When Parents Lead, Children Succeed

The Roots of Standards and Decision Making in the Education System

The Roots of Standards and Decision Making in the Education System

Elane V. Scott
Rick Stephens
Featured Guest:
Phil Schlechty

“Young children are intuitively good systems thinkers. In their eagerness to learn, they bring all that they know to their learning. Everything is related and relevant. And we do a pretty good job at supporting this notion through kindergarten. When children first learn about the ocean, for example, they read and write ocean stories, count and sort sea shells, study and taste fish, and tie it all together with art projects. They might even discuss beach erosion and pollution in this interdisciplinary endeavor. They know that everything is connected to everything else. What's more, they love it! In their interdisciplinary, learner-centered approach, they are pretty good budding 'systems thinkers'. Perhaps we would all be too if our thinking had not become so compartmentalized as we progressed through school.” - Debra Lyneis, School Board Member, Carlisle, Massachusetts

Dear Valued Stakeholders,

It’s an interesting quote isn’t it?

The idea that we are systems thinkers from birth, and gradually moved away from seeing our world of relationships and activities as related, to seeing them as separate, unrelated parts, is hard to comprehend. Traditionally, teachers have worked to prepare young students for their venture into future education by giving them big, broad, integrated lessons, just like the one School Board Member Debra Lyneis talks about in the quote above. They know they’ll be able to grasp ideas better, as in the afore mentioned example, if they are taught concepts using all the senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch, reminiscent of how the world presents itself to them as they grow. Remember how one of our earlier guests, Janet Doman, talked to us about how the brain grows best and retains more information when learning requires the use of all the senses? Educators often call this full sensory process of teaching and leaning as “educating the whole child.” On a community level, it is what we at Birth2Work call the community systems approach, where the six economic sectors that shape and influence the lives of people who live there, are all engaged.

With that, in our continued discussion of systems thinking applied to the six economic sectors (business, education, health, non-profits, media, and government), we talk this week to Phil Schlechty, one of the nation’s foremost authors and speakers on school reform and the founder and CEO of the Schlechty Center, located in Louisville, Kentucky. The application of systems thinking in schools is not limited to the methods for teaching students, or even administrative leadership. What Phil helps us understand in this conversation has to do with the structure of schools as organizations unto themselves, within their communities, often being driven by national bureaucracy, rather than local imperatives.

Phil explains that prior to the 1950s, public schools were essentially community run organizations. They were the civic center of many communities. Over time, school organizations, once boasting locally determined standards, gradually were required to adhere to federally determined standards and the task of “fixing” poorly performing schools took the vision of local education away from community citizens.

For us, at Birth2Work, Phil’s message about the importance of civic engagement in education is at the heart of our work, too. He talks about research going as far back as 1916 when the words “civic capacity” were first used to describe communities where families and businesses worked together to determine the standards of quality and excellence behind the education performance of their teachers and students. The amount of dollars-spent-per-child wasn’t the only indicator of excellence in schools. Quality of engagement and expectations of the people in the community where their school was located was a greater indicator.

Phil reminds us of the early days of science, when the principle of reductionism took hold. That principle states that to understand something best, it must be taken apart in order to study all of its pieces—which is how our educational system works today. Hence our learned practices of thinking and problem solving in life, created vast numbers of specialists who work in isolation on their one little portion of an issue. But this means that fewer and fewer people understand the broader context of their work as part of a whole, or see the degradation of each attempt to fix problems when done without a coherent plan, and suffer a lack of understanding of the systemic issues common to each part. What we need now are systems thinkers.

In our white paper, “Ensuring Workforce Skills for the Future,” we talk about the importance of a whole vision for creating capable people for the future by engaging all parts of a community and all ways of learning. In his new book, “Leading for Learning,” Phil Schlechty strongly reinforces the importance of civic capacity in the transformation of schools into learning organizations for the future.

Elane V. Scott