International Review of Education

, Volume 59, Issue 6, pp 771–791 | Cite as

Seeing wholes: The concept of systems thinking and its implementation in school leadership

  • Haim Shaked
  • Chen Schechter


Systems thinking (ST) is an approach advocating thinking about any given issue as a whole, emphasising the interrelationships between its components rather than the components themselves. This article aims to link ST and school leadership, claiming that ST may enable school principals to develop highly performing schools that can cope successfully with current challenges, which are more complex than ever before in today’s era of accountability and high expectations. The article presents the concept of ST – its definition, components, history and applications. Thereafter, its connection to education and its contribution to school management are described. The article concludes by discussing practical processes including screening for ST-skilled principal candidates and developing ST skills among prospective and currently performing school principals, pinpointing three opportunities for skills acquisition: during preparatory programmes; during their first years on the job, supported by veteran school principals as mentors; and throughout their entire career. Such opportunities may not only provide school principals with ST skills but also improve their functioning throughout the aforementioned stages of professional development.


Systems thinking School leadership School management 


Voir des ensembles : le concept de la pensée systémique et son application à la gestion scolaire – La pensée systémique est une approche qui préconise la réflexion sur toute question donnée en tant qu’ensemble, et qui valorise les corrélations entre ses composantes au lieu des composantes elles-mêmes. Cet article vise à mettre en rapport la pensée systémique et la gestion scolaire, partant du principe que la première peut permettre aux directeurs de développer des écoles hautement performantes et capables de relever avec succès les défis actuels, plus complexes que jamais dans notre époque marquée par l’imputabilité et des attentes élevées. Les auteurs présentent le concept de la pensée systémique – définition, composantes, historique et applications. Ils décrivent ensuite son rapport avec l’éducation et sa contribution à la gestion scolaire. Ils concluent par une analyse des applications pratiques, par exemple la sélection des candidats aux postes de direction qualifiés en pensée systémique, et le perfectionnement de ce type de pensée chez les directeurs actuels et futurs. Ils signalent enfin trois opportunités pour la transmission de cette compétence : dans le cadre des programmes préparatoires, au cours des premières années d’exercice avec le soutien de collègues expérimentés servant de mentors, enfin tout au long de la carrière. Ces opportunités peuvent transmettre cette compétence aux directeurs d’école, mais aussi améliorer leur action à chaque étape mentionnée de leur évolution professionnelle.


  1. Ackoff, R. (1999). Ackoff’s best: His classic writings on management. New York: John Wiley.Google Scholar
  2. Andrew, T. N., & Petkov, D. (2003). The need for a systems thinking approach to the planning of rural telecommunications infrastructure. Telecommunications Policy, 27(1–2), 75–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barak, M., & Williams, P. (2007). Learning elemental structures and dynamic processes in technological systems: A cognitive framework. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 17(3), 323–340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bedau, M. A., & Cleland, C. E. (2010). The nature of life: Classical and contemporary perspectives from philosophy and science. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Ben-Zvi-Assaraf, O., & Orion, N. (2009). A design based research of an earth systems based environmental curriculum. EURASIA Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 5(1), 47–62.Google Scholar
  6. Bertalanffy, L. (1949). Problems of life. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  7. Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General system theory. New York: George Braziller.Google Scholar
  8. Blizzard, J., Klotz, L., Pradhan, A., & Dukes, M. (2012). Introducing whole-systems design to first-year engineering students with case studies. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 13(2), 177–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Boersma, K., Waarlo, A. J., & Klaassen, K. (2011). The feasibility of systems thinking in biology education. Journal of Biological Education, 45(4), 190–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bonn, I. (2005). Improving strategic thinking: A multilevel approach. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 26(5), 336–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bovens, M. (2005). Public accountability. In E. Ferlie, L. Lynn, & C. Pollitt (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of public management (pp. 182–208). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Bowler, P. J. (2001). Reconciling science and religion: The debate in early-twentieth-century Britain. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  13. Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Browne-Ferrigno, T. (2007). Developing school leaders: Practitioner growth during an advanced leadership development program for principals and administrator-trained teachers. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 2(3), 1–30.Google Scholar
  15. Bush, T., & Glover, D. (2004). Leadership development: Evidence and benefits. London: National College for School Leadership.Google Scholar
  16. Bush, T., & Jackson, D. (2002). A preparation for school leadership: International perspective. Educational Management and Administration, 30(4), 417–429.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Bush, Y., & Oduro, G. (2006). New principal preparation in Africa: Preparation, induction and practice. Journal of Educational Administration, 44(4), 359–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Cabrera, D. A. (2006). Systems thinking. Doctoral dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.Google Scholar
  19. Camborn-McCabe, N. H., Cunningham, L. L., Harvey, J. J., & Koff, R. H. (2005). The superintendent’s fieldbook: A guide for leaders of learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.Google Scholar
  20. Carter, H. M. (2012). Institutionalization of caring in an era of accountability: Creating a supportive environment for at-risk students’ retention in high school and access to college. New Educator, 8(2), 177–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Chance, P. L. (2005). Engaging communities through vision development: A systems approach to public relations. Journal of School Public Relations, 26(2), 139–155.Google Scholar
  22. Checkland, P. (1999). Systems thinking, systems practice; Soft systems methodology: A 30 year retrospective. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  23. Checkland, P., & Poulter, J. (2006). Learning for action: A short definitive account of soft systems methodology and its use for practitioner, teachers, and students. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  24. Comber, B., & Nixon, H. (2011). Critical reading comprehension in an era of accountability. Australian Educational Researcher, 38(2), 167–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Copland, M. A. (2001). The reform of administrator preparation at Stanford: An analytic description. Journal of School Leadership, 11, 335–366.Google Scholar
  26. Craver, C. F. (2007). Explaining the brain: Mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  27. Darden, L. (2006). Reasoning in biological discoveries: Mechanisms, interfield relations, and anomaly resolution. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Daresh, J. C. (2004). Mentoring school leaders: Professional promise or predictable problems? Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(4), 495–517.Google Scholar
  29. Darling-Hammond, L., LaPointe, M., Meyerson, D., Orr, M. T., & Cohen, C. (2007). Preparing school leaders for a changing world: Lessons from exemplary leadership development programs. Stanford, CA: Stanford Educational Leadership Institute.Google Scholar
  30. Davidz, H. L. (2006). Enabling systems thinking to accelerate the development of senior systems engineers (Doctoral dissertation). Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, MA.Google Scholar
  31. Davis, S., Darling-Hammond, L., LaPointe, M., & Meyerson, D. (2005). School leadership study: Developing successful principals. Stanford, CA: Stanford Educational Leadership Institute.Google Scholar
  32. Descartes, R. (1985). The philosophical writings of Descartes (J. Cottingham, R. Stoothof, & D. Murdoch, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Dolan, A. M. (2012). Lifelong learning: A new paradigm for teacher education. Rethinking Education, 9, 53–72.Google Scholar
  34. Donaldson, G. A. (2006). Cultivating leadership in schools: Connecting people, purpose, and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  35. Dyehouse, M., Bennett, D., Harbor, J., Childress, A., & Dark, M. (2009). A comparison of linear and systems thinking approaches for program evaluation, illustrated using the Indiana interdisciplinary GK-12. Evaluation and Program Planning, 32(3), 187–196.Google Scholar
  36. Eller, J. F. (2010). An evaluation of a development program for new principals. The Qualitative Report, 15(4), 956–965.Google Scholar
  37. Engineering Systems Division of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2007). ESD terms and definitions (Version 16). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Google Scholar
  38. Field, J. (2006). Lifelong learning and the new educational order. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Press.Google Scholar
  39. Fleck, F. (2008). The balanced principal: Joining theory and practical knowledge. Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed for Quick Review, 73(5), 27–31.Google Scholar
  40. Frank, M. (2002). Characteristics of engineering systems thinking: A 3-d approach for curriculum content. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics: Part C—Applications and Reviews, 32(3), 203–214.Google Scholar
  41. Frank, M. (2006). Knowledge, abilities, cognitive characteristics and behavioral competences of engineers with high capacity for engineering systems thinking. Systems Engineering, 9(2), 91–103.Google Scholar
  42. Frank, M. (2010). Assessing the interest for systems engineering positions and other engineering positions’ required capacity for engineering systems thinking. Systems Engineering, 13(2), 161–174.Google Scholar
  43. Fullan, M. (2003). The moral imperative of school leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.Google Scholar
  44. Gharajedaghi, J. (1999). Systems thinking, managing chaos and complexity: A platform for designing business architecture (3rd ed.). Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.Google Scholar
  45. Grogan, M., & Andrews, A. (2002). Defining preparation and professional development for the future. Educational Administration Quarterly, 38(2), 233–256.Google Scholar
  46. Hale, E. K., & Moorman, H. N. (2003). Preparing school principals: A national perspective on policy and program innovations. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.Google Scholar
  47. Hammond, D. (2005). Philosophical and ethical foundations of systems thinking. Triple C, 3(2), 20–27.Google Scholar
  48. Hargreaves, D. H. (2004). Learning for life: The foundations of lifelong learning. Bristol, UK: The Policy Press.Google Scholar
  49. Hayes, W. (2008). No child left behind: Past, present, and future. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  50. He, M., Piche, L., Beynon, C., Kurtz, J., & Harris, S. (2011). Screen-related sedentary behaviours of school-aged children: Principals’ and teachers’ perspectives. Health Education Journal, 70(1), 32–38.Google Scholar
  51. Hersterman, P. K. (2012). Growing as a professional music educator. General Music Today, 25(3), 36–41.Google Scholar
  52. Hess, F. M., & Kelly, A. P. (2007). Learning to lead: What gets taught in principal preparation programs. Teachers College Record, 109(1), 244–274.Google Scholar
  53. Hess, F. M., & Petrilli, M. J. (2006). No child left behind primer. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  54. Huber, B., Moorman, H., & Pont, B. (2007). School leadership for systematic improvement in England: A case study report for the OECD activity improving school leadership. OECD website. Retrieved from
  55. Hung, W. (2008). Enhancing systems-thinking skills with modelling. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(6), 1099–1120.Google Scholar
  56. Jasparro, R. J. (1998). Applying systems thinking to curriculum evaluation. NASSP Bulletin, 82(598), 80–86.Google Scholar
  57. Jennings, J. L. (2010). School choice or schools’ choice? Managing in an era of accountability. Sociology of Education, 83(3), 227–247.Google Scholar
  58. Jones, R. H. (2000). Reductionism: Analysis and the fullness of reality. Cranbury, NJ: Bucknell University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Kelly, V, L., & Peterson, G. J. (2009, November). Leading for learning: An investigation of superintendents shaping relationships into a shared symphony to attain exemplary academic outcomes. Paper presented at the annual conference of the University Council for Educational Administration, Anaheim, CA.Google Scholar
  60. Kiefer, M. L. (2004, September). National urban and rural principals leadership institute. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the School Leadership Learning Community sponsored by the Institute for Educational Leadership and U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  61. King, K. S., & Frick, T. (2000). Transforming education: Case studies in systems thinking. Indiana University website. Retrieved from
  62. Kingham, S. H. (2009). The perspectives of first-year principals regarding their experiences with mentors and the mentoring process within the Louisiana educational leaders induction (LELI) program. Doctoral dissertation, University of New Orleans.Google Scholar
  63. Kowalski, T. (2004). The ongoing war for the soul of school administration. In T. Lasley (Ed.), Better leaders for America’s schools: Perspectives on the manifesto (pp. 92–114). Columbia, MO: University Council for Educational Administration.Google Scholar
  64. Kwan, P. (2012). Assessing school principal candidates: Perspectives of the hiring superintendents. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 15(3), 331–349.Google Scholar
  65. Leischow, S. J., Best, A., Trochim, W. M., Clark, P. I., Gallagher, R. S., Marcus, S. E., & Matthews, E. (2008). Systems thinking to improve the public’s health. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(2S): S196–S203.Google Scholar
  66. Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). Learning from leadership project: How leadership influences student learning. New York: Wallace Foundation.Google Scholar
  67. Levine, A. (2005). Educating school leaders. New York: Education School Project.Google Scholar
  68. Levinson, M. (2011). Democracy, accountability, and education. Theory and Research in Education, 9(2), 125–144.Google Scholar
  69. Lewis, E., Mansfield, C., & Baudains, C. (2008). Getting down and dirty: Values in education for sustainability. Issues in Educational Research, 18(2), 138–155.Google Scholar
  70. Lewontin, R., & Levins, R. (2000). Let the numbers speak. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 11(1), 63–67.Google Scholar
  71. Lytton, M. (2012). School closing: Proceed with caution. Educational Facility Planner, 46(1), 17–18.Google Scholar
  72. Matthews, P., Moorman, H., & Nusche, D. (2007). School research development strategies: Building leadership capacity in Victoria, Australia: A case study report for the OECD activity—Improving school leadership. OECD website. Retrieved from
  73. Mazzocchi, F. (2008). Complexity in biology: Exceeding the limits of reductionism and determinism using complexity theory. EMBO Reports, 9, 10–14.Google Scholar
  74. Miller-Williams, S. L., & Kritsonis, W. A. (2009). A systems approach to comprehensive school reform: Using the realms of meaning and the baldridge approach as a systems framework. Retrieved from:
  75. Murphy, J. (2006). Some thoughts on rethinking the pre-service education of school leaders. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 1(1). University Council for Educational Administration website. Retrieved from
  76. Murphy, J., Moorman, H. N., & McCarthy, M. (2008). A framework for rebuilding initial certification and preparation programs in educational leadership: Lessons from whole-state reform initiatives. Teachers College Record, 110(10), 2172–2203.Google Scholar
  77. Noble, D. (2006). The music of life: Biology beyond the genome. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  78. Oplatka, I. (2009). Learning the principal’s future internal career experiences in a principal preparation program. International Journal of Educational Management, 23(2), 129–144.Google Scholar
  79. Oplatka, I., & Waite, D. (2010). The new principal preparation program model in Israel: Ponderings about practice-oriented principal training. Advances in Educational Administration, 11, 47–66.Google Scholar
  80. Orr, M. T. (2006). Mapping innovation in leadership preparation in our nation’s schools of education. Phi Delta Kappan, 87, 492–499.Google Scholar
  81. Pang, N. S., & Pisapia, J. (2012). The strategic thinking skills of Hong Kong school leaders: Usage and effectiveness. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 40(3), 343–361.Google Scholar
  82. Peterson, G. J., & Barnett, B. (2005). The superintendent as instructional leader. In L. G. Bjork & T. J. Kowalski (Eds.), The contemporary superintendent: Preparation, practice, and development. Corwin: Thousand Oaks, CA.Google Scholar
  83. Pisapia, J. (2009). The strategic leader: New tactics for a globalizing world. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.Google Scholar
  84. Pisapia, J., & Reyes-Guerra, D. (2007). The strategic thinking questionnaire (STQ). Defray Beach, FL: Strategic Leadership International.Google Scholar
  85. Pisapia, J., Reyes-Guerra, D., & Coukos-Semmel, E. (2005). Developing the leader’s strategic mindset: Establishing the measures. Leadership Review, 5, 41–68.Google Scholar
  86. Porter, T., & Cordoba, J. (2009). Three views of systems theories and their implications for sustainability education. Journal of Management Education, 33(3), 323–347.Google Scholar
  87. Price-Mitchell, M. (2009). Boundary dynamics: Implications for building parent-school partnerships. School Community Journal, 19(2), 9–26.Google Scholar
  88. Richmond, B. (1994). System dynamics/systems thinking: Let’s just get on with it. System Dynamics Review, 10(2–3), 135–157.Google Scholar
  89. Richmond, B. (2000). The “thinking” in systems thinking: Seven essential skills. Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications.Google Scholar
  90. Riess, W., & Mischo, C. (2010). Promoting systems thinking through biology lessons. International Journal of Science Education, 32(6), 705–725.Google Scholar
  91. Rosenberg, A. (2006). Darwinian reductionism: How to stop worrying and love molecular biology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  92. Sahin, M., Akbasli, S., & Tugba, Y. (2010). Key competences for lifelong learning: The case of prospective teachers. Educational Research and Reviews, 5(10), 545–556.Google Scholar
  93. Schechter, C. (2005). Organizational learning mechanisms: Exploring a conceptual framework for organizational learning in schools. Journal of School Leadership, 15(5), 571–600.Google Scholar
  94. Schechter, C. (2011). Switching cognitive gears: Problem-based learning and success-based learning as instructional frameworks in leadership education. Journal of Educational Administration, 49(2), 143–165.Google Scholar
  95. Schechter, C., & Haviv, O. (2013). School networks: From idea to practice. Studies in Educational Administration and Organization, 33, 75–96.Google Scholar
  96. Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now. Aurora, CO: McRel.Google Scholar
  97. Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (revised ed.). New York: Currency, Doubleday.Google Scholar
  98. Shaked, H., & Schechter, C. (2013). Systems school leadership: Exploring an emerging construct. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
  99. Silver, M., Lochmiller, C. R., Copland, M. A., & Tripps, A. M. (2009). Supporting new school leaders: Findings from a university-based leadership coaching program for new administrators. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 17(3), 215–232.Google Scholar
  100. Steiner, L., & Barrett, S. K. (2012). Turnaround principal competencies. School Administrator, 69(7), 26–29.Google Scholar
  101. Sterman, J. D. (2000). Business dynamics: Systems thinking and modeling for a complex world. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  102. Stone, M. K. (2010). A schooling for sustainability framework. Teacher Education Quarterly, 37(4), 33–46.Google Scholar
  103. Taber, T. D. (2007). Using metaphors to teach organization theory. Journal of Management Education, 31(4), 541–554.Google Scholar
  104. Thurston, E. K. (2000). Enabling systems thinking in the “mesonic millennium”: The need for systemic methodologies for conceptual learning in undergraduate management education. Journal of Management Education, 24(1), 10–31.Google Scholar
  105. Tirozzi, G. (2004). Repainting the canvas: The changing artistry of the principalship. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.Google Scholar
  106. Vachliotis, T., Salta, K., Vasiliou, P., & Tzougraki, C. (2011). Exploring novel tools for assessing high school students’ meaningful understanding of organic reactions. Journal of Chemical Education, 88(3), 337–345.Google Scholar
  107. Van Mai, T., & Bosch O. J. H. (2010). Systems thinking approach as a unique tool for sustainable tourism development: A case study in the Cat Ba biosphere reserve of Vietnam. International Society for the Systems Sciences website. Retrieved from
  108. Verhoeff, R. P., Waarlo, A. J., & Boersma, K. T. (2008). Systems modelling and the development of coherent understanding of cell biology. International Journal of Science Education, 30(4), 543–568.Google Scholar
  109. Walker, A., & Kwan, P. (2012). Principal selection panels: Strategies, preferences and perceptions. Journal of Educational Administration, 50(2), 188–205.Google Scholar
  110. Walker, A., & Qian, H. (2006). Beginning principals: Balancing at the top of the greasy pole. Journal of Educational Administration, 44(4), 297–309.Google Scholar
  111. Wallace Foundation. (2007). Getting principals mentoring right: Lessons from the field. Retrieved from
  112. Wells, C., & Keane, W. G. (2008). Building capacity for professional learning communities through a systems approach: A toolbox for superintendents. AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, 4(4), 24–32.Google Scholar
  113. Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of the mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  114. West, A., Mattei, P., & Roberts, J. (2011). Accountability and sanctions in English schools. British Journal of Educational Studies, 59(1), 41–62.Google Scholar
  115. Williams, D. (2008). Sustainability education’s gift: Learning patterns and relationships. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 2(1), 41–49.Google Scholar
  116. Wojtczak, A. (2002). Glossary of medical education terms: Part 1. Medical Teacher, 24(2), 216–219.Google Scholar
  117. Woolsey, A. M. (2010). New principals in the trenches: Does mentoring impact leadership development for new school leaders? Doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University.Google Scholar
  118. Young, M. D. (2008). Programs are making important progress in providing research-based preparation that support student learning. University Council for Educational Administration Review, 49(2), 9–10.Google Scholar
  119. Young, M., & Kochan, F. (2004). UCEA leaders respond: Supporting leadership for America’s schools. In T. Lasley (Ed.), Better leaders for America’s schools: Perspectives on the manifesto (pp. 115–129). Columbia, MO: University Council for Educational Administration.Google Scholar
  120. Zmuda, A., Kuklis, R., & Kline, E. (2004). Transforming schools: Creating a culture of continuous improvement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.Google Scholar
  121. Zulauf, C. A. (2007). Learning to think systemically: What does it take? Learning Organization, 14(6), 489–498.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht and UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ramat HagolanIsrael
  2. 2.School of EducationBar-Ilan UniversityRamat-GanIsrael

Personalised recommendations