Education is riddled with reductionism.  Over the past few decades, it has been less and less viewed as an embodied art form and more and more viewed as a disembodied science, one where educators and administrators alike can break the construct of education down into its respective parts, target and treat each of these pieces, and thus, prepare our children for their futures.

While this has been done with positive intentions, very few recognize that this reductionist mindset of the classroom–and of education at large–has not provided us with the perceived efficiencies of the industrial model; instead, it has provided us with a great deal more complexity to manage, a complexity that, paradoxically, is only being managed by creating more complexity.

This classic mistake of solving complexity with more complexity is not unique to education.  In fact, it’s a pervasive theory in systems thinking known as Second System Effect, and one manifestation of this phenomenon can be witnessed within the education space.  The industrial model for education emerged in an effort to fulfill a need: we needed educated individuals to fill future jobs.  As society has evolved since the inception of this model, the needs of humans have changed, as well.  Perhaps, at one point in time, the industrial model served the population just as it was intended to.  However, it is no longer doing so, and as a result, we’ve come to an impasse; one where we need to decide precisely how to solve this problem.

The most popular approach is not to rebuild the system itself, but instead add processes, tools, and structures that only build on top of the existing system.  And here is precisely where Second System Effect enters: because we’re building upon a broken system, we’re no longer fixing the actual problem or fulfilling the original need:

We’re instead creating a second, more complex version of a system that wasn’t working for us in the first place.

Some of the problems with this approach are obvious: by succumbing to Second System Effect, or perhaps by being unaware of Second System Effect entirely, we create more complexity when, ironically, complexity was something we were trying to minimize initially.  But the other peripheral effect of this is disembodiment.  A disembodied approach to education, at a small scale, may be initially effective, as the individuals within the system can divide workloads, conquer objectives, and accomplish what needs to be accomplished in a confined amount of time.  In essence, the gestalt can still be preserved, as individuals have a similar vision, similar intent, and a mutual trust that still holds true to the culture and philosophy of the team of education stakeholders.

However, as scale increases, and suddenly individuals are separated by space and time, this reductionism stops serving us.  It neglects the gestalt, and instead of disembodiment being a peripheral byproduct of reductionism, it migrates and becomes a central flaw within the system.  This reductionism disallows individuals to see the big picture and how each of the pieces connect to and affect one another.  It causes individuals to work in isolation, unaware of how their expertise fits into a network of specializations.

As a result, this cyclical process becomes toxic, creating not only a second system–built upon an already flawed first system–but third, fourth, and so-on systems that continue to progress to a critical mass.  Too often, by the time this is realized, it’s too late.  The system is too complex and it is too costly for it to be rebuilt.  In public entities, we end up with the current education system.  We can’t rebuild it due to political and financial agendas, and instead continue to add more complexity to solve problems, adding to the aforementioned complexity cycle.  In private entities, the vision isn’t realized, stakeholders lose belief in the efficacy of the business model, and the company folds.

Despite all of these effects, reductionism isn’t a useless construct.  Breaking ideas, concepts, or entities down into parts does increase efficiency to a certain extent. Likewise, allowing individuals to specialize, in conjunction with other collaborative specialists, can provide more nuanced views into complex problems.  But how then, do we marry these two seemingly opposing ideologies of reductionism and gestaltism?  How do we break down our systems into pieces to increase efficiency, while still helping individuals see the big picture and understand each other’s motives?

1) Have a clear vision, and make sure all key stakeholders are aligned.

Vision is so much more than a guiding statement on a website.  Vision should be the aspirational statement that guides all decision-making in a company.  It should be the central spoke that helps unite the agendas of individual specialists.  It should be the gestalt that allows us to appropriately reduce a large entity down into its respective parts.  As a result, it should be a detailed vision, one that defines key constructs, unifies intention, and defines the relationships between the parts of the system.

There’s a danger in collective vision, especially if that means there is a literal collection of visions.  This creates an untenable breadth that makes it difficult for anyone to orient themselves in the system.  Even worse, it neglects the need for processes for unification and constant iteration.  A clear and detailed vision won’t just collect the ideas of a mass of people; it will unify them, simplify the complexity, and provide a platform for process improvement moving forward, as any system will, inevitably, encounter obstacles as they grow.

2) Define how the pieces fit together.

Our words matter.  The words we use oftentimes imply a great deal more about our intentions than the words themselves explicitly state.  As a result, we begin to subconsciously act on these assumptions that result from what we’ve implied.  By breaking something down into two parts, without explicitly defining how these pieces relate to each other, we’ve implied that they are unrelated, even if it’s not how we feel.  At small scale, again, we can explain this and potentially get some individuals on board.  At large scale, though, the separation between these parts becomes more and more pronounced, creating problems down the road.

A great example of this is how we’ve departmentalized subjects in the classroom.  Instead of an educator being responsible for a group of children, educators are seen as responsible for coverage of content.  By reducing content down to math, science, reading, writing, and history, we’ve neglected the gestalt, and created more complexity for ourselves, when in reality, defining the connections between these areas could reduce our materials costs and make planning and preparing for the school day a more sustainable endeavor.

3) Gain an awareness of ripple effects.

Reducing a system down into its respective parts will, without a doubt, make a workload feel more sustainable in the short term.  Dividing and conquering is one of the positive effects of a reductionist mindset.  However, the decisions we make at these micro-levels end up creating ripple effects and, in some cases, adding complexity.  If the complexity of the decisions made in one department conflict with the decisions made in another, the dissonance needs to be identified and resolved.

Doctors are really skilled at this.  In addition to their speciality, they have an understanding of the human body as a whole, allowing them to anticipate these ripple effects in literal life-and-death situations.  Additionally, they rely on the expertise of other specialists to counter their thought processes and come up with an embodied approach that preserves the whole individual while treating the problem.  And when they realize their approach doesn’t achieve this goal, they don’t build upon a flawed approach; they rebuild the approach.

4) Don’t be afraid to start over.

It hurts, yes, to scrap your idea and start from scratch.  But the design process is riddled with failure.  And while knocking down the building and starting again at the foundation may feel like a huge endeavor, our first, second, and third failures are never done in vain.  These failures inform the new systems, having a strong, yet implicit voice in the new system.  We cannot allow a flawed system into which we’ve invested a great deal of time and energy to be the enemy of starting over from scratch.  These two should, instead, work together to help build the new system.

Even as we try and free ourselves of the industrial mindset, the new system we build will be informed by the industrial model for education, as some of the needs will remain the same.  Education, while it is moving towards a globalist perspective that calls for self-actualization, still serves the need of educating the masses for societal good.  What we’ve defined as “societal good” has simply changed, as it will likely continue to change.

And this idea reveals something at the foundation of education’s largest problems.  We are constantly treating symptoms of this foundational problem with new education initiatives, policies, and resources, and neglecting to focus on education’s most fundamental need, which is systemic.  Taking a systems thinking approach to education can provide us with the processes needed to constantly innovate, as opposed to only drawing ephemeral conclusions about which curriculum is best right now, which technologies serve our current children best, or which instructional strategies are the current “best practices.”

Taking a systems thinking approach will help us capitalize on the benefits of reductionism and meanwhile focus on an ever-changing and dynamic future, one that will create processes that allow us to grow in our thinking, granting us humility and comfort in knowing that, through processes for vision-building and -rebuilding, we will have the courage to start over–even if it’s scary.


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