Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
Most education systems in low- and middle-income countries are experiencing a learning crisis. The last 30 years have seen dramatic success in the expansion of schooling access and attainment for children around the world. Education systems in the majority of low- and middle-income countries have become very successful at achieving schooling for all (or nearly all) children. However, they persistently fail to produce learning for all (Pritchett, 2013, World Bank, 2018). Prior to the pandemic, the World Bank estimated that 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries, and nearly 80 percent of children in low-income countries will reach the end of primary school without being able to read a simple text (World Bank, 2019). Recent analysis also shows that this problem has been getting worse, not better over time. Analysing repeated cross-sectional data across 88 countries shows that the “quality” of education—defined as the literacy rate of adults with a given level of schooling—was either stagnant or declining in most developing countries between 1960 and 2000 (Le Nestour et al., 2022).
It is not just the poorest and most marginalised who are being left behind. Even children from households among the socio-economic elite in many low- and middle-income countries fail to master the basics (Pritchett and Viarengo, 2021). If the majority of the children in an education system lack the foundational skills needed not only to succeed in higher levels of education but also to reach their full potential as adults, then education systems are failing to deliver on one of their fundamental objectives.
How is it that education systems have succeeded in expanding schooling access and grade attainment, and yet consistently struggle to achieve learning for all? How can governments, donors, and civil society better understand the constraints to the achievement of foundational skills in national education systems and identify priorities for reform? Many efforts to address this crisis do not account for the systemic features of education, meaning that they fail to consider the ways that interactions and feedback loops produce outcomes. An accurate and comprehensive diagnosis of why education systems persistently deliver poor learning outcomes is the first step in understanding how national education systems can transform into learning systems, capable of delivering high quality education to all.
This essay summarises a framework for understanding education systems by specifying the system’s components and the ways that those components interact to cultivate or undermine learning for children.2 Since education systems are complex and involve complex interactions, a structured framework for characterising their features can help identify problems and the way towards solutions to overcome them.
Discussions of systems thinking in education can sometimes induce eye-rolls and groans. It is perceived as the purview of academics who want to develop abstract theories or donors who want to spend money on “capacity building”, and in either case far removed from the practical, pressing concerns facing policymakers, teachers and students.
To deliver learning for all children, it is certainly correct that the interactions between teachers and students in tens of millions of classrooms around the world will need to improve. Conventional wisdom asserts that those who wish to be useful to policymakers should provide actionable solutions. But an approach that starts with a solution in mind and tries to adapt that solution to fit the context is much less likely to succeed than an approach that starts with a careful definition of the problem and then makes an effort to develop a solution (Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock, 2017). Rushing to point to a solution to improve teacher–student interactions ignores the fact that teachers and students are embedded in larger systems that might be the cause of their poor performance and that determine the scope for intervention to improve it.
For example, if too little water is coming out of your tap, increasing the water pressure might seem like an obvious solution. But if the cause of your slow waterflow is a leaky pipe, raising the pressure might just exacerbate the problem. Systems thinking can be a useful approach to diagnose the underlying problem so that solutions are effective.
This document outlines the conceptual thinking behind the RISE Systems Framework and offers a practical approach for how the framework can be applied to diagnose constraints in an education system. It opens with a discussion of what systems thinking is and how it can be useful in understanding outcomes in service delivery sectors like education. Next, it presents the RISE Framework for understanding education systems, including practical guidance for how this framework can be applied. It concludes with a discussion of how a systems perspective—and the RISE Framework in particular—can be used to understand observed outcomes in education systems and for moving beyond a description of problems towards a diagnosis of why the problem exists and how it can be addressed.
Silberstein, J. and Spivack, M. 2023. Applying Systems Thinking to Education: Using the RISE Systems Framework to Diagnose Education Systems. 2023/051. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-RI_2023/051