The current problems we face in education and health have proven to be notoriously difficult to solve. Inequity in terms of quality and access to education continues to plague the education system. With respect to health, India has the world’s highest incidence of rabies and inadequate sanitation infrastructure is a major public health concern. Entangled in wickedly complex webs, dedicated efforts to straighten the knots seem to only worsen the issue at hand. How, then, should action researchers approach a problematic situation, and ensure that change is happening for good?
Traditional methods of approaching problems have proved insufficient for analysing contemporary problems in the education sector. By solely focusing heavily on tweaking institutional structures, like the availability of a particular resource or an overarching policy, practitioners run the risk of designing ineffective solutions. System scientists advocate a holistic approach to conceptualizing systems - a system is an ecological unit, wherein its various components are distinct but interdependent. A systems approach, therefore, believes that localised issues have a ripple effect through a system, and have a far wider impact on system outcomes than previously acknowledged. For example, a designed government subsidy requires timely district level execution, which in turn affects public schools, and in turn, has an impact on individual student outcomes (Christens 2007). Additionally, complex problems comprise of multiple, conflicting perspectives of various stakeholders, and not attending to unheard voices might leave us with a superficial understanding of the problem at hand.
Developments in systems thinking have borrowed from fields like sociology, psychotherapy, philosophy and earth sciences - there is an acknowledgement of power structures and an understanding that the actions of one agent have the capacity to transform a system. In this manner, we can divide a system into several components, all distinct but still interdependent. Additionally, by identifying the role played by each stakeholder in maintaining equilibrium, a systems thinking approach to solving problems is both holistic and humanitarian.
Although initially criticized for being a pseudo-scientific way of addressing a problem, systems thinking has seen vast applicability across diverse fields. Take, for example, the criticism levied on mainstream research in education - there is consensus amongst scholars that by focusing too heavily on individual-oriented issues of "learning", and devising technical solutions to the same without a comprehensive study of the education systems present in the area, we fail to grasp the entirety of the problem at hand. It is true - children are not learning as effectively as they could, but a more fruitful method of approaching the same problem, while also tackling the pertinent issue of access to education, would be an approach that considers how various interrelated components of a system affect access and quality to education. This does include an inspection of institutional structures and the roles played by people within the system but also inspects how cultural and psycho-social forces play a role in determining the same.
Therefore, systems thinking is not merely a methodological orientation - it is also a philosophical conviction. In solving problems, all voices matter. In our endeavour to offer sound evidence-based recommendations to civil society organisations and the government, and ensure that interventions in the education sector are effective, Leadership for Equity adopts a systems thinking approach for evaluating and diagnosing education systems. We begin with describing the education landscape in the system, through an examination of secondary data available and conducting stakeholder needs and satisfaction assessments. This involves interacting with students, teachers, parents, civil society organisations and governmental bodies. Secondly, for the purpose of evaluating the system’s health, we develop a system diagnostic tool and analyse the resultant data.
LFE’s conceptual framework divides the larger education system into two main sections - tangibles and intangibles. Our framework aligns with existing scholarship in systems theory. Tangibles also referred to as apparent structures in similar constructions are those concrete, institutional elements that quantify a sector. This includes policies and other charters pertaining to education, services and resources, and the people involved. Additionally, we also emphasise studying intangibles, also referred to as deep structures, that include an interaction between system parts, and a study of the values and norms in the education system. Systems scientists argue that solely analysing a system’s structural components might not give us a clear picture of the problem at hand - are the cultural norms of a system aligned with a particular policy? To what extent is the execution of a particular programme in line with its envisioned design? What is the nature of the relationship between various stakeholders, and how does that interaction affect the functioning of the system? We study similar questions under three sub-components: values, processes and relationships.
This, we believe, allows for a systematic and comprehensive assessment of the education system we wish to study. Each sub-component is accompanied by a working analytical framework, the answers to which we aim to derive from our qualitative and quantitative data. While a traditionalist methodology also aims for their own definition of ‘comprehensive’, a systems thinking approach acknowledges that different stakeholders have their own unique worldviews. This worldview is shaped by an individual’s distinct positionality, culture and experiences. A systems thinking approach, therefore, is cognizant of there being no one “true” problem, and we are careful about pathologizing a system unit without gaining a deeper understanding of the problematic situation.
How, then, is systems approach beneficial in education research? Instead of solely focusing on redesigning education policy, investing in research that focuses heavily on individual-oriented processes like learning capacity, or offering technical solutions like privatisation of education, an inspection into a system’s intangibles offers us insight into the operation of structural marginalisation, socio - economic inequalities and normative coercion, and how these fundamental beliefs and processes affect access to and quality of education.
Scholars have noted that transformations within this paradigm are infamously difficult, but if effective, they prove to be the most successful. Even if an intervention does not aim at transforming intangibles, what we have is a rich description of the same, and this allows us to be more deliberate, empathetic and reflexive in how we define and design “change”.
The author Zaphya Jena is an MA student at IIT Gandhinagar, and is presently working on mental health pedagogy in Gujarat. She’s passionate about inter-sectional feminism, food and cuddling every cat in sight. She can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christens, B. D., Hanlin, C. E., & Speer, P. W. (2007). Getting the social organism thinking: Strategy for systems change. American Journal of Community Psychology, 39(3-4), 229.