The rapid shifts in society brought on by the coronavirus pandemic open up an opportunity to understand the challenges children face in school at the system level. Parents tend to address their child’s issues “in the moment,” at a specific (and perhaps, granular) level. This makes sense: parents understand their children’s experiences in school via a limited set of data from a limited number of informants. The COVID crisis brought school into the home, and as such, gave parents a new view into their child’s school experience, a chance for parents to pause, step back, and partner with the school to explore challenges from a systems level. In order to do this, parents need to understand not only how schools work, but how the systems of schools work. A child in one system context looks different than the same child in another system.

About a year ago, I set out to expand my own thinking about schools. I had been on the dance floor of school as a teacher and administrator, and later, on the safer balcony as a foundation professional. As I amassed knowledge of many different schools, patterns emerged. These patterns helped me think of a larger ecosystem in which each school exists, which in turn led to bigger questions about what we know about systems as a whole and how that knowledge applies to Jewish day schools. After I spent some time learning about systems, two ideas became apparent. First, a system describes a set of interactions among entities that form a unified whole. As such, school culture forms a system. Second, in order to change school culture to solve problems one has to alter systems. This means that unchanged systems maintain existing problems.

In Jewish day schools, systems play a crucial role in creating culture. The system creates flows of information, power, and energy that make schools function, and at the same time, can cripple themselves in junctions of negligent design or benign neglect. When this occurs, it affixes the problems in place. Often, the people involved in the malfunction do not understand how or where the breakdown takes place. For example, a school may hold a belief that the teaching of Judaic studies should create ethical people. To structure and support the act of “teaching,” the school mandates teachers to teach specific content and assess the material based on tests, quizzes, or projects. These graded assessments chart student progress in relation to the others in the class. The student gets ranked by a competitive grading mechanism which gives out a few top grades and many lower grades. Students then might feel compelled to cheat on tests, experience envy of their peers, or develop a distaste for Torah learning, leading to the very opposite outcome of the foundational belief. The system undermines itself. The cover story of Judaic studies taught to teach ethics does not unfold through the strategies deployed to teach it. By contrast, if a school wanted to teach ethics, it could deploy a system in which students gain sacred content, practice inculcating into themselves ethical decision making, and teachers guide the process individually without a comparative feedback device. In the first example, the system holds in place the problem of expecting students to develop Jewish ethics from a system which only exposes children to the content of ethics, the skill of text decoding, and rewards demonstrating mastering these in competition with their peers. In the second example, the systems align with the beliefs and desired outcomes are achieved.   

This year, parents across the country and, indeed, around the world, bore witness to a rapid, forced change in educational culture in the dynamic shift from in-person to online learning as a mainstream practice. The particular advantages and disadvantages of teaching online were, in most cases, not reflective of a systems approach, but were instead glimpses into the idiosyncratic reality of how individual educators adapted to a very different way of being. Some teachers thrived, tapping into technology strategies and other pedagogies that accelerated learning, and some teachers were fundamentally hamstrung by the distance of distance learning (and most teachers were somewhere in the middle). True, too, for students, who for a wide variety of reasons—some internal to the child and some more directly informed by their environment—thrived, muddled through, or failed. Nonetheless, the unfolding of school at home gave parents a new, up-close-and-personal perspective on their child’s experience. Parents could see the interplay among the teacher, the class, the content, the learning activities, and their own child. This, in and of itself, was a look at a system. Whereas before a parent might react to a disappointing grade with the belief that their child was not working hard enough, now a parent could partner with their child, the teacher, and school to see how to address their child’s learning needs in the broader context of the system. To be sure, this does not abrogate the child of his or her own responsibilities as a learner, nor does this mean that rigor is lost. The opportunity at hand is to resolve a child’s dilemmas at a higher level, shifting away from the minutiae of the moment and “up” to a place that opens new pathways for success.

“The world is made of circles and we think in straight lines.” Peter Senge’s quote encapsulates the difference between minutiae and systems thinking. While, on an empathetic level, we as parents see a child in pain and want to remove that pain, in fact, the cause of the situation that causes the pain might be less obvious. In systems thinking, we shift from linear to circular, meaning we consider the interconnectedness of events and agents in the system. The parts of a system work together in an interrelated way to create end goals. This creates synergy, where the sum of the parts acting together eclipses the effects that the parts individually could create. When a collection of teachers focus parallel curricula with certain skill sets at one age level, they generate thinking patterns in students that could not occur if the classes were not orchestrated: individually strong and collectively stronger. Synergizing smaller systems causes emergence, the outcome of things interacting together. So, when a student develops resilience through sustained school designed mechanisms in physical education, individual academic coaching, strong peer modeling, using the Zone of Proximal Development, and encouraging school leadership, the outcome of these collaborative pieces is the emergence of a resilient student; the school-designed systems with the goal in mind that the student develops resilience. Instead of commanding it or having lip service in a few classes, the school creates interconnected classes that act together. The effect of acting together causes the synergy that each piece could not achieve alone. This results in the emergence, the consequence of the combined actions, which in this case produces a resilient student.

When interconnectedness creates synergies that lead to positive outcomes through emergence, we see a healthy system. Healthy systems have balancing feedback loops where the systems move (or get moved) to experience a positive homeostasis. For example, in a school with the stated goal of producing students with a spirit of inquiry, a healthy system would have balancing feedback loops that prioritize hiring teachers with aligned pedagogic skills that promote curiosity and autonomy over advanced subject/content knowledge. A new teacher with stronger content than pedagogy would be identified by the system as someone in need of either immersive professional development in the inquiry approach (or removal from the classroom). In this example, the minutia view problematizes the teacher, whereas the systemic view utilizes balancing feedback loops to support the teacher in accordance to the stated core educational goal.

Consider now a student who experienced challenges in school due to social anxiety, feelings of coercion from adults and peers, and perceptions of under-performance. When school was forced online, the systems that perpetuated those experiences, like micro aggressions by other students that fly under a teacher’s radar at school, changed. With all communications being monitored and lacking opportunities to create a pecking order in class, that form of bullying dissolved in the online environment. Removing that irritant contributed to the child’s learning success. Without those typical school social systems in place, the student no longer obsessed about social issues around recess or lunch (which became non-issues online). With anxiety in check, creativity and risk-taking emerged, with the energy dedicated to coping with social anxiety rechanneled into a positive, healthy attitude about being “in” school. The interconnected systems worked together to have a newly resilient student emerge.

In unpacking this second example, we get another look at the values of examining student problems at the systems level. Prior to the pivot to online learning, the student knew only one reality about school: its systems were tacit accomplices to a culture of bullying. The child may have been told to ignore cruel comments, or was witness to a bully relishing in the negative attention given by a scolding teacher. The same child may have been encouraged to stay focused on her studies, and when distracted by social pressures, reprimanded for a lack of attention. The feedback loops reinforced an unhealthy system. For this child, the systems of the school normalized the child’s experience. The switch to the online environment stripped away these systems and with them, the problems they held. The new system was able to give balancing feedback loops that made the child stronger. Imagine this student now – more calm and confident – and the awareness of the parents as to the core issues undermining their child’s experience in the past versus the present.

Shmuel Feld

Shmuel Feld

Rabbi Shmuel Feld is the Founding Director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), working to radically improve the quality of Jewish education in day schools. In his more than 25 years in Jewish education, Rabbi Feld has served as a teacher, instructional leader, and principal before seeing things from the balcony instead of the dance floor.
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 The lesson learned here deals with altering the vision of the school from a monolithic entity to a series of interconnecting systems. First, take repeated views of the systems from different angles to get a holistic view of the design. Look for the interconnectedness. Second, think about what information, authority, and transparency exist in the systems. Seek out the synergies. Consider what causes and effects happen on the surface and what might be flowing beneath the surface. Remember to look at what transpires instead of what, in theory, should transpire. Third, contemplate in what contexts the child succeeds and how various teachers seem to affect this. Contemplate what emerges from the systems working together and what kind of feedback loops exist. The fourth step constitutes the hardest step: reflect on how to partner productively with the school to examine the system so as not to hold the problem in place for your child. Done well, the pivot to online learning can lead to a new pathway for a child’s success in school.

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