5 Qualities of Systems Thinking and Communal Classrooms

Systems thinking teaching and learning can happen in any classroom, but it has a better chance of being successful when the school’s principles and policies are rooted in systems thinking.  However, as you will find out, the qualities that characterize systems thinking classrooms can be applied to any classroom.

Systems thinking schools and classrooms seek interconnectivity. They are based on partnerships. Partnerships with parents, collaboration among peers, including teachers and students. There is also a very powerful attempt to seek curriculum interconnectivity based on the lived experiences of students and teachers. For curriculum to be relevant, it needs to be locally designed and implemented by professional teachers and administrators who believe in the principles that follow.

Figure 1.  The classroom nested within a school which is nested within a community and the world at large.  Source: Senge, Peter M.; Cambron-Mccabe, Nelda; Lucas, Timothy; Smith, Bryan; Dutton, Janis. Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Kindle Location 522). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Extracted Jan. 29, 2014
Figure 1. The classroom nested within a school which is nested within a community and the world at large. Source: Senge, Peter M.; Cambron-Mccabe, Nelda; Lucas, Timothy; Smith, Bryan; Dutton, Janis. Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Kindle Location 522). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Extracted Jan. 29, 2014

One of the leading scholars in the field of systems thinking schools is Peter A. Barnard. He has written a ground-breaking book, The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (public library).  Relevant here are his comments about some of the values upon which systems thinking schools are based.  He writes:

Systems thinking is not the same as systems per se, but that systems thinking is liberating, creative, and elegant and that it removes the angst from the way people work. Systems thinking also harbors a profound and positive view of people, their creative ability, and their intrinsic nature and all of this makes it a joy to work with. It is a different way of looking at management and a better way of valuing and enabling people, and especially those who live out their lives in our schools.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 151-152). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

Systems thinking schools (and classrooms) connect the boundaries that we have worked very hard to set up, especially in the West.  We divide or put everything into different boxes–science here, math there, social science over there, art and music way over there.  Even within the content areas such as science, we divide the world into the familiar subjects of earth science, life science, and physical science.  All of these separations, according Margaret J. Wheatley, are strange and unnatural separations.  In systems thinking schools, there is an overwhelming effort to see the world “anew” and when teachers witness teaching and learning that is based on connections, teaming, learning together, they often say, “this is so natural, its common sense.”  But to organize schools and classrooms as systems thinking environments means that we have to thinking differently and come to grips with  why learning is so dependent on connections, networks, interdependencies, social interactions, collaboration, and team work.

In this post I name five qualities of teaching and learning in a systems thinking classroom.  I’ve decided to focus on the “system thinking classroom,” perhaps one that is housed in a systems thinking school.

A systems thinking classroom can not be made by simply copying another teacher’s classroom.  Each classroom system is unique composed of 20 – 40 students  and one or more teachers.  In a systems thinking approach, the teacher is a leader, much like the principal is a leader of the school.  Yet, all classrooms in a particular school are part of that system, and tend to run in similar ways–in systems thinking speak: the system causes its own behavior.  This means that we have to set aside our old beliefs and realize that we do not have a teacher quality problem.  We have a systems problem. We have to look at the school as a whole process that includes parents, community and the knowledge society beyond.  (See Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 334-335). R&L Education. Kindle Edition).

A systems thinking classroom is a rich environment in which every student believes that they can be a learner and mentor with other students in their classroom.   The psychological organization of the classroom would lead to enhanced interpersonal relationships and students would learn to excel by participating in learning teams throughout the semester or year.  The learning of science, for instance, would be seen as not only a responsibility of the each student, but there would be an interdependent learning environment enhanced by mentoring, tutoring, and team work.  The class as a whole would take responsibility for learning, whether the course is science, mathematics, world history, anthropology, art appreciation, health and physical education,  integrated arts, English as a Second language, and so forth.

The Systems Thinking and Communal Classroom

It won’t surprise you, but a systems thinking classroom is what Dr. Chris Emdin calls a communal classroom.  Dr. Emdin, a leading researcher of urban teaching and learning, and Professor of science education at Teachers College uses the concept of “communal classroom.”  Dr. Emdin explains that communal classrooms involve students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on interpersonal relationships, community, and the collective betterment of the group.

In their study, Exploring the context of urban science classrooms, published in Cultural Studies in Science Education, they contrast two ways to organize a classroom, the corporate way and the communal way.   To Emdin, the corporate classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter and functioning in ways that follow a factory or production mode of social interaction. The primary goal in corporate class mode is maintaining order and achieving specific results (such as the results generated by standardized tests). The corporate model is based on competition and extreme conservative values.

The communal classroom involves students and teachers working with subject matter through interactions that focus on inter-personal relationships, community and the collective betterment of the group.  The communal model is based on cooperation and progressive values.

In this post I am going to explore these five characters of systems thinking/communal classrooms:

  • Learning
  • Tutoring
  • Student Voice
  • Team Learning
  • Assessment for Learning


Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 7.49.38 PMWhen you walk into a systems thinking classroom, you can smell learning.  It permeates the air, and the teacher has created a learning environment in which learning is a natural result of interactions and interdependencies among the students and teacher and the world outside the classroom.  Such a classroom is communal.

The teacher is not the only one in the communal classroom that is responsible for student learning.  Not at all.

This quote from Peter Barnard’s book (public library) gets at what we would envision in a systems thinking classroom, especially if someone asked the teacher who is going to make sure my child learns.   Perhaps this might be one way to answer the question.

When a child enters a school, responsibility for learning is a shared process, and there are many learning relationships that need to be enabled. System management and design must reflect this.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 2151-2153). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

Years ago in one of my graduate classes, a high school mathematics teacher believed and put into practice Barnard’s notion of learning as a shared process.  He talked about his calculus class.  Someone asked him what was his approach to teaching calculus.  He said that he believed students would begin to learn calculus when they were ready.  I visited his class and realized that his informal style of classroom organization enabled students to move to and from calculus problems, and that students would seek each other out for tutoring and support.  There was also a sense in the classroom that everyone was in some way, involved in other student’s learning of mathematics. And this was in the 1970s.

There is another aspect of learning that is implicit in communal and systems thinking classrooms, and that is for teachers to make a conscious effort to shift priorities away from giving answers to helping students find new questions.  This idea is a fundamental concept of Grant Lichtman’s philosophy of teaching, and is described in his fascinating book about teaching and learning, The Falconer (public library).

One of the aspects of Grant’s book that I appreciate is that the central theme of his book is the importance of asking questions.  We have established a system of education based on what we know and what we expect students to know at every grade level.  The standards-based curriculum dulls the mind by it’s over reliance on a set of expectations or performances that every child should know.  In this approach, students are not encouraged to ask questions.  But, they are expected to choose the correct answer.

In Lichtman’s view, education will only change if we overtly switch our priorities from giving answers to a process of finding new questions.  This notion sounds obvious, but we have gone off the cliff because of the dual forces of standards-based curriculum and high-stakes assessments.  Lichtman writes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. Each question leads to one or more new questions or answers. Sometimes answers are dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere. Questions are never dead ends. Every question has the inherent potential to lead to a new level of discovery, understanding, or creation, levels that can range from the trivial to the sublime.  Lichtman, Grant (2010-05-25). The Falconer (Kindle Locations 967-971). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.


In Peter Barnard’s (public library) investigation of systems thinking schools, one of the major conceptions for changing the landscape of schools was what he called Vertical Tutoring (VT).  VT is tutoring across different age groups–older students helping younger students.  But schools in the U.S. are organized horizontally, including home-rooms.  However, Barnard suggests organizing home-rooms vertically could have profound effects on learning.  He writes:

Home groups— what US education calls homerooms— become a mixture of students from different grades or years, and this small change, when understood at a systems level, sparks a whole sequence of amazing events throughout the school. It can kick-start a process of school redesign from the inside out. Such changes, however, have to be understood, managed, and values-driven.  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 73-75). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

supportIf your teaching high school biology in the U.S., however, most of your students are the same age, and same grade.  Is it possible to apply the concept of VT in a classroom where most of the students are the same age.  I believe we can.

For many years I conducted seminars on cooperative learning for middle and high school science teachers.  Although I developed three more seminars which were presented nationally through the Bureau of Education and Research (BER), my goal in each seminar was to involve teachers, sometimes in groups ranging from 50 – 150, in a collaborative learning experience which could be a pedagogical tool to involve students in tutoring.  In most cases, we advocated learning teams of four students, and this was done to give teachers concrete experiences in team learning and team problem solving.  But we also explored the value of splitting the four member team into tutorial partnerships.  In these partnerships, one partner could teach each other, listen to another attempting to solve a word or mathematics problem, quiz each other on the content that they were studying, select a question from their text, and ask one person to answer and the other to tutor by encouraging and providing clues to answer the questions.

There are many ways to carry out tutoring as a cooperative strategy to help students enjoy and learn at the same time.  Here is a link to a collection of cooperative learning methods suitable for student tutoring.

Tutoring is a fundamental aspect of systems thinking classrooms.  Although students will have to learn new interpersonal skills, in the end the classroom will be more interactive, and students will begin to see the value of teaching each other.

Student Voice

The systems thinking classroom uncovers a significant reason that will influence not only learning, but the attitudes and dispositions of people in the class.  That factor is student voice–the opportunity of students to present their ideas, and have their ideas and opinions heard.

One of the leading researchers in the field of science education is Professor Ken Tobin, Presidential Professor of Urban Education, City University of New York.  In a recent research study that was published as a chapter in Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers, Dr. Tobin explored the idea of having student teachers recruit two high school students they were teaching to give feedback on their teaching and suggestions on how to “better teach kids like me.”  All prospective teachers in this urban education program used this system of seeking student voice.

Unfortunately, the usual method that we might use to seek student voice is at the end of a unit, or the end of the course when we “might” ask for their opinions and attitudes toward the subject, course, and the instructor.  This is not as transparent a system as actually asking students to meet with you, and discuss how to improve teaching.

Let me return to Tobin’s research.  He was interested in going back to the urban classroom as a teacher to explore the structures of schooling that are typically ignored by the top down reform efforts dominating American education.  Instead his goal was to find out how curriculum is enacted, what we could learn when the voices of students and teachers are heard.  Here was a professor who was willing to learn from others who typically would not have been considered sources of knowledge about teaching and learning–high school students and teachers.

I wrote the following about his research in a closing article in Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers: Practicing What We Teach (public library) .

And in Tobin’s case, it was a teenager from an urban school, whose population was 90% African-American, and many of them living in poverty, that provided a way forward.  Tobin is quite open about his initial failure as an “urban, low-track science teacher,” and as a result recruited a high school student (as he had asked his teacher education students) for ideas on how to “better teach kids like me.”  Respect (acceptance & trust), genuineness (realness), and empathic understanding appeared to be crucial aspects of the cogen activity that emerged from Tobin’s struggle to work with urban youth.  Tobin puts it this way:

Although it took us some time to label the activity cogen we created rules to foster dialogue in which participants established and maintained focus, ensured that turns at talk and time for talk were equalized, and that all participants were respectful to all others. The end goal was to strive for consensus on what to do to improve the quality of learning environments. In so doing all participants would endeavor to understand and respect one another’s perspectives, their rights to be different, and acknowledge others as resources for their own learning.

One intriguing notion to take away from Ken’s research was his willingness to give voice—listen–if you will, to students. Are we willing to listen to our teacher education students?  Could our courses at the university level integrate the principles of “cogen” such that students voice is lent to determining the nature of syllabi, agenda topics, and types of investigations?  Should our teacher education courses be co-taught with experienced science teachers?  As Tobin explains, “cogen is an activity that explicitly values the right to speak and be heard.  It is also implicitly based on democratic values, and on the ideas of Carl Roger’s theory of interpersonal relationships (public library).  Being heard is a progressive or humanistic quality that can create an informal classroom environment enabling students who struggle in the formal straightjacket of the traditional class, a meaningful chance of success.  (Dias, M., Eich. C., Brantlley-Dias, L. Science Teacher Educators as K-12 Teachers, Springer, 2013, pp. 291 – 292)

Teachers in systems thinking classrooms would involve students in giving the kind of feedback that will result in the improvement of the quality of life in the classroom, and open the possibility of implementing student ideas when they mean the most–now.

Team Learning

Cooperative-communal classrooms are aligned with fundamental ideas that have been formulated from nature.  Cooperation, empathy, mutual aid, and the interdisciplinary nature of the biosphere are fundamental concepts that are implicit in cooperative-communal classrooms. Each has its origin in nature.

Cooperation is an essential attribute of survival, not only among humans, but other animal species as well.

pusch_gtp_staged_pict2pictInstead of using the attribute of cooperation as a fundamental aspect of student learning, most classrooms use a competitive model to fulfill the goal of personal achievement, at all costs.  To make sure that one can measure achievement, élite groups have mandated single set of goals naming them common standards.  To date, we have developed common standards in mathematics, English/language arts, and science.  Concurrently achievement tests that are matched to the standards are being developed by two groups of test constructionists.  The tests, when they are ready for use, will be administered using computer technology.

Students do not learn in isolation, and their learning is not enhanced by competing with other students for higher grades, stars, happy faces, or even money.  In my view, learning is improved in environments where students are working together to build and share ideas through action on problems that are relevant to the student’s life experiences and cultural heritage.  As formulated by John Dewey, learning should be rooted in pragmatism resulting in school learning that is experiential and humanistic.  Cooperation should be a focus of the work of teachers in helping students “learn” to work with each other to tackle socially relevant problems.  Empathy and realism foster interpersonal relationships among students and teachers.

Thinking in wholes, and learning to use cooperation, one of the survival traits that evolved through natural selection, should characterize schooling for human beings living on the planet Earth.

Please follow this link for more details on team learning.

Assessment for Learning

Peter Barnard devotes the last chapter of his book to the subject of “assessment for learning.”  In most of our schools, assessment too often is reported as a grade, a test score, or a ranking, none of which give students or their parents information to interpret what these mean in terms of student learning.

Bernard highlights this kind of assessment, and especially in the context of the current linear model of schools.  He says:

In the linear model, it is left for the parents to somehow do the summative job, but with almost no relevant data available to them. This is not easy given the jargon, the grades, and restricted language that schools increasingly use to presumably keep parents at bay! They receive limited information at the time it cannot be used!  Barnard, Peter A. (2013-09-19). The Systems Thinking School: Redesigning Schools from the Inside-Out (Leading Systemic School Improvement) (Kindle Locations 2732-2734). R&L Education. Kindle Edition.

Bernard says that in our penchant to test, the classroom becomes “test-dominant,” and what is lost is the intrinsic nature of real learning.  Teachers and students (and rightly so, parents) are stressed and burdened by testing, so much so that parents around the country are protesting, and indeed opting their children out of high-stakes testing.  Some superintendents, school boards, and teacher unions are calling for a moratorium on high-stakes testing, but little has been done.

Yet, classroom teachers have known (it seems forever) that end-of-year tests do not lead to conversation that students and parents need to help them improve their learning.  Teachers know that they need to use both summative (end of unit or end of year) assessments, and formative assessments. Formative assessments are the everyday methods that teachers use to help their students improve their learning and understanding.

Assessment for learning is formative assessment. Formative assessments are everyday methods that teachers use to help students improve their learning and understanding of science, and to inform and improve their teaching.  Formative assessment methods have been studied by many researchers, and one study, funded by the National Science Foundation found that teachers who use formative methods take the steps to find the gap between a student’s current work and the desired aim, and then together figure out how the gap can be bridged.  Formative assessment is multidimensional, and unlike high-stakes testing, is integrated into the curriculum.  The assessments are authentic–that is to say, teachers use a variety of real activities to assess student progress–laboratory activities, writing essays, participating in a debate, classroom questions, and indeed simply observing and interacting with students.

Formative assessments, unlike high-stakes testing, are embedded into instruction.  These assessments are part of the “regular” science curriculum.  Formative assessments are flexible, and take into account the diverse nature of helping students learn science.

One of the leading researchers in the world on assessment is Professor Paul Black, King’s College, London.  In a presentation by Dylan Wiliam, Black says this about formative assessment:

Assessment for learning is any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting pupils’ learning.

Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs.

Teaching that acknowledges the value of systems thinking and communal classrooms suggests a transformation from the industrial model to one that is holistic, and one that is based on interdependence and cooperation.  In my view, teachers that embrace these values practice an art, or what I call “artistry of teaching.”

What would add to this discussion?  Are there other qualities of systems thinking classrooms that you add?  What are they?