Maximizing Systems Thinking

In this quote from the book, I offer a critical foundation for succeeding in Maximizing School Librarian Leadership. When administrators, educators, students, and families have a collaborative mindset, they will be invested in each other’s success and in the success of the entire learning community. With a culture of collaboration as a foundation, principals and school librarian leaders will have built the necessary relationships to fully understand the system they seek to lead.

The Global View
Like principals, school librarians have a global view of the learning community. Effective school librarians and principals also reach out beyond the school walls to work with families and other community members. A close working relationship between principals and school librarians helps them share their insights into the various components of the learning community.

Systems thinking involves taking stock of the whole system before attempting to change any part of it. Systems thinking leaders search for patterns in the interdependent relationships among people and practices within the system. It is important, then, that leaders step into each other’s and every stakeholder’s shoes. School librarian leaders must ask: What does the school library program look like from the perspective of the principal(s), classroom teachers, specialists, staff, families, district-level decision-makers, and community members?

Systems thinking helps leaders identify areas of strength. These are the places in the system that support the learning community’s vision, mission, or goals. Leaders also look for stumbling blocks that may impede the school’s progress toward achieving their goals. In a collaborative culture, leaders use this information to further strengthen the system and collectively solve the challenges that could keep educators, students, and families from achieving success.

School Library Services Alignment
Collaborative school librarians seek to align their work—resources and teaching—with the classroom curriculum. Through coplanning, coteaching, and coassessing student learning outcomes they have first-hand knowledge of the instructional program from a school-wide perspective. Principals and school librarians can use that information to continually improve their own leadership as well as the success of other educators, students, and families.

Systems thinking involves working as a team. Team learning “is a discipline of group interaction. Through such techniques as dialogue and skillful discussion, small groups of people transform their collective thinking, learn to mobilize their energies and actions to achieve common goals, and draw forth an intelligence greater than the sum of individual members’ talents” (Senge et al. 2012, 8).

School librarians work with individual colleagues as well as with grade-level and disciplinary teams. This gives us the opportunity (and the responsibility) to personalize professional learning for each member of the teaching faculty. Our knowledge of the entire system, which we share with our administrators, helps school librarians collaborate with others to transform teaching and learning. It helps us know how we can capitalize on our colleagues’ individual strengths and the school’s collective strengths. It helps us develop strategies to address any policies, procedures, or practices that may be holding us back.

Systems Thinking in Education
Systems thinking is not a new idea in education. In 1992, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development published an issue of Educational Leadership called “Improving School Quality.” Frank Betts contributed an article to that issue called “How Systems Thinking Applies to Education.” As Betts notes, “Each educational system is composed of a unique set of elements arranged in a unique constellation of relationships. Furthermore, the relationships among elements, subsystems, and supra-systems are continually changing in search of equilibrium while avoiding entropy.” As the call for systemic change in education has grown even more urgent in the years since his article was published, there remains much to learned about applying systems thinking to transforming our schools.

Taking a systems thinking approach provides school leaders with the data they need to lead a change process. Strong leaders practice distributive leadership and encourage all stakeholders to actively participate in the process. Applying systems thinking and working collaboratively with others is the way to collectively take the risks necessary to maximize our effectiveness and reach for our capacity to meet the needs of today’s students.

Coming August 27th at 3:00 p.m. EST:

Your Library on Steroids: Make an Impact on System Level PrioritiesSchool Library Journal Webinar with Priscille Dando, Coordinator of Library Information Services, Fairfax County Public Schools, and Jonathan Hunt, Lead Coordinator of Library Media Services, San Diego County Office of Education

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you feel that your school community is currently working together as a team?
  2. How do you or could you contribute to strengthening your school’s team?

Works Cited

Betts, Frank. 1992. “How Systems Thinking Applies to Education.” Educational Leadership 50 (3); 38-41.

Senge, Peter, Nelda Cambron-McCabe, Timothy Lucas, Bryan Smith, Janis Dutton, and Art Kleiner. 2012. Schools That Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares about Education. New York: Crown Business.

 

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