The prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. The destruction starts with toddlers. … The fundamental task of leadership is transformation of this system … [which is] the same system in education and business.

—W. Edwards Deming, pioneer, Total Quality Management

“How do you think about the future?” (President, School Superintendents of America)

“We sort of think that you drank your juice, and then you drank ours.” (11-year-old female student)

—Intergenerational dialogue on systems thinking in education

I believe that the Industrial Age system of education that has spread around the world in the past 150 years will change dramatically in the coming decades. The assembly-line progression of grades (first, second, third, etc.) coordinated by a fixed curriculum and headed by teachers in charge of students’ learning has grown increasingly out of touch with the realities of today: the global interconnectedness of economics, politics, and culture; the Internet, which puts more and more information at students’ fingertips; and businesses that need people who can think for themselves and collaborate effectively in teams to solve complex problems. While mainstream school systems are obsessed with standardized test scores and intense individual competition, education innovators are focused on higher-order skills like systems thinking and creativity in conjunction with basic skills in mathematics and language; personal maturation together with technical knowledge; and learning how to learn together in service of addressing problems that are real in students’ lives.

These changes will continue to unfold not because such change is easy. Indeed, as most educators know only too well, few institutions are more immune to innovation than public education. These changes will happen because such fundamental change in the aims and process of education is not only possible but necessary if we are to create healthy societies in the shrinking, interdependent, and stressed world in which we now live.

Ironically, few activists engaged in building more sustainable societies focus on the leverage that exists in fundamental innovation in primary and secondary education. Partly this reflects the perceived difficulty of such change, but more deeply it reveals a tragic blind spot. While many focus understandably on business—because business plays a huge role in shaping the current human footprint—the deep changes in values needed to shift the path of the human journey are unlikely to arise from business alone, or from the current business-government-civil society nexus of institutional power. Truly restorative practices and policies will take multiple generations to bring into the mainstream of our societies. The only institution with a time horizon commensurate with these changes is education, and especially primary and secondary education.

Mindful of this, for almost two decades, radical innovators in K-12 schools have been building the schools of the future, largely unnoticed by mainstream society, which is obsessed with saving a dying and hopelessly outdated education system. Their overarching aim is not education reform but recontextualizing the whole vision of education: schools and communities working together to shape a sustainable future. Though their particular strategies and tools differ, they all emphasize the following:

  • Systems thinking and learner-centered pedagogy: tapping students’ innate abilities to understand systems by shifting from teacher-centered instruction to designing learning environments that engage students in their own questions and aspirations;
  • Education for sustainability: making the context for education our common task of building healthier communities based on social and biological well-being;
  • Authentic youth engagement and youth leadership: engaging students as leaders in building healthier communities, within and beyond the school;
  • Building schools as learning communities: involving everyone—adults and children—in a mutual learning process of individual and collective development.

Systems Thinking and Learner-Centered Education

Picture an eighth-grade science class with no teacher standing in front. Instead, the 30 or so students are glued to their computers, two to a machine, deeply engrossed in conversations with one another, designing the trail system for a new state park to be developed north of Tucson. Once the students lay out a proposed trail network, the simulation model calculates the environmental and economic consequences, prompting energetic debates over trade-offs between different options.

While you’re standing in the back of the room, a couple of young boys come up and ask your advice. “We need your opinion,” Joe says. “Jimmy [the boy’s partner] has a trail system that he thinks is great because it makes a lot of money [routing hikers past the best views], but it also does a lot of environmental damage. Mine avoids the environmental-impact areas, but he thinks it is too close to the Indian burial grounds and will stir up protests.”

You listen for a while as the two boys explain their different trails and show you some of the simulated consequences. There are no black-and-white answers, and it is clear that they understand this. This is about design and making choices. The bell rings and the boys say goodbye, agreeing to come back after school to see if they can work out a proposal to share with the rest of the class at the end of the week. (The students’ proposals and analyses will be presented to the actual park planning commission at the end of the term.)

You leave that afternoon amazed by a science class that is so engaging for the students—it turns out that Joe and Jimmy had both been identified as “discipline problems” by former teachers—and wondering, what does it take to help more teachers become designers of learning spaces rather than “instructors” delivering content who then must “motivate” their students to learn what otherwise has little meaning to them?

Actually, I have been thinking about these questions for a long time—ever since I first visited that classroom in Tucson almost 20 years ago!


Greg Drzazgowski/Solutions

From early elementary school through high school, curricula should focus on leadership, personal engagement, problem resolution, and real-life contexts, according to the author. Collaboration is also a key component—both among students and teachers within the school, and parents, board members, and civic and business leaders outside of the school.

Today, the systems thinking, learner-centered approach has spread across grade levels and curricular domains from social studies and history to high school math and science.1 Some of the most inspiring advances have been with young children—like the three six-year-old boys at a pioneering K-4 school in downtown Tucson who drew a systems diagram to understand why they were having fights on the playground.2 “It all starts with mean words,” says one of them in a video of their discussion. “Then we have hurt feelings, and then more mean words, and then we get fights.” They then search for “the leverage … to break the reinforcing loop.” One observes that “saying ‘I’m sorry’ kind of works. But the next time we start to get into a fight we are going to try these others,” pointing to where else they could “intervene” in the loop.

Education for Sustainability

Education for sustainability builds on systems thinking conceptual skills to establish a context of community responsibility and engagement, integrating ideas and approaches from many different content areas, including ecological literacy, place-based education, action learning, sustainable economics? (the connections between economic, social, and natural systems), and visioning (the ability to envision and invent a rich, hopeful future).

Jaimie Cloud, a national leader in the field for some 15 years, identifies seven primary habits of mind, starting with “Understanding of Systems as the Context for Decision Making” and “Awareness of Driving Forces and Their Impacts,” and including the following:

  • Intergenerational Responsibility: taking responsibility for the effect(s) of one’s own actions on future generations;
  • Protecting and Enhancing the Commons: reconciling the conflicts between individual rights and the responsibilities of citizenship to tend to common resources on which all depend;
  • Paradigm Shifting: recognizing mental models and paradigms as guiding constructs that shape action but that can change over time with new knowledge and applied insight.3

Education for sustainability is more than just a new curriculum. It is about how the content and process of education can be interwoven with real-life contexts to create opportunities for young people to take the lead in building sustainable communities and societies.

Youth Engagement and Youth Leadership

Scott Beall of Brewster, New York, redesigned his 10th- and 11th-grade science classes as “Do Right Enterprises.” For several years, Beall has taught students how to conduct energy audits and then has engaged local businesspeople as clients. Not only do the students learn how to apply science to practical analysis, but local businesses start to reduce their energy (and carbon) footprints. “We thought we were doing the students a favor by letting them come in and gather some data from our restaurant,” said one local businessperson. “We had no idea how much waste they would find, and how much money we could save.”

“There is no doubt that the kids in the Do Right course learn as much science content as [their] counterparts in more traditional science classes,” says Beall. (Their New York Regents’ science exam results tend to be as high or higher than those of students in more traditional classrooms.) But, continues Beall, “the big payoff is student motivation and a completely different understanding of what it means to do science rather than do schoolroom exercises.”

Connecting systems thinking, education for sustainability, and authentic youth engagement creates a powerful base for leadership development. “I think we tend to greatly underestimate young people’s capacities as leaders,” says Les Omotani, former superintendent of the West Des Moines and Hewlett-Woodmere (Long Island) school districts. Starting many years ago, Omotani invited high school students to learn the leadership “disciplines of learning organizations” (e.g., systems thinking, personal mastery, building shared vision, working with mental models, and team learning)4 and to serve as facilitators for community dialogues that the school hosted, part of a yearlong Youth Leadership Forum. “The young people learned that they could help adults have meaningful conversations about how to make the community, including the school, healthier,” says Omotani.

Building Schools as Learning Communities

All of this is feasible only when we are all willing to rethink basic assumptions about how schools work, from the classroom, to the school as a whole, to the larger school system. For example, supporting teachers in shifting from the teacher-centered model to becoming designers of learner-centered classrooms requires implementing learning infrastructures that combine training, in-classroom coaching, and rich peer-learning networks. This means a deep commitment to engaging in a life-long developmental journey.5 In short, the learning commitment will be no greater for the students than it is for the adults. Early on, pioneers like those in Tucson realized that this meant basic changes in school culture.

Of all professions, teaching is among the most individualistic. Whereas most people in business or architecture or law have an acute sense that their accomplishments result from team effort, teachers typically operate in a highly fragmented world of their courses, their skills, and their students. Educators often espouse the ideal of collaboration, but it takes time and commitment to go beyond platitudes to develop practical skills to deal with the inescapable conflicts of any collaborative work environment.

“Of all the changes I tried to lead as principal, helping teachers learn how to [work as a] team was probably the most difficult,” says Mary Scheetz, the principal at that first middle school in Tucson, Orange Grove (and now assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Ritenour district in Saint Louis). “There is so much more potential for collaborative solutions than normally gets realized given the professional isolation common to most schools.” Sheetz and Assistant Principal Tracy Benson (now coordinator of the Waters Foundation for Systems Thinking) made sure collaboration became part of teachers’ daily lives by redesigning the school schedule so that each day all teachers had 45–60 minutes free to meet with one another. “Collaboration only starts to make a difference when teachers have time to practice coordinating in real time,” says Benson. “They need to know what Billy’s teacher found out in his first period class or how a new systems idea intended to integrate across civics and science is actually playing out for the kids. This is what actually helps them feel like a team.”

The Real Question

None of these ideas represent simple changes that will be achieved by a few bold school leaders. Rather, they will take leadership from innovative teachers, committed principals, and dedicated central administrators. They will take community leadership: parents, school board members, civic and business leaders. All must work together to help create new relationships and expectations. And it will take leadership from the very place that we look to least frequently—the students themselves. Make no mistake. The students are ready for the change.

A few years ago at a large community gathering in Saint Louis, part of the SoL Education Partnership national learning community, an audience of 250 people heard a series of student presentations on their sustainability projects. Few will forget Annalise, a 12-year-old who spoke about the wind turbine she and her classmates had gotten built at their middle school. The project started with class sessions where their science teacher talked about energy and the need to move more rapidly to renewable energy sources. She and four of her classmates—she gave each of their names—talked with the teacher about what they could do, and that is when the wind turbine idea was born. They then enlisted parents to help them sort out the different engineering and investment options. They presented their idea to the school principal and then to the mayor of the local town: “I was worried that our presentation did not go too well with the mayor—she really didn’t say anything when we presented our ideas.” But they were later called back for a second presentation to the mayor and members of the town council. Annalise closed her remarkable story, which took all of three minutes to share, with a photograph of the vertical wind turbine now standing in front of the school.

Having by now captured the undivided attention of the adult audience, Annalise set aside her notes and standing calmly, some 75 pounds of fierce determination, said, “We children are often hearing that ‘you children are the future.’ We don’t agree with that. We don’t have that much time. We need to make changes now. We kids are ready, are you?”

It is said in traditional Chinese culture that “the mark of every golden age is that the children are the most important members of a society and teaching the most revered profession.” This is not an idealist statement. It is a profoundly pragmatic one. A simple way to express our strategic imperative today is to ask, how do we make the future real, as emotionally salient as the present? I believe this cannot be done by rational argument alone. The future becomes real when the voices of children and young people like Annalise are real. As the saying goes, we have not inherited our world from the past, we are borrowing it from the future. And our creditors want a voice in shaping that future.


Another version of this article will appear in Leader to Leader in June 2012.


Peter Senge

Dr. Peter M. Senge is the founding chairperson of SoL and a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Senge is the author of The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning...

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