The Imperative for Systemic Change

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The Imperative for Systemic Change

Charles M. Reigeluth

Indiana University

There has been much publicity about the need for systemic change in education recently. Increasing numbers of educational leaders are advocating it, including Ernest Boyer (1983), John Goodlad (1984), Theodore Sizer (1984), Lewis Perelman (1987), Ann Lieberman & Lynne Miller (1990), Albert Shanker (1990), and Bela Banathy (1991). And more recently the New American Schools Development Corporation has drawn national attention to it (see the next article in this issue).

But what actually is systemic change? And why is it needed in education today?

What Is Systemic Change?

It is helpful to think in terms of two different kinds of change:

• piecemeal change, often called tinkering, which entails modifying something (fixing a part of it), and

• systemic change, often called paradigm shift, which entails replacing the whole thing.

Systemic change is comprehensive. It recognizes that a fundamental change in one aspect of a system requires fundamental changes in other aspects in order for it to be successful. In education, it must pervade all levels of the system: classroom, building, district, community, state government, and federal government. And it must include the nature of the learning experiences, the instructional system that implements those learning experiences, the administrative system that supports the instructional system, and the governance system that governs the whole educational system (Banathy, 1991).

Such an approach to change is indeed radical, not to mention difficult and risky. Do we really need such a radical change?

Why is Systemic Change Needed in Education?

Daniel Bell (1973), Alvin Toffler (1980), Robert Reich (1991) and others have identified several massive changes that our society has undergone: from the agrarian age to the industrial age, and now entering into what some call the information age.

The dawn of the industrial age brought with it massive changes in all of society's systems, including the family, business, and education. In fact, that is the only time in the history of the United States that education has undergone systemic change—from one-room schoolhouses to the industrial, assembly-line model we have today. The current system is substantially the same as it was when we became an industrial society. The reforms that have been made since then have all been piecemeal changes.

Now that we are entering the information age, we find that paradigm shifts are occuring or will likely soon occur in all of our societal systems, from communications and transportation to the family and the workplace. It is little wonder that we again find the need for a paradigm shift in education. Society is changing in sweeping ways that make our current educational system obsolete.

Changes in Society

Let's begin with a look at the family. The extended family in the agrarian age entailed the parents and children living together with grandparents and even aunts, uncles and cousins. This gave way to the nuclear family in the industrial age. In turn, the information age has given rise to the single-parent family and the dual-income family. This societal change has important implications for the kinds of changes needed in education.

As a second case in point, businesses in the agrarian age were organized around the family: the family farm, the family trade (e.g. bakery, carpentry). The family represented the organizational structure and lines of authority. This gave way to the bureaucratic form of organization in the industrial age. Today, corporations are restructuring to create horizontal "enterprise webs" in place of vertical layers of middle managers (Reich, 1991). Transformations based on team approaches, total quality management, and technological imperatives are rapidly changing the structure of businesses worldwide.

Of all our societal systems, business is the most user-driven (client-driven), so it has naturally been among the first to systemically transform itself (Ackoff, 1981). However, all our other societal systems, including education, health, legal, and political, are also becoming increasingly dysfunctional as we evolve deeper into the information age; and systemic transformation will be needed—and will be inevitable—in all these areas, including education.

By way of comparison, educational systems are like transportation systems in some important ways. Like the one-room schoolhouse, the horse was ideally suited to the agrarian age. It was highly flexible and individualized. But as we evolved into the industrial age, the transportation needs of society began to change. It became necessary to transport large quantities of raw materials and finished goods to and from factories. Rather than trying to improve the prevailing system, an alternative paradigm was developed—the railroad. Like our current educational system, it offered a quantum improvement in meeting the new needs of the industrial age, but everyone had to travel at the same rate to the same destination.

Since the dawn of the information age in the 1950's, America's transportation needs have again been changing in dramatic ways. And again we have turned to a new paradigm, a combination of the automobile and the airplane. Society has been changing in such dramatic ways (see Table 1) that we need a new educational system that is as different from our current system as the automobile and airplane are from the railroad. Like the new transportation system, the new educational system will likely grow up in parallel with the current system, will be separate from but coexist with it, and will slowly grow while the current system slowly declines. It is simply not logistically possible to change the current system everywhere at once.

Table 1. Major Paradigm Shifts in Society
Society: Agrarian Industrial Information

Transportation: Horse Train Plane & car

Family: Extended Nuclear Single-parent

family family family

Business: Family Bureaucracy Team

Education: One-room Current ?

schoolhouse system

It is clear that paradigm shifts in society cause (or require) paradigm shifts in all societal systems. This explains why educational performance has generally declined in the United States since the early 1960s, while educational costs have dramatically increased. Furthermore, it indicates that the situation will continue to get worse no matter what piecemeal changes we make and no matter how much money we pour into the current system.

Relationships between Society and Education

The need for a new paradigm of education is based on massive changes in both the conditions and educational needs of an information society. Therefore, we must look at those changes in order to figure out what features the new system should have. Table 2 shows some of the major differences between the industrial age and the emerging information age. These differences have important implications for the features of the new educational system: how it should be structured, what should be taught, and how it should be taught.

Our current system has adversarial relationships not only between teachers and administrators, but also between teachers and students and often between teachers and parents. Consolidated districts are highly bureaucratic, centrally-controlled "dictatorships" in which students get no preparation for participating in a democratic society. Leadership is vested in individuals according to a hierarchical management structure, and all those lower in the hierarchy are expected to obey the leader. Learning is highly compartmentalized into subject areas. Students are treated as if they are all the same and are all expected to do the same things at the same time. They are also forced to be passive learners and passive members of their school community. These features of our current system must all change (and are indeed beginning to change), for they are counterproductive—harmful to our citizens and our society—in the information age.

Table 2: Major Differences Between the Industrial Age and

the Information Age that Affect Education

Industrial Age Information Age

Mass production, etc. Customized production, etc.

Adversarial relationships Cooperative relationships

Bureaucratic organization Team organization

Autocratic leadership Shared leadership

Centralized control Autonomy with accountability

Uniformity Diversity

Autocracy Democracy

Representative democracy Participative democracy

Compliance Initiative

One-way communications Networking

Compartmentalization Holism

(Division of Labor) (Integration of tasks)
In the industrial age we needed minimally educated people who would be willing and able to put up with the tedium of work on the assembly lines. However, those assembly-line jobs are rapidly becoming an endangered species. Just as the percentage of the work force in agriculture dropped dramatically in the early stages of the industrial age, so the percentage in manufacturing has been declining dramatically over the past few decades. As Reich (1991) points out, even in manufacturing companies, a majority of the jobs today entail manipulating information rather than materials. Just as the industrial age represented a focus on, and extension of, our physical capabilities (mechanical technology), so the information age represents a focus on, and extension of, our mental capabilities (intellectual technology). This makes effective learning paramount. But, surprisingly, our current system is not designed for learning!

Systems Thinking Applied to Learning

Two things educators know for certain are that different children learn at different rates and different children have different learning needs, even from their first day at school. Yet our industrial-age system presents a fixed amount of content to a group of students in a fixed amount of time, so it is like a race in which we see who receives the A's and who flunks out. Our current system is not designed for learning; it is designed for selection.

To emphasize learning, the new system must no longer hold time constant and allow achievement to vary. It must hold achievement constant at a competency level and allow time to vary. There is no other way to accommodate the facts that different children learn at different rates and have different learning needs. But to have an attainment-based rather than time-based system, we must in turn have person-based progress rather than group-based progress. And that in turn requires changing the role of the teacher to that of a coach or facilitator/manager, rather than that of dispenser of knowledge to groups of students who pass by at the ring of a bell like so many little widgets on an assembly line.

If the teacher is to be a facilitator and educational manager, then that requires that the system be resource-based, utilizing powerful new tools offered by advanced technology, rather than teacher-based. And it requires much more collaboration and teamwork among students, including cooperative learning and cross-age tutoring, rather than our traditional view that collaboration among students equates with cheating.

Interestingly, the industrial age not only made a new system of transportation—the railroad—necessary (to ship large quantities of raw materials and finished goods to and from factories), but it also made the railroad possible (with its manufacturing technology). In a similar way, the information age has not only made a new educational system necessary, but has also made a new system possible (with its information technologies). We now have powerful tools to facilitate learning that we did not have a few years ago. And the power of those tools continues to increase, while their cost continues to decline dramatically.

Hence, based on changes in the work place, the emerging picture of the new educational system includes the changes shown in Table 3.

Education and Systemic Changes in the Family

The information-age family also has important implications for the new educational system. Given the predominance of single-parent families and dual-income two-parent families in advanced countries, parenting is not occurring today as it did in the industrial age. Latch-key children are just the "tip of the iceberg" regarding the shortage of communication, caring, and structure that students receive in the home. Add to that the increasing incidence of mental and physical child abuse and the alarming increase in the number of "crack babies" and children born with other chemical-abuse problems, and we can see that our society will face very severe social problems 20 years from now if our educational system does not team up with other social service agencies to become a system of learning and human development—a system that is concerned with the development of the whole child, not just the child's mental development.

Table 3: Emerging Picture of Features for an Information-Age Educational System Based on Changes in the Work Place
Industrial Age Information Age

Grade levels Continuous progress

Covering the content Outcomes-based learning

Norm-referenced testing Individualized testing

Non-authentic assessment Performance-based assessment

Group-based content delivery Personal learning plans

Adversarial learning Cooperative learning

Classrooms Learning centers

Teacher as dispenser of Teacher as coach or facilitator

knowledge of learning

Memorization of meaningless Thinking, problem-solving

facts skills and meaning making

Isolated reading, writing skills Communication skills

Books as tools Advanced technologies as tools

In the new educational system, the "school" needs to become a caring environment. Our current system seems to have been designed to be just the opposite. Not only do we require students to change teachers every year, but we require them to change every 45 minutes! And teachers only see students in large groups, as if to minimize personal interaction. Schools are often so large that an atmosphere of impersonality, bureaucratic control, and helplessness results in feelings of anonymity and behavioral problems. We need to create smaller "schools within a school" that operate independently of one another, and each child needs a mentor who will stay with her for a number of years, perhaps a developmental stage of her life. And the mentor should be concerned with the development of the whole child, including all of Gardner's (1987) "seven intelligences" and more: mental, physical, emotional, creative, social, psychological, and ethical (see Table 4).

Table 4: Emerging Picture of Features for an Information-Age Educational System Based on Changes in the Family

• A "teacher" is responsible for a child for a period of about 4 years.

• That teacher is responsible for educating the whole child.

• Each school has no more than 10 teachers, to create a smaller, caring environment (the notion of schools-within-a-school).

• Each student develops a quarterly contract with the teacher and parents.

Decision-Making Systems: Accountability, Incentives, and Resource Allocation

In our industrial-age educational system, as in our industrial-age businesses, accountability, incentives, and resource allocation are all handled by a bureaucratic system in a top-down manner. Many businesses have recently been moving away from the bureaucratic system to a more team-based organization (what Reich calls "enterprise webs") in which decisions are much more client-driven than bureaucracy-driven. Interestingly, this same kind of change is sweeping Eastern European economies. Indeed, it is emerging as a characteristic of information-age organizations. Given this, the American movement to establishing national standards will likely be counter-productive if the standards become a tool for a bureaucracy-driven system for making decisions regarding accountability, incentives, and resource allocation. Alternatively, standards will be very useful if they are a tool to serve a client-driven system.


When we look at the ways society is changing as we evolve deeper into the information age, we can see definite trends in the work place, the family, and decision-making systems. From those changes, we can identify new features that an information-age educational system should have to meet the needs of society. Unfortunately, educators aren't taking this kind of needs-based, systems-design approach to improving education. Without such an approach, we will almost certainly be condemned to a system that does not meet society's needs.


Ackoff, R.L. (1981). Creating the Corporate Future. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Banathy, B.H. (1991). Educational Systems Design: A Journey to Create the Future. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Bell, D. (1973). The coming of post-industrial society: A venture in social forecasting. New York: Basic Books.

Boyer, E. (1983). High school: A report on secondary education in america. New York: Harper & Row.

Gardner, H. (1987). Beyond the IQ: Educational and human development. Harvard Educational Review, 57 (2), 187-195.

Goodlad, J.I. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lieberman, A., & Miller, L. (1990). Restructuring schools: What matters and what works. Phi Delta Kappan, 71 (10), 759-764.

Perelman, L.J. (1987). Technology and transformation of schools. Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Assoc.

Reich, R.B. (1991). The work of nations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Shanker, A. (1990). Staff development and the restructured school. In B. Joyce (Ed.), Changing school culture through staff development: 1990 yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Sizer, T.R. (1984). Horace's compromise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Toffler, A. (1980). The third wave. New York: Bantam Books.

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