Understanding Educational Systems

Making Sense of Learning and New Technologies

The problems we have created in the world today will not be solved by the level of thinking that created them

Albert Einstein
Understanding Educational Systems

Required readings and video PRIOR to the online discussion in Week 2

Kershaw, J. & McKean, R. (1959). Systems Analysis and Education. No. RM-2473-FF. RAND Corp. Santa Monica, CA. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_memoranda/RM2473.html
Lemke, J. & Sabelli, N. (2008). Complex systems and educational change: Towards a new research agenda. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), 118-129. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00401.x

Systems Thinking makes it possible to analyse and understand complex phenomena such as those involved educational research questions (indeed any human activity) which are often very complex, and is a useful tool to use when commencing research to better understand the complexities involved.

Systems Thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organisations, such as schools or classrooms, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organisation “healthy” or “unhealthy”.

Systems thinking has been defined as an approach to problem-solving, by viewing “problems” as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to a specific part, outcome or event. Systems thinking is not however one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. This approach to systems thinking focuses on cyclical or repeating processes rather than linear cause and effect.

A system is an organised group of related objects or components that form a whole. Systems thinking is thus an holistic approach to the identification and solving of problems where the focal points are treated as components of a system, and their interactions and interrelationships are analysed individually to see how they influence the functioning of the entire system.


The structure, properties, behaviour and interactivity of people and components (inputs, processes and outputs) within and between natural, managed, constructed and digital environments.

Systems Thinking

A holistic approach to the identification and solving of problems where parts and components of a system, their interactions and interrelationships are analysed individually to see how they influence the functioning of the whole system. This approach enables students to understand systems and work with complexity, uncertainty and risk.

Defining Systems

The several ways to think of and define a system include:

  • A system is composed of parts;
  • All the parts of a system must be related (directly or indirectly), else there are really two or more distinct systems;
  • A system is encapsulated, has a boundary to make it distinct from other systems;
  • A system can be nested inside another system;
  • A system can overlap with another system both sharing parts;
  • A system receives input from, and sends output into, the wider environment; and
  • A system consists of processes that change inputs into outputs.

By considering the various systems involved, innovative solutions to the problem may emerge that may not have been thought of when considering just the aspect that is seemingly the most relevant.

Bicycle Brake Example

An example of systems thinking would be understanding a problem with a bicycle not braking fast enough. Rather than trying to improve the brake by looking in great detail at the material composition of the brake pads (a reductionist approach), the boundary of the braking system may be extended to include the interactions between the:

  • brake pads;
  • brake leavers;
  • cables;
  • cyclist reaction time;
  • tires;
  • road conditions;
  • weather conditions;
  • time of day; etc.

Unintended Consequences

Sometimes research and subsequent design solutions have unintended outcomes, these can be positive such as an unforeseen use for a product, but can also be a negative outcome such as an environmental impact.

Systems thinking can also be described as the process of understanding how a group of interacting, interrelated, interdependent components influence each other within the whole. Rather than viewing each problem as an independent entity, it must be considered in the context of its relationship to other parts of the system. Systems thinking teaches students how to solve problems, communicate, use data, and design policies for greater success.

By making or modifying a model and plugging in data, researchers can almost immediately see the influence of their choices. This type of interactive modelling is a key advantage of systems thinking.

For your Delphi Study assignment, you will analyse your selected organisation using these systems modelling techniques and construct a connection circle and flow map for your organisation;

From your systems analysis, you will then identify a challenge facing your selected organisation and from this, develop a research question and 10 options to ask your experts based on the trends, technologies, and challenges we will be exploring in Weeks 4, 5 and 6.

You can create a Connection Circle using any graphics program such as Draw.Io or on paper, and take a photo of this. Using your Connection Circle you should identify at least three Causal Loops and model these in a Flow Map.

The intent is not for you to produce an accurate simulation, but use these tools to think divergently and consider your organisation's problem through different a lens, particularly in how the various parts of your problem interact with each other, and wider systems.

You can create a simple Flow Map using the Loopy tool.

More complex Flow Maps can be created using Insight Maker.

A reference to Systems Thinking


Practice Delphi Survey

Before the online video conference next week, contribute at least 12 educational technologies to the survey using "Add your own ideas here" and submit this list of ideas into the form below. You are not marked on the correctness or quality of your ideas, but they must represent educational technologies.

Before adding new educational technologies to the survey, view the "View Results" tab to see what technologies have already been added. You should not duplicate existing technologies.

This task must be completed by the start of the video conference for Week 3.

Please do not start voting on the options yet, during the video conference in Week 3, we will vote on the Educational Technologies submitted.

You will be creating your own survey for your Delphi assignment.

Research Achievement

Research Achievement

Research Achievement: Class Delphi Survey

Video Conference


Scholar Achievement: Readings summary


Reviewer Achievement: Video Conference summary


Quizmaster Achievement: Weekly Quiz10 questions, open book, untimed, one attempt

Optional additional readings