The following post will address the usefulness of systems thinking both for understanding organizational structure and organizational change from the viewpoint of rethinking the structure and system of homework.
Senge (Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, & Kleiner, 2012) provides a number of school structures such as hierarchical relationships, teacher shortages, grades, and even a feud between board members. A common example of balancing processes in education is the recurrent conflict that surrounds the homework debate.
The Homework Debate: An Organizational Structure
Whether you align yourself closer to the no-homework camp or to the pro-homework camp, the debate rages on and may continue to do so for decades. It is the cause of more friction between administrators, teachers, and families than any other aspect of education (Cooper, 2007). Cathy Vatterott (2007) goes so far as to suggest that homework is part of our American culture. Further, research shows that homework controversies follow a cyclic process with outcries for more homework and then a return to less homework that impacts the very fabric of our educational system (Cooper, 2006; Kohn, 2006; Vatterott, 2007). Adopting a systems thinking paradigm may be helpful in understanding the organizational structure and then initiating change, or at least averting, the vicious circle of for and against homework debates within a school.
Systems Thinking and Feedback Mechanisms
Senge et al. (2012) offers, “Sometimes, if you want to change behavior; it’s enough to raise awareness of the structures at play…And sometimes you can figure out new structures to put in place to establish new behavior – if you recognize the feedback-related forces at play” (p. 134).
System behavior results from the effects of feedback; or information put out by the system that is then fed-back into the system. It is a reciprocal flow of information based on cause and effect relationships or cause and effect chains that loop back upon themselves creating interconnecting feedback loops. Of these two feedback loops, there are two – reinforcing and balancing processes.
Walker (2014) describes the two feedback loops as follows: “A reinforcing process leads to the growth or decline of a system component. It is an action that produces a result which will effect and produce more of the same action; it can be beneficial or detrimental. A reinforcing process, then, can be compared to the vicious cycle or equated to a virtuous circle. Regardless, if left unbridled by a balancing loop, a process that stabilizes the equilibrium of a particular system, it can eventually lead to collapse” (p. 4).
The Homework Debate: A System of Dysfunction
To help understand the structure of the homework debate a “behavior-over-time diagram” and a casual loop may prove to be useful.
A Behavior-over-Time Graph
The purpose of the behavior-over-time diagram could show what happens in the system makeup of homework. See Figure 1.
However, the behavior-over-time graphs only depict that over time there has been an influx of differing opinions regarding homework. Nonetheless, diagramming the patterns makes it a tangible depiction of the circular pattern. A casual loop may prove to be more informative as it can reveal why something happens or why a change takes place within a system.
Casual Loop Example
Senge et al. (2012) provide guidelines for drawing a casual loop diagram. Keeping with the homework debate, the issues to investigate may be any of the following:
- One key variable – a noun that describes some element involved in the system: Assigned homework (teachers assign homework).
- The other element that affects the variable: Students perform (do the homework)
- Other elements that change: parent, teacher, administrator, student reactions
- A cause of the change in the element: test scores
The aforementioned casual loop is a simple, precursor tool to begin the process of rethinking homework. The next steps would be to brainstorm with other educators and principle players and cull opinions and thoughts about the diagrams inviting them to create their own casual loops as well. This could get the ‘ball’ moving towards a more beneficial design of homework – at least within in one institution, for now.
Understanding the structure of the homework debate and how change can be facilitated using a systems thinking paradigm may help major stakeholders and teachers begin to examine the role homework has played in American culture, analyze and discuss research findings and best practices, and offer tools to end the battle and turn homework into opportunities for cooperation and academic learning.
Cooper, H. (2007). The battle over homework. Thousand Oaks, PA: Corwin Press.
Kohn, A. (2006). The homework myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.
Vatterott, C. (2009). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2012). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Random House/Crown Business.
Walker, B. (2014). Roots of systems theory. Capella University.