The organisational characteristics of schools as systems
School leadership research and literature rarely pay explicit attention to the nature of schools as systems. Organisational theory is not utilized as a means of understanding why things happen the way they do in schools. This paper applies aspects of system theory in interpreting the relationships between how principals understand the school environment, their ethical principles and their leadership practice.
This section provides a brief summary of how 'systems thinking' is used and applied in the study. There are some observations about its use in school leadership theory and literature.
What is systems thinking?
Systems thinking is the way in which one understands how different parts of a system or organisation interact and influence each. A system is 'any perceived structure whose elements hang together because they continually affect each other over time' (Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith and Dutton, 2012). Sterman (1994), Boulding (1956), Forrester (1998), and Pispapia (2009), writing about system thinking but not schools specifically, make several relevant points. Sterman notes that this systems thinking is not common and that it more common to see parts of an organisation in isolation from each other. All of these writers that the systems thinking that does take place is most often and enduring mechanical 'clockwork' model (Boulding), and Hazy notes that systems theory has developed over the last hundred year (Hazy et al., 2007, p. 38). System thinking as an uncommon practice and a persistent view of human systems as clockwork mechanics set the scene for explaining contemporary systems thinking as demonstrated in school leadership literature.
What are the specific characteristics of open complicated systems and open complex systems?
The key finding of the organisational characteristics of schools is that schools are open complex adaptive social systems with some characteristics of open complicated systems. The inquiry identified that school leadership literature is based on characteristics of schools as complicated systems rather than complex systems and that this choice is based on unexamined assumptions and a lack of awareness about the important consequences of unexplored mental models about the nature of schools as systems. Consideration of schools as systems is uncommon in education literature and those who do examine schools as systems conclude that they are complex
The differences between mental models of human systems are grouped as either complicated, complex, or a mixture of both. While both are open, in the sense that their boundaries as human organisations cannot be clearly differentiated from other human organisations, the differences between complicated and complex are profound. The Open Systems Criteria Framework is summary of characteristics identified in the theoretical examinations of these models.
Complexity theory has been applied to research on leadership in recent decades. The Leadership Quarterly in 2006 and 2009 contributed to the thinking. The work of Lichtenstein and Plowman (2009), Marion, Christiansen, Klar, Schreiber, and Erdener (2016) and Olson and Eoyang (2001) are among those included in the literature review who have contributed to the development complexity theory and complexity leadership theory and their particular characteristics. Heifetz (1994, 2001, 2009) in particular has contributed to the concept of adaptive leadership as a practice appropriate to complex systems as opposed to the technical work informed by expert knowledge of solutions to known problems.
What is the case for schools as open complex systems and particularly complex adaptive open social systems?
The case for schools as largely complex systems is derived largely from theory and research not explicitly based on schools and some of them are identified above. A number of education researchers do present the case for schools as complex systems. Morrison (2001, 2011) applies complexity theory specifically to schools by taking complexity characteristics, emergence and self-organisation for example, and demonstrating their relevance to schools. Duignan (2012) notes the need to 'recognize that schools are living, complex, dynamic, mostly non-linear organisations' (p. 21) and others including Gough (2012) who writes extensively about schools as complex systems and Beabout (2012), Boal and Schultz (2007), and Keshavarz (2010) who all argue for the importance of understanding schools as complex systems.
Tackling wicked problems: A public policy perspective (Commission, 2012) argues the case for schools as a public sector organisation as a complex system. The paper cites the concept of 'wicked problems' introduced by Rittel and Webber (1973) whereby social issues addressed by governments 'defy traditional ways of working and solving problems in the APS [Australian Public Service]' (p. 10). Rittel and Webber examine the 'dilemmas' emerging in planning theory that cannot account for problems resistant to formal authority, expert knowledge, and the application of known solutions, such as public health and poverty. Highly relevant to this study is their observation that these wicked problems require responses based on choices about what is ethically most important. The literature view also explores their argument that wicked problems have emerged because many problems previously viewed as easy because they could be judged by efficiency are now being 'challenged by a renewed preoccupation with the consequences of equity' (p. 156).
The Open Systems Framework identifies the generic characteristics of open complicated and open complex systems. These characteristics are used to explore principals' interview responses.
The criteriological inquiry concluded that schools are a particular type of open complex system and the term complex open adaptive systems (CASS) is proposed. The argument is that the concept of adaption captures the importance of learning and the continual need to adapt to the changing circumstances in schools as organisations located within communities that must respond to changes in public policy. It argue that schools as systems need also to be described as 'social' due to distinctive characteristics based on highly interactive, emotional, and personal relationships built up over extended time by the nature of the relationships between school staff and children's families within a distinct community. The criteriological inquiry concludes that schools then are largely complex adaptive social systems (CASS) with elements of technical, complicated systems. These technical elements are those required expert knowledge, such as teaching reading. How and where to act on this expertise informs decision making that is based on the complexity of making ethical choices about how to use scarce resources to meet multiple student need.
The inquiry also identifies the characteristics of open complicated systems and concludes that education literature and system level policies are based on these complicated characteristics. It is concluded that schools therefore are open, complex, social systems. There is, therefore, a misalignment between the real nature of schools as complex systems and the assumed and inaccurate representation of schools as complicated systems.
The inquiry concluded that a consequence of schools as complex social systems is that ethical choices for principals are normal, continuous and usually constitute a dilemma. This establishes a strong direct relationship between school as complex social systems and the presence of ethical decision making.
What is the case for arguing that education literature misunderstands or misinterprets the nature of schools as systems?
School leadership literature and professional development material pay little specific reference to the significance of schools' system characteristics as factors influencing the thinking, the decision-making, or the organisational culture. Those education researchers who do write about systems thinking all note this absence and explore the implications of consequent misunderstandings and...