Systemness – a way of thinking


What do you get when you achieve a state where everyone ‘buys in’ to the change that is happening and feels that they are a part of it? You get systemness – a state where there is a ‘harmonisation’ among all parts of the system, each working towards the same vision and doing their part to ‘make it work’.

In our current education system, particularly since the 1989 reforms in NZ, we have seen a pervasive spirit of competition and divisiveness among schools in our system, brought about largely because of the emphasis on the ‘self managing school’, and rewards for leaders who are successful in making their particular school successful (often at the expense of or in spite of what’s happening elsewhere). While this may be a good thing in terms of the experience of students in that partcular school, the result is fragmentation at a system level, with significant variations among schools and learners, depending on where they are learning and who they are learning with.

This thinking has been reinforced for me as I’ve worked recently with Michael Fullan with the NZ cluster of schools participating in the New Pedagogies project. Systemness is one of the things identified in Michael’s 2011 paper titled Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform, in which he identifies four policy and strategy levers that have the least and and four with the best chance of driving successful reform.

A ‘wrong driver’ is a deliberate policy force that has little chance of achieving the desired result, while a ‘right driver’ is one that ends up achieving better measurable results for students.

Systemness is not simply about aligning our activities and focus at a system level, it is about system coherence – it involves a mindset change.

“Systemness” means that you develop experiences in people where they start to identify with the bigger part of the system itself. So a teacher, for example, who moves from just thinking of “my classroom only” to thinking of all the kids in the school—that’s “systemness”. It becomes a case of thinking in terms of “we, not me”.

At the system level, ‘systemness’ means all schools work to improve the learning of each and every student across the system. Within the local school context, ‘systemness’ means each teacher isn’t just responsible for the learning of his/her own students, but for each and every student in the school. Structures won’t achieve this – it requires a change of thinking and mindset.

Systemness requires:

  • commitment to a common vision and aspiration for our learners across the system
  • shared goals
  • a high level of trust among all participants
  • a focus on ‘we, not me’ at all levels
  • the right support at the right time to the right people
  • inherent values of sharing and collaboration

This post has been prompted by some thinking I’ve been doing as I returned from the EduTECH conference last week in Brisbane, where I met and talked to a number of educators from Australia and other parts of the world who, like me, are involved in thinking about and working towards education change at a system level. It seems that no matter where we came from I heard common questions being asked around ‘how to make the change scalable and sustainable?’

For too long we’ve tolerated a high degree of fragmentation in our school system, celebrating the achievements of individual schools at the expense of their neighbouring ones, and we’ve promoted the teacher and principal ‘heros’ at the expense of their colleagues. We have to change this mindset and work more determinedly towards a state of ‘systemness’ – a refreshed way of thinking that places the wellbeing and needs of every learner in the system at the heart of our thinking and decision making.

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