Why map the education system?

Last Wednesday evening, around 30 people gathered in a room in Perth to talk about the future of education. They were of various ages and backgrounds, from teaching to consulting to business and more, but all shared a passion for changing the way we do education. This was the second gathering of the EDfutures community, coming together to talk about ‘Mapping the System’.

A community gathered to talk about the future of education.

EDfutures is an initiative of the Fogarty Foundation that exists to promote innovation in education. It does that by building a community of passionate people who think our education system needs to do better, and who are committed to working out, together, how to make that happen. Unsurprisingly given the diversity of people in the room, attendees on Wednesday had different takes on what needs to change most, from the nitty gritty of classroom practice to our shared understanding of what learning is for in the first place. EDfutures community nights are a chance to start interesting conversations about the future of education, to surface new ideas and approaches, and eventually, to start taking action together towards the future we want to see.

To start with, though, we need to work out what the ‘education system’ actually is.

What’s systems mapping?

That was the purpose of this event — to use the concept of systems mapping to help us understand better the work we’re collectively trying to do in education. What is systems mapping? In short, it’s a way to visualize and learn about the make-up and dynamics of the systems you might want to change. In very broad terms, a system is any set of objects (atoms, people, organisations) that are causally interdependent (something that happens to one affects the others, and vice versa) and produce particular results. People who use systems mapping are usually most interested in complex social systems — for example, homelessness or mental health services in a particular place — and how to improve the results those systems produce.

A great image to introduce systems mapping from Leyla Acaroglu of Disruptive Design.

Before we got stuck into creating our own maps, I started my presentation with a quick summary of why you might map a system. Some of the key benefits are:

  1. Getting a broader view of a system. Mapping a system often alerts you to elements you don’t immediately think of as part of a particular system (say, public libraries in education), and encourages you to develop a kind of ‘bird-eye view’ of all the complex relationships that make up a system.
  2. Planning more impactful, sustainable interventions. The work of systems change, unfortunately, is full of examples of interventions that work well in the short-term, but turn out to be ineffective or even counter-productive. Investing in homeless shelters, for instance, has the short-term impact of getting people off the streets, but in the long-term it makes the problem less visible (taking pressure off decision-makers), and diverts funding away from more sustainable, housing-focused solutions.
  3. Learning more from members of the system itself. Systems maps aren’t meant to be final or private — they work best when used as iterative, collaborative learning tools. If you draw a map of a mental health system and show it to a service user, it’s sure to draw out insights that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. They’ll point to parts of the system and say ‘that relationship isn’t working right now’ or ‘you’ve forgotten these people’, and you’ll end up with a great new set of questions to explore.
A ‘map of maps’, care of Dr. Ingrid Burkett atThe Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI).

We were hoping to access all of these benefits by inviting our attendees to create maps of the education system, and seeing what conversations those maps started. As you can see above, there are heaps of different kinds of systems maps, each with a more nuanced set of goals in mind. For our EDfutures night, I chose to use rich pictures, because they focus on who makes up the system (something I wanted to draw out and compare to who was represented in our community), and because they seemed like an accessible place to start. In short, rich pictures favour pictures over words, inviting you to describe a system by drawing actors (people and organisations), the relationships between them (using arrows and annotating with pictures), and what those actors are doing, thinking and feeling. I’m almost as much of a systems mapping novice as most of our attendees were, so I wanted a relatively easy first experiment!

What went down?

After a very important pizza break, I set each side of the room a task: one side had to map the education system as it is now, and the other, the system as they want it to be in the future. They had twenty minutes (no pressure — just mapping the entire system in less than half an hour!). As each table set to work, I floated around to check out what they were coming up with, and what they were finding tricky. One of the great things about systems mapping is that it’s not just the maps themselves you can learn from — observing the mapping process itself can lead to some really interesting insights.

One group getting stuck in, and another taking a little longer to make a start on their map…

The tables mapping the existing system had no trouble getting started, quickly starting to sketch out students, parents, teachers, schools, government and more, as well as how they relate to one another. Those relationships often focused on the problems in the current system: restrictive curriculum demands, a surplus of bureaucracy, and an oppressive standardized testing regime all featured. One of the key challenges these groups had was to fit all of their thoughts onto the two large pieces of butcher’s paper we gave them! Watching them work, it felt like this was a cathartic experience for many — a chance to finally vent about everything they see going wrong and see it all laid out (quite literally) right in front of them.

The groups mapping the system as they’d like it to be in the future had a very different experience. These groups took a lot longer to get started — five minutes into the activity, I arrived at a table who were yet to make a mark on the page. Obviously mapping a system that doesn’t exist yet is always going to be a tougher ask than mapping a very familiar one, but it was interesting to see so much hesitation in these groups. I wondered if they were feeling worried about ‘getting it wrong’, or if there was a deeper moment of learning taking place — a realization, when all of a sudden they had to put pen to page, that each of their visions for the future of education might be a lot more divergent than they’d assumed before.

What did we learn?

When twenty minutes was up, I invited everyone to take part in a ‘gallery walk’ reflection exercise, where they asked questions and made comments on each other’s maps using post-it notes and without speaking, bringing out a whole lot more perspectives and questions. Then I threw it to the room for an open discussion, starting very simply with ‘what did you notice?’.

The gallery walk was a great chance to reflect, give feedback, and process the mapping exercise.

There were a lot of interesting answers. Expanding our understanding of learning was a common theme for the future; both where it happens (not just confined to particular buildings), and who does it (people of all ages, so that learning doesn’t finish at the end of Year 12 or university). One attendee, a teacher, was very glad to see that none of the future maps included an ATAR system. A sobering moment was when another attendee pointed out that almost none of the maps had included a place for Aboriginal Australians and their knowledge systems. Again, it’s not just what’s on a map that’s interesting — what’s missing can also send us an important message about how we might need to change our approach.

Click to take a closer look at some of the systems maps our attendees created.

The feeling in the room during that discussion, though, was an excited energy. Facilitating the discussion, I could hardly keep up with the hands shooting in the air wanting to contribute an idea, build one someone else’s point, or challenge the direction of the conversation. The second question I posed was ‘how might we move from the current system to the one we want to see?’, and it seemed to really ignite the passion of the room to find ways to improve a system they were all invested in. When I called an end to the facilitated discussion but encouraged people to keep chatting, they stayed at their tables in animated conversation for much longer than we expected as the EDfutures team started to pack up the room around them. The energy was infectious.

A question we didn’t have time for, but which I would have loved to pose to the room, was ‘where are you in this system?’ It can be easy to think of ‘the system’ as something external to you — and it’s especially tempting use the term to describe a nebulous group of powerful decision-makers whose main effect is to slow you, the change-maker or service deliverer, down. But the reality is, we’re all a part of this system. And because of the interrelated nature of systems, that means in some way or other we’re complicit in producing the results we see in that system, including the ones we don’t like. I think that’s actually an empowering thought — because when we accept our place as part of an interrelated system, we realise that we have the power to affect what goes on in that system. Power dynamics in systems are complex, and it will take a lot of us working together in a coordinated way to make real change (which is exactly what EDfutures is trying to facilitate!). But on that evening, what systems mapping started to do (I hope) was to give us a chance to say ‘look, there we are. We’re a part of this system, connected to all the other parts. Now let’s see what happens when we start to do things differently’.

If you’re interested in innovation and the future of education, we encourage you to join the EDfutures community on Facebook and at our website, where you can also get access to our newsletter to hear about more community nights and other events, and add yourself to our very own community map.

If you want to learn more about systems mapping, here are a few places to start:

  • Donella Meadows was one of the first to popularize systems thinking and systems mapping, and her book ‘Thinking in Systems’ is a great primer.
  • Our friends at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) were kind enough to share Dr. Ingrid Burkett’s map of systems maps with us (the graph with all the colourful circles above). If you google any of the types of systems mapping in that graph, you can learn much more about what they are and why they’re useful.
  • On the night I showed one video of a series on rich pictures by The Open University, which can be found here.