The Need for Systems Thinking in Education Reform
Ask an education researcher what works to improve learning outcomes in developing countries and there is a good chance they might suggest hiring contract teachers. In three separate interventions tested with randomized control trials (Banerjee et al. 2007, Muralidharan and Sundararaman 2010, and Duflo, Dupas and Kremer 2012), hiring contract teachers with incentives to improve learning was found to have significant and positive effects on student outcomes.Go Back
By Zishan Jiwani
January 28th, 2019
Ask an education researcher what works to improve learning outcomes in developing countries and there is a good chance they might suggest hiring contract teachers. In three separate interventions tested with randomized control trials (Banerjee et al. 2007, Muralidharan and Sundararaman 2010, and Duflo, Dupas and Kremer 2012), hiring contract teachers with incentives to improve learning was found to have significant and positive effects on student outcomes.
In 2009, the Kenyan government decided to scale the contract teacher intervention nationally. A subsequent randomized controlled trial (RCT) demonstrated that the efforts by the government to scale this program had impact which was statistically indistinguishable from zero (Bold et al. 2013).
Why did a very successful intervention fail when scaled?
To answer this question, we may first want to ask more probing questions – were the enabling conditions for this intervention to succeed present in the Kenyan education system? Were the political, social and economic forces in Kenya affecting the education system understood when designing or implementing the intervention? Given the results from the RCT, it seems very unlikely that serious consideration was given to these questions. Had these questions been considered, it may have been possible to predict that the government would be slower to hire teachers and there would likely be strong resistance from teacher unions, as the researchers subsequently found.
The contract teacher intervention is one of many such interventions in education which have failed to create impact despite strong government support, adequate funding and/or research evidence. We may want to consider that these are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for success. Success may require a more systemic approach to solving the education crisis.
What is Systems Thinking?
Put simply, systems thinking is a set of tools and mindsets that helps us engage with complex problems. Complex problems, unlike simple or complicated problems, are un-ordered. There is no clear apparent cause and effect.
For example, why are learning outcomes low in the Indian state of Bihar? The answer will vary depending on whom you ask. If you ask someone in the bureaucracy, they might point the finger at teachers. Most teachers will likely put the burden on the children and parents, and so on.
Rather than try and reduce the problem to a single primary cause, systems thinking helps us see the whole picture and decipher the patterns, structures and mental models that are creating unwanted effects. Systems thinking then gives us tools to probe the system and discover solutions that actually have a chance at success.
Why Systems Thinking in Education?
First reason – context matters, a lot.
According to a report by McKinsey which studied 20 education systems around the world, applying solutions to context is a critical for success and there is little evidence for “one-size-fits-all” approaches. For example, while data played a critical role in improving education systems, the use of data has varied widely. In some contexts, it works to publicly share school and classroom level data. In other contexts, school level data is only shared with school officials to facilitate a dialogue on improving outcomes.
Pupil-teacher ratio is another great example. In some contexts, reducing the pupil-teacher ratio has significant positive effects on learning outcomes. In other contexts, it doesn’t matter.
Second reason – understand manifold causality.
One purpose of an RCT is to try to isolate a single intervention that can create impact. Most of the time, however, it is rarely a single thing that creates meaningful impact and in many cases, it is unexpected or unseen factors that have the most impact.
To quote a relevant example, a systems thinking study was done in Kerala to understand causality for low vaccination rates in a particular district. One key reason uncovered by researchers was a professional conflict between allopathic and homeopathic doctors’ associations. The public health department assumed that the cause of the low rates was due to a lack of effort by the field workers. In fact, field worker efforts to more aggressively reach out to unvaccinated children actually backfired, according to the study.
If we are interested in actually solving problems, understanding the multiple causes of problems is immensely critical.
Third reason – remove limits to growth (vs. push growth).
Indian state governments frequently use ‘mission mode’ as a tool to strategically push the entire system towards achieving large gains in a short time period. There have been a few examples in education too, where the system attempted to improve learning outcomes by mobilizing the entire system towards a single goal. While this is sometimes effective in the short run, in the long-term the system returns to equilibrium when the mission is over.
A hard push on the system usually runs into resistance. With additional effort, the resistance is likely to get stronger and at times can lead you in the opposite direction of your effort. By using systems thinking tools, we can start to address the elements constraining growth rather than over emphasizing on push growth.
With the advent of 21st century, the world has the resources, commitment and a plethora impactful interventions to solve the crisis of education. What is missing is the strength of education systems to absorb and deliver the interventions at scale to children in greatest need. Success requires us as a community of practitioners, funders and researchers to engage in fresh thinking about how and why we can truly solve this wicked problem.
Senior Program Manager, CSF
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