diversity of sound sequences and feelings this finite combination of strings, hammers and keys could produce.

New pianists are painfully aware of the system formed by two eyes and two hands; this coordination is quite awkward to manage at first.

And it is profound to realize, as a child, that this somewhat complex contraption of wood and ivory remains completely silent until someone sits down to play a piece of music.

One had to make music.

“We need not feel hopeless about the education system because, in reality, we are engineering it to support human learning for the very first time.”

The piano was the first complex instrument I was trusted to command, before I was trusted with a bicycle, the stove or my older brother’s stereo.

Just as it was thrilling to learn how to read words on a page (a theme I will revisit in later posts), I was equally fascinated by the musical code of staffs, notes, rests and measures.

I never considered myself more talented than others, but I stuck with my piano studies long after my friends had moved on. Looking back, I can now identify two elements of buy-in: I believed that playing music with a high degree of facility would bring me joy in ways that merely listening to music would not, and I believed that this joy was worthy of practice.

I soon added flute to my young repertoire so that I could participate in the school band,  a system of many players, musical sequences and instruments. I also came to realize that musical performance enhanced my ability to listen to music more deeply, and in new ways.

There was something quite powerful about these co-existing forces—the finite and the infinite; the instrument , the composer, and the player; the practice and the joy; the participation and the observation—that I internalized long before I could describe any of it.

This long period of intellectual incubation without outward expression of such powerful internal understandings, and without pressure from adults to prematurely formulate explanations, has greatly influenced my work as an instructional designer. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

If the world of music opened my mind to the wonder of systems more generally, my training in science deepened my appreciation. Chemical formulas and mathematical expressions stood in for musical phrases, the four nucleic acids of DNA reminded me how extraordinary biodiversity was unified by a relatively simple code, and the atomic nuclei demonstrated how all matter was reliably controlled by a strong force acting at the shortest of ranges.

Living systems soon wooed me with their unparalleled efficiencies, evolutionary quirks, and the knowledge that somewhere inside a remote ecosystem an undescribed species was waiting to throw taxonomic organization on its head.  And yet, living systems remain governed by physical laws and depend on the rules of the material world for their very existence.

Interdependence is critical to consider when understanding systems, as is the time is takes to stabilize the relationships underlying this interdependence.

Science fostered my ability to question, to reason, and to consider the presence and absence of evidence. I learned to discern the limitations of data and the instruments used to collect them, which has been both a source of frustration and of sanity during decades of misguided data use in education. Science itself is a system comprised of accumulated stocks of information that require dedicated time and people to verify and preserve.

On a good day, science reminds us that all we ever do is build on the shoulders of the masters who have come before us. On a bad day, science reminds us that the exclusion of voices, perspectives and geographies from the conversation only thwarts progress.

On all days, science is a human endeavor.

A System of Systems

I have been leading teams of educators, researchers, designers and STEM professionals to design interdisciplinary learning experiences for 24 years. I have seen with my own eyes the learning power that is generated by breaking down silos—as a learner, as a teacher and as a designer.

There is actually a long international history of integrating the science disciplines for the purposes of teaching, and it looks as though the prevalent university mindset in the USA is shifting back in that direction, though some have been operating this way for years. Our own Integrated Science Program targets upper secondary and early tertiary students from ages 13-20, and builds on the legacy of interdisciplinary learning.

What I didn’t realize when we began this project is that integration is also the key to redesigning ‘the system.’  To make learning more equitable, fair, joyful, developmentally appropriate and in line with cognitive science, we must break down silos and remove unnatural time constraints.

The upcoming posts will demonstrate how our system of systems, structured through layers of integration, alter common notions of academic rigor and achievement.

As high schools and universities continue the reform conversation, many educators are clamoring for concrete models designed using estimable principles. The principles that have surfaced and settled into our program over the years may be found in the visual accompanying this post. (You can download it at the top of the post.)

While it is important to begin with a larger concept and some principles to guide the work, you don’t always know which principles are really driving the system until you see it in action.

Once you create a system, you then must take time to observe how it works (and how its subsystems work). You cannot rush this process, and must be willing to take apart the system and rebuild when necessary. At some point, a rebuild will happen; don’t resist it. And while we are grateful to the educational researchers who gather examples of initiatives and report larger findings, we are wary of academic reports that dictate design principles in the absence of actual design.

The real drivers of any system, desirable or not, will be apparent once its wheels start turning.  This is why it is important that designers are involved closely during long-term pilots and small-scale implementation. We kept the program close for 12 years of implementation to be sure we knew exactly how it worked, and for whom.

I’ll end this post by sharing a decision I will never regret: design all parts simultaneously.

No, the work won’t fit into a grant cycle. Real innovation never does. But it’s not fair to build only the capstone experience, only the rubrics, only the final exam, only the process, only 1-2 sample projects, or only a platform—and expect teachers to figure out the rest. How do you know whether those pieces will work in concert with other parts of their system?

We have used this checks and balances framework since we began. Simple as it may seem, it serves as a reminder that learning systems design is as serious as child’s play. 

Thanks for reading,

We’ll let you know when the next post is ready for you!

One Comment

  1. Avatar
    Anonymous June 9, 2019 at 10:09 pm - Reply

    Thank you for reminding us that “interdependence is critical to consider when understanding systems, as is the time is takes to stabilize the relationships underlying this interdependence”. Improving this unwieldy bohemoth of a system takes time, peristence and patience. It can take generations to make strides that trip the measurment meters. And not all growth can be described mathematically. We can take our cues from Finland on this.

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