Systems Thinking in International Education and Development


Systems Thinking in International Education and Development

Unlocking Learning for All?

9781802205923 Edward Elgar Publishing
Edited by Moira V. Faul, Director of Research and Executive Director, NORRAG, Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Switzerland and Laura Savage, Associate Member, Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge, UK
Publication Date: 2023 ISBN: 978 1 80220 592 3 Extent: 260 pp
This is an open access title available under the terms of a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 License. It is free to read, download and share on

Underlining the urgency, scale and complexity of the crisis of declining student learning trajectories despite significant financial investments and reform efforts, this insightful book proposes systems thinking a way of understanding the global education crisis and to drive the real change that is needed to achieve SDG4.

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The global education crisis is a complex problem that requires change from teachers, school managers, civil society, implementers, planners, governments and donors. Addressing the issues that lie beneath this crisis requires new ways of working. Systems thinking is a suite of approaches to grappling with complex problems that is beginning to gain traction in international education. This book brings together new research in the nascent field of systems thinking in international education.

Outlining the implications that systems thinking can hold for future research, practice and progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4, a diverse range of leading scholars, policymakers and practitioners present novel research to encourage the shift from a linear view of change to a systems view. Chapters present diverse approaches to applying systems thinking in education across middle- and low-income countries, alongside research on how this has changed mindsets more widely. Questioning notions such as scaling and the universal applicability of ‘what works’, authors here suggest that locally relevant evidence and systemic rewards for using it are necessary to achieve SDG 4. This innovative book exemplifies how systems thinking offers the tools, frameworks and concepts to improve outcomes in education systems.

With the education crisis further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this timely book is essential reading for all those concerned with education and sustainable development goals. This thought-provoking book should be read by all those working to achieve SDG4; those whose day jobs inspire them and who look to their bookshelves for new ideas.
Critical Acclaim
‘Systems thinking has been successfully applied to address service delivery challenges in many sectors, especially health. While it is a relatively new approach in education, systems thinking will become a commonly used tool in delivering quality education post the ravages of covid. This book, consisting of 11 chapters and authored by a wide range of reputable practitioners on the topic, will become a valuable companion to donors, policymakers and implementers down to the classroom level striving to provide quality learning for all children.’
– Dzingai Mutumbuka, First Minister of Education of Independent Zimbabwe, former Chair of ADEA, former Sector Manager at the World Bank and currently serves on numerous education boards

‘Given what we know about complexity theory and the insights it offers into how we might go about initiating and sustaining change in education, it''s hard to imagine taking on the perennial challenges in international education and development without first understanding what dynamic systems approaches have to offer in this domain. Perhaps the biggest of those challenges lies in enabling quality learning for all – and this volume takes that on through a systems approach, considering examples of such thinking and practice from across the globe and asking how systems thinking might help in the design and implementation of interventions aimed at realizing Sustainable Development Goal Four. It''s hard to imagine how we''ve done without this book for so long.’
– Mark Mason, The Education University of Hong Kong

‘The language of change is often slippery, nowhere more so than discussing “systems”. Is “system” merely a synonym for bureaucracy, or a non-linear, unpredictable and constantly evolving network? When advocates of change use the term interchangeably, confusion is the inevitable result. In this book, Faul and Savage disentangle the two, show how the broader understandings of “systems thinking” apply to the education sector, and explore a series of case studies for additional insights. A valuable contribution.’
– Duncan Green, author of How Change Happens; Professor in Practice, London School of Economics, UK; Strategic Adviser, Oxfam GB
Contributors: Donvan Amenya, Ailsa Buckley, Clio Dintilhac, D. Brent Edwards Jr., Moira V. Faul, Katie Godwin, Abe Grindle, Charlotte Jones, Michelle Kaffenberger, Mike Klassen, Keith M. Lewin, Varja Lipovsek, Raphaelle Martinez, Ashleigh Morrell, Jean-Pierre Mugiraneza, Juan David Parra, Devyani Pershad, Laura Poswell, Sandra Rothboeck, John Rutayisire, Laura Savage, Marla Spivack, Gita Steiner-Khamsi, Nico Vromant, Tjip Walker, Elena Walls, Jason Weaver


Foreword xiv
Gita Steiner-Khamsi
Acknowledgements xv
1 Introduction to Systems Thinking in International
Education and Development 1
Moira V. Faul and Laura Savage

2 Reflections on systems practice: implementing
teaching at the right level in Zambia 27
Varja Lipovsek, Laura Poswell, Ashleigh Morrell,
Devyani Pershad, Nico Vromant and Abe Grindle
3 Collaborative professionalism and education
system change: new evidence from Kenya, India
and Rwanda 47
Charlotte Jones, John Rutayisire, Donvan
Amenya, Jean-Pierre Mugiraneza and Katie Godwin
4 Global education funders’ perspectives on the
potential of systems thinking to change education
practices and achieve mass learning gains 69
Laura Savage, Clio Dintilhac, Raphaelle
Martinez, Tjip Walker and Jason Weaver

5 Understanding travelling reforms from a systems
perspective 86
Gita Steiner-Khamsi
6 Using a systems approach to education and
development: insights from a multi-country
research programme on access and learning 106
Keith M. Lewin
7 System coherence for learning: applications of the
RISE education systems framework 140
Michelle Kaffenberger and Marla Spivack

8 Adapting inclusive systems development (ISD) to
vocational education and training (VET) and skills
development 163
Mike Klassen, Sandra Rothboeck and Ailsa Buckley
9 Systems, complexity and realist evaluation:
reflections from a large-scale education policy
evaluation in Colombia 188
Juan David Parra and D. Brent Edwards Jr
10 Can systems thinking tools help us better
understand education problems and design
appropriate support? Reflections on a test case 209
Elena Walls and Laura Savage

11 Conclusion: beyond silver bullet solutions 228
Moira V. Faul and Laura Savage

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