On 8 February 2023, NORRAG launched the book Systems Thinking in International Education and Development: Unlocking Learning for All?, edited by NORRAG Executive Director Moira V. Faul and Laura Savage, Associate Member of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge.
The book is the fourth volume in the NORRAG series in International Education and Development. The series intends to generate an international debate on emerging trends in education and provide space for authors that represent diverse perspectives and knowledge communities.
The event began with opening remarks by Chanwoong Baek, NORRAG Academic Director. He mentioned that the book brings together research in the new field of systems thinking in international education, framing system thinking as a way to understand global education crises and work towards achieving SDG 4.
Following the opening remarks, co-editors Moira V. Faul and Laura Savage briefly presented the book. Laura mentioned that the aim of this publication is to showcase approaches that are currently being used to think about education in low and middle income countries, show what systems thinking in education is not and encourage the debate on systems thinking going forward. The book puts forward two main questions: why are children in school not learning the basics? How should actors within education act differently?
Moira defined systems thinking as a range of approaches that allow appropriate responses to the complexity we face in the world. In systems thinking, we consider not only system elements, but also the relations between them, the context in which they exist, the functions of the system, and influence pathways inside it. This book aims to offer a lasting contribution to the field of systems approaches, showing how system methods can be used to tackle complex issues in education.
Their presentation was followed by a video showcase featuring chapter authors discussing the core idea presented in their chapter. Varja Lipovsek (Co-Impact), one of the co-authors of chapter 2, presented the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach, which focuses on in-class data collection on learning processes, with the goal to connect local and international actors and donors. Charlotte Jones (Education Development Trust), who contributed to chapter 3, focused on supporting group dynamics in teacher collaborations to encourage change at scale.
Clio Dintilhac (Gates Foundation), co-author of chapter 4, looked at how donors can support reforms that improve learning outcomes at scale, ensuring that interventions are locally adapted. In her video, chapter 5 author Gita Steiner-Khamsi (Columbia University) discussed travelling education reforms, which arise in a national context and are then adapted in other countries, studying how this movement modifies education reforms’ adaptation and outcomes.
Keith Lewin (University of Sussex), chapter 6 author, stressed the importance of mapping participation by grade, to see how students are learning within education systems. In this way, zones of exclusion from learning can be explored, improving equity in education. He was followed by Mike Klassen (University of Toronto), co-author of chapter 8, who focused on systems thinking applied to Vocational Education and Training (VET). Mike pointed out that through systems approaches, connections between local and international actors can be uncovered, as well as relationships between VET schools, employers and other organisations.
Juan David Parra (Universidad del Norte), co-author of chapter 9, highlighted the need to incorporate systems thinking into policy evaluation, which they tested in a large-scale policy evaluation in Colombia. Laura Savage, co-editor and co-author of chapter 10, stressed that using systems thinking allows researchers to look at issues from others’ perspectives and encourages them to share these perspectives across actors within the system.
Editors Laura Savage and Moira V. Faul pointed to directions for further research, including increasing the number of empirical cases, refining what systems thinking entails, collaborating with other sectors and learning from and with indigenous and Global South knowledge systems.
The video showcase was followed by a reflection by Karen Mundy, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Toronto. Karen pointed out that systems thinking can be seen as a perspective rather than an approach. She then mentioned three ways to categorise systems thinking. The first is a top-down approach, where a policy at the top can be cascaded down to the bottom. The second is a bottom-up approach, taking into account how a system is perceived by actors within it. The third way is an inside-out approach, which she argued is still missing in the education sector.
After this reflection, the book editors, chapter authors and audience members engaged in an interactive Q&A session.
In the concluding remarks, Chanwoong Baek, NORRAG Academic Director, offered an overview of the work of NORRAG, which is celebrating its 45-year anniversary. The NORRAG network brings together more than 5,600 members, from 178 countries. NORRAG’s strategic activities are to produce, disseminate, surface under-represented expertise and broker critical knowledge to build capacity for and with a wide range of stakeholders. Projects such as The South Also Knows aim to give voice to experts from the Global South, reversing the North-South asymmetry in expertise and decision-making. He then presented the social systems map that allows NORRAG members to map their existing connections and establish new ones.
Watch the video presentations in our showcase:
Contents of the book:
- Chapter 1: Introduction to Systems Thinking in International Education and Development (Moira V. Faul and Laura Savage)
Part I: From practice to systems thinking
- Chapter 2: Reflections on systems practice: implementing teaching at the right level in Zambia (Varja Lipovsek, Laura Poswell, Ashleigh Morrell, Devyani Pershad, Nico Vromant, and Abe Grindle)
- Chapter 3: Collaborative professionalism and education system change: new evidence from Kenya, India and Rwanda (Charlotte Jones, John Rutayisire, Donvan Amenya, Jean-Pierre Mugiraneza, and Katie Godwin)
- Chapter 4: Global education funders’ perspectives on the potential of systems thinking to change education practices and achieve mass learning gains (Laura Savage, Clio Dintilhac, Raphaelle Martinez, Tjip Walker, and Jason Weaver)
2. Part II: From theories to systems thinking and practices
- Chapter 5: Understanding travelling reforms from a systems perspective (Gita Steiner-Khamsi)
- Chapter 6: Using a systems approach to education and development: insights from a multi-country research programme on access and learning (Keith M. Lewin)
- Chapter 7: System coherence for learning: applications of the RISE education systems framework (Michelle Kaffenberger and Marla Spivack)
Part III: Applying systems approaches in practice
- Chapter 8: Adapting inclusive systems development (ISD) to vocational education and training (VET) and skills development (Mike Klassen, Sandra Rothboeck, and Ailsa Buckley)
- Chapter 9: Systems, complexity and realist evaluation: reflections from a large-scale education policy evaluation in Colombia (Juan David Parra and D. Brent Edwards Jr)
- Chapter 10: Can systems thinking tools help us better understand education problems and design appropriate support? Reflections on a test case (Elena Walls and Laura Savage)
Part IV: Conclusion
- Chapter 11: Conclusion: beyond silver bullet solutions (Moira V. Faul and Laura Savage)