Picture this:  You are teaching 9th grade English I.  It’s the last period of the day.  You just finished writing instructions on the board. You turn around and see this…


What do you do?


Why what else?  Teacher face – eyebrows raised, eyes fixed on student about to throw paper – situation fixed.

You identified the problem and ***bam*** reacted.

So here’s the question, what if things keep happening like this every day, every period in your class?  Do you keep giving the teacher face every ten seconds to different students?  It would be exhausting (not to mention wrinkle-inducing).  So what’s a teacher to do?

Well, as many of you have probably done, you stop looking at each time a student is off-tasked as an isolated incident.

Maybe you ask yourself: Are my lessons too slow?  Are my students getting bored?

Maybe you think: What can I do to prevent this in the first place?

The student about to throw the paper isn’t in a bubble.  He is affected by everything around him.  Perhaps he has a crush on the girl in the front row and is trying to get her attention.  Perhaps he is anxious about the test you are about to give and is hoping you’ll send him to the office.  It’s never as simple as just a student throwing a paper ball.

And that’s not just true for the imaginary classroom; it’s true for education overall.  If we see every problem in isolation and just react to it, we’re missing the whole.

In Schools that Learn, Peter Senge asserts that while responding to events as “separate incidents and tailoring your responses accordingly” is “understandable and common, it isn’t generally effective.”

Senge urges educators to see below the tip of the iceberg to “the structure supporting the visible tip.”  We need to see the whole rather than just the part that is most obvious; we need to see the structure within which each event exists.  That’s systems thinking.

ImageSeeing the whole, helps us move away from quick fixes for individual issues to seeing how the pieces of interrelate, acknowledging the complexity, and reflecting on what the means for developing a solution.

So let’s do an experiment.   This week take one problem that you are tempted to quick fix and before you jump to a solution, ask yourself (and if you can your colleagues too) these three questions that Senge recommends:

1)   What’s been happening?  Have we been here or some place similar before?

2)   What are the forces at play contributing to these patterns?

3)   What about our thinking allows this situation to persist?