Why Systems Thinking Matters: A RISE Panel at the Teach for All Conference

From research to implementation, systems thinking can make pivotal contributions to complex challenges in educational improvement.


Image of Lillie Kilburn

Lillie Kilburn

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Just what is it about systems thinking that can be so transformative in education systems reform?

That’s the question that RISE affiliates and Teach for All alumni explored in a recent plenary on systems thinking at the 2021 Teach for All Research Conference.

Improving systems by analysing interactions

The plenary’s four panellists presented research centred around the importance of understanding education systems as a dynamic series of interactions among actors and components. Since these interactions are shaped, enhanced, and inhibited by one another and the system in which they are embedded, the road to improving learning has to start with understanding the functioning of the system and the interactions within it.

  • RISE Research Manager Marla Spivack explained that because learning itself is an interaction between students and teachers, we can only improve learning by first analysing the system to see how it is shaping the interactions that make up learning. To this end, the RISE systems framework offers a way to analyse and describe education systems in terms of their relationships.
  • Jess Atkinson of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) described how systems thinking can illuminate the reasons why actors in the system make choices and how those choices are interrelated through relationships.
  • Tarun Cherukuri of Indus Action, an implementing partner for the RISE India Country Research Team, also explored interactions in education systems and how they could provide leverage points for addressing problems in India’s education system.
  • RISE Research Fellow Yue-Yi Hwa then offered examples of what systems thinking really looks like in education research, drawing on the RISE working paper System (In)Coherence: Quantifying the Alignment of Primary Education Curriculum Standards, Examinations, and Instruction in Two East African Countries, a forthcoming paper on an ethnographic study of Delhi school reforms, and forthcoming work on teacher careers.

Following the presentations, Karen Mundy of the University of Toronto and the RISE Intellectual Leadership Team gave remarks as the panel’s discussant. Among other things, she offered a historical perspective on systems thinking in education, and emphasised the importance of both leadership and management in educational change. The panel concluded with a curated conversation.

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