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What is a systems approach, anyway?

David Evans's picture
“It makes me a little crazy when you keep saying systems.” – Jowhor Ile, in And After Many Days

At home, we have a porchlight at the entrance to our house. If I flip the switch for that light, there is about a 50-50 chance it will turn on. The reason? There is another switch in the basement that controls the electricity flow to the porch, and the porchlight will only come on if both switches are on.

This – slightly adapted – analogy came from Justin Sandefur at the Center for Global Development, in an effort to explain what a systems approach is and how it can improve development programming.

If you’re like us, there is so much talk about systems that it can be easy to get lost. At a recent event, we asked a mixed group of operational teams and researchers, “How confident are you that you know what a systems approach is?” Nearly 40 percent had little to no idea.

How confident are you that you know what a systems approach is?

To take education as an example, a systems approach to education recognizes the following:

1. An education system is made up of different actors (students, teachers, administrators, political leaders), accountability relationships (management, politics), and design elements (financing, information) (see Pritchett or Scur).

2. Changes to one part of the system are moderated by other parts of the system. For example, the effectiveness of investments to get children to school will be limited (or enhanced) by the quality of the schooling.

3. A change to one part of the system leads to changes in other parts of the system: increased public provision of school supplies won’t increase learning if parents subsequently reduce their pre-existing investments in school supplies, as indicated by what happened in India and Zambia (Das et al.).

A systems approach seeks to explicitly take these separate components and their interlinking movements into account.

Three models demonstrate how a systems approach can apply at each point in the reform process: One identifies the current performance of each element of the system, one answers questions of what happens as elements of that system change, and one seeks to leverage this information to improve reforms.

First, the Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) – represented by Luis Benveniste at our recent event – seeks to measure policy intent and policy implementation in a range of countries. If an education system is made up of a bunch of different components, then understanding where a system is on each component is key to taking effective action. SABER helps countries gather systematic data on their policies around 13 areas, grouped into inputs (finance, teachers, school health, and school feeding), governance (school autonomy and accountability, engagement of the private sector), information (student assessment, management and information systems), and complementary inputs and cross-cutting themes (information and communication technologies, equity and inclusion, and resilience), and levels of education (early childhood development, tertiary education, and workforce development).

It then gathers data on actual practice via the Service Delivery Indicators (overview and reports; data), as in the figure below.

SABER: Implementation

Source: Benveniste presentation

Second, the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) program – represented by Justin Sandefur – takes a systems approach to education research. What does that look like? Policy evaluation with “big questions / big programs, evaluated at scale,” plus a “focus on politics and implementation,” which is “embedded in a unified conceptual framework that can explain failures” (a.k.a. Policy Analysis Plus). That “conceptual framework” is the recognition of how actors influence each other and how the structure of the system influences them.

For example, a recent evaluation in Indonesia found no impact of doubling teacher salaries on teacher effort or student learning. The RISE approach examines this failure within the context of all the other benefits to and requirements from teachers to understand not only the failure, but also how to effectively map the path to success.
The result                                           Embedding that result in an education systems framework

Third and finally, the Global Partnership for Education – represented by Karen Mundy – discussed the development of education sector plans with strong country ownership and financing. Ideally, such a plan draws on benchmarking from SABER (and similar efforts) and Policy Analysis Plus from RISE (and similar efforts) to detail a set of actions that explicitly recognizes the interactions and expected reactions from different actors in the system to any policy change. A systems approach to such a plan would also build in learning and opportunities to shift course, as unexpected results lead education leaders to update their understanding.

Albert Einstein is said to have coined the phrase, “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.” Surely, to the frustration of some readers, a systems approach is not a simple thing. It is an approach that explicitly recognizes and seeks to grapple with the interacting players and structures of the education system. But without it, we run the risk of never figuring out how to turn the porchlight on.

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Submitted by Duncan on

I think you need to distinguish between complicated and complex systems. The definitions and descriptions here seem to fall between the two. With multiple feedback loops, i.e. each actor responding to changes elsewhere in the system, you have a complex adaptive system, with real limits on what you can know, predict or attribute. Not sure this article fully embraces the implications of that.

Submitted by Michael on

David, thanks for this post drawing a welcome eye to the importance of systems approaches in education!

However, I'd challenge you that just because systems are complex, a systems approach must be as well. The very exciting work in complexity theory (and the functioning of complex adaptive systems more specifically) has much to say here (the best policy-relevant summary of which I've seen is in this three-series blog post by Owen Barder: ). You may be familiar with Pritchett's version specific to education in his book:

Let me posit a further idea: What growth diagnostics did for economic growth policy (moving from Washington Consensus one-size-fits-all thinking, to a structured framework to identifying specific binding constraints to economic growth for country A in time B), we now need for education policy (and other policy environments). That is to say, we need a simple-to-use generalizable framework (a set of tests and differential diagnostics) for identifying binding constraints in a complex (educational) system.

Thoughts? Does this already exist somewhere?

Submitted by Carla Paredes on

Thanks David for the initiative to ask relevant questions that to some might see as going back to the basics. Clearly you show that basics can get complex pre-tty quickly, and that behind the assumptions of knowledge and expertise there are not only gaps, but also different interpretations. As I take Policy to Practice course and read this blog, I can only appreciate more how system approach matters to improve programming, and ultimately to secure lasting results. It's not enough to know what gets implemented and what works, but how and why it works.. or not. And this wider lens is what SA helps us use. The interactions between policies, people, and places matter because we live in an interconnected, contentious, and multidimensional world. As we move into an era of personalized education, open online learning, flipped classrooms, gaming, etc. SA only becomes more necessary. Congrats for putting this issue on the table and for encouraging us to ponder on it. Glad to know that I'm not alone in wondering about fancy concepts.

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