Systems Fall Apart...

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Every educational institution or think tank has its broken records. One of Better Ed's that you’ll hear repeatedly is the following: “we don’t have a spending problem in education, we have a system problem.” In this post, I want to take a step back and flesh out what we mean by a “system problem.”

Let’s start with a working definition of a system. Basically, a system is a group of interrelated activities or concepts that form a whole, or, have a common goal. There are natural systems such as the circulatory system, which consists of those organs that work together to transport blood throughout the body. Then there are man-made systems: those systems that human beings construct in order to produce a particular outcome. The transportation system, for instance, consists of a number of roads, means of transportation, organizations and employees that have the common purpose of getting people from A to B.

The education system is also one of these man-made systems whose components are ordered to… well, let’s put off answering that question for now.

Many of us have bad associations with some of these man-made systems. The American health care system brings to mind descriptors such as “inefficient,” “costly,” “bloated,” “self-serving.” Some of these descriptors are also applied to our education system, which generates poor results in spite of its massive spending.

It is currently en vogue to bash systems, but we should qualify that systems serve a good. In fact, human beings have a natural inclination toward systems. As Aristotle showed in hisCategories, men and women’s brains naturally group things together, classify them, and hierarchically order them in order to better understand them. Man-made systems can provide greater unity and order to the actions of human life.

But all systems share certain weaknesses. For one, systems are unable to sufficiently account for diversity. Human existence is infinitely complex, and systems cannot possibly take into consideration all of the differences in genetics, character, gender, culture, race, creed, and geography that shape the identity of human beings. Systems can also breed passivity in their human components. People stop exercising their own creativity in the hopes that they can merely insert themselves into a system and let that system do the work.

In addition, systems become problematic when: 1) they have drifted from their foundational principles; 2) their foundational principles were problematic to begin with; 3) they have not sufficiently adapted to changes in their environment; or 4) when they consistently fail to produce the expected results. When any or all of these things occur, then, to play upon the Yeats’ famous line, “Systems fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” In other words, we then have a “system problem.”

Systems are a part of human existence. But, they are also very human, and for that reason, very fallible. It is up to the human persons in the systems to hold them accountable. We must subject something such as the education system to analysis and critique. We must ask ourselves questions like: Does the current education system effectively serve the purposes for which it was constructed? If so, do we still believe in those purposes? Does the system leave enough room for the contributions of its human members (students, teachers, parents)? Should we stick with the current system, or has it run its course?

By asking questions such as these, we continue to exercise the freedom and creativity that generated the education system in the first place. These questions serve as a reminder that the system exists for us, rather than vice versa.