Schools are complex systems. In a meaty article by systems guru Donella Meadows (HT to Tim Fish at NAIS for sharing with me) we find that, “Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in ‘leverage points’. These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.”
Few of my readers will want to wade through Meadows’ article, yet her exceedingly relevant points need translation for the world of K-12 education. That’s where I come in!
Meadows cites twelve “leverage points” where a small shift can produce a large result. But she argues that, in reality, SOME LEVERAGE POINTS ARE VASTLY MORE IMPACTFUL THAN OTHERS. In other words, we can spin our wheels by putting too much faith in the wrong levers, or we can truly accelerate change by pressing the right ones.
Since even a dramatically reduced summary of this important article is weighty, Part I will be the “bottom” of the list, or those leverage points that school leaders might want to use cautiously, while my next post discusses the “top” of the list: the levers of highest impact.
Meadows’ Bottom Six
12. Constants, parameters, numbers. These are the measuring sticks and benchmarks which schools are so fond of, from test scores, graduation rates, and college matriculation lists to what we learn from generic parent satisfaction surveys. Meadows says,
“People care deeply about parameters and fight fierce battles over them. But they RARELY CHANGE BEHAVIOR. If the system is chronically stagnant, parameter changes rarely kick-start it. If it’s wildly variable, they don’t usually stabilize it. If it’s growing out of control, they don’t brake it.”
For decades many school leaders have been stuck rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, fighting for those extra few percentage points here and there, with no real solutions to the underlying construct of a system that is ill-designed for many current challenges. Yes, boardS want to see metrics, but don’t imagine that understanding numbers means things are going to change.
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows. Translation: schools serve large numbers of students and generally those numbers don’t change much year-to-year. Students come to us at one age and they graduate at another age; we are a pipeline. Big demographic changes generally occur over many years. Schools are not like a battery manufacturer where the availability of lithium or labor translates directly to an increase or decrease in output. Unless your school is seeing a precipitous rise or fall of your student “stock”, it will not represent a significant leverage point. Teachers, however are a different matter. Some schools and districts are seeing the start of what will be a long and deep decline in the supply of new teacher “stock”. If this is the case at your school, this leverage point may rocket to the top of your list.
10. Our operating systems, physical materials and infrastructure. Schools have traditionally been structurally rigid: the ages of our students, the massive physical infrastructures we support and the social services we provide. Unless we are willing to substantively disrupt how we view these structures, those leverage points are modest. As Meadows points out, “The only way to fix a system that is laid out wrong is to rebuild it, if you can. But often physical rebuilding is the slowest and most expensive kind of change to make in a system.”
9. The length of delays (in feedback loops), relative to the rate of system change. For schools today, this point needs to be at the bottom of the list, or off the list all together. Educators have traditionally relied on 20-year longitudinal studies to “prove” that one kind of instruction or learning is more beneficial than another. Today, those time frames are utterly out of synch with the rate of change in the world around us, and therefore this kind of traditional feedback loop has almost no value as a leverage point of change. By the time the traditional feedback loop is completed, the problem it was addressing may very well be moot.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against. Now we are staring to get to some more powerful leverage points for school change. Meadows explains that,
“Negative feedback loops are ubiquitous in systems. Nature evolves them and humans invent them as controls to keep important system states within safe bounds. A thermostat loop is the classic example. Its purpose is to keep the system state called “room temperature” fairly constant at a desired level.”
In the current era of a radically differentiated market of educational options, a drop in enrollment or good teachers leaving to teach elsewhere are powerful negative feedback loops that should touch off immediate course corrections.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops. For all organizations, and particularly for schools, the word “positive” can be disastrously misinterpreted in this context. A positive feedback loop is not necessarily “good”, it is one in which conditions or behaviors continue to build unless checked. This can be great if the feedback is something like the cultural adoption of a growth mindset. It can be lethal if it is the rapid spread of a virus or public rumors of teacher misconduct. As Meadows says,
“A negative feedback loop is self-correcting; a positive feedback loop is self-reinforcing. The more it works, the more it gains power to work some more. Positive feedback loops are sources of growth, explosion, erosion, and collapse in systems.”
In a time of rapid change, it is CRITICAL that leadership teams keep a constant eye on feedback loops that have the potential to re-enforce both good and bad trends. During the early days of the pandemic, many schools employed a “war room” approach, with school leaders meeting daily to “monitor and adjust”. While daily meetings of this kind are unsustainable over time, this kind of high-frequency attention to the data flowing from feedback loops is a powerful leverage point.
Enough for now. Stay tuned for Part II: Meadows Top of the List
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