You 'Can' Step Twice in the Same River: Systems in Education

03/16/2017 11:27 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2017

You can never step twice in the same river. At least that is what Greek philosopher Heraclitus said a long time ago, when Socrates was just a pup. What he meant, of course, was that a river is constantly changing, for reasons large and small, so the river you waded across yesterday, or even a minute ago, is not the same one you wade in now.

This proposition is both obvious and wrong. Sure, rivers are never 100% the same. But does it matter? Imagine, for example, that you somehow drained all the water out of a river. Within a few days or weeks, it would entirely revive itself. The reason is that a river is not a "thing." It is a system. In other words, a river exists because there is a certain level of rainfall or groundwater or water from upstream, and then a certain topography (rivers are in low-lying areas, compared to surrounding land). Those factors create the river, and as long as they exist, the river exists. So when you wade into a river, you are wading into a system, and (sorry, Heraclitus) it is always the same system, because even if the river is higher or lower or muddier or clearer than usual, the system is always the same, unless something pretty dramatic happens upstream.

So why am I rattling on about rivers? The point I hope to make is that genuine and lasting change in a school depends on changing the system in which the school operates, not just small parts of the school that will be swept away if the system stays unchanged.

Here's what I mean from an education reform perspective. Teachers' daily practices in classrooms are substantially determined by powerful systems. Whatever innovations you introduce in a school, no matter how effective in the short term, will be eliminated and forgotten if the rest of the system does not change. For example, if a school implements a great new math program but does not solve classroom management or attendance problems, the school may not maintain its math reform. Lasting change in math, for example, might require attending to diversity in achievement levels by providing effective tutoring or small-group assistance. It might require providing eyeglasses to children who need them. It might require improving reading performance as well as math. It might require involving parents. It might require constant monitoring of students' math performance and targeted responses to solve problems. It might require recruiting volunteers, or making good use of after school or summer time. It might require mobilizing department heads or other math leaders within the school to support implementation, and to help maintain the effective program when (predictable) turmoil threatens it. Policy changes at the district, state, and national levels may also help, but I'm just focusing for the moment on aspects of the system that an individual school or district can implement on its own. Attending to all of these factors at once may increase the chances that in five or ten years, the effective program remains in place and stays effective, even if the original principal, department head, teachers, and special funds are no longer at the school.

It's not that every school has to do all of these things to improve math performance over time, but I would argue that lasting impact will depend on some constellation of supports that change the system in which the math reform operates. Otherwise, the longstanding system of the school will return, washing away the reform and taking the school back to its pre-reform behaviors and policies.

A problem in all of this is that educational development and research often work against systemic change. In particular, academic researchers are rewarded for publishing articles, and it helps if they evaluate approaches that purely represent a given theory. Pragmatically, an approach with many components may be more expensive and more difficult to put in place. As a result, a lot of proven programs available to educators are narrow, focused on the main objective but not on the broader system of the school. This may be fine in the short run, but in the long run the narrowly focused treatment may not maintain over time.

Seen as a system, a river will never change its course until the key elements that determine its course themselves change. Unless that happens, we'll always be stepping into the same river, over and over again, and getting the same results.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation