Searching for systems to impact learning

School often heats up in the transitional divide between primary and secondary school for the simple reason that there are exams, transcripts and university admissions at the end of the journey.

The tyranny of the score grips the secondary school teacher, parent and student in its at times suffocating clutches, and there is sometimes an overwhelming urgency that, closer to the exams, turns into panic.

The strong emotions around scores create a lot of wasteful brain activity. We know that when strong emotions like fear happen, the adrenal glands release cortisol and it floods the blood stream. In brain scans of people experiencing fear, the brain’s emotional center is flooded.

A summary of human brain arousals and inhibitions in humans experiencing four basic emotions (from autobiographical memory): Sadness (PANIC/GRIEF), Happiness (PLAY/JOY), anger (RAGE) and anxiety (FEAR) during positron emissions tomography (PET) scanning. Data are summarized in finer detail by Damasio et al. 25 Distinct subcortical brain regions exhibit abundant arousals (reds and yellows) during each of these emotions, while there are abundant cortical inhibitions (reduced blood flow, coded as blues and purples) present in many cortical areas. To facilitate reading, upward arrows indicate increased brain arousals and downward arrows indicate reduced brain regional arousals. (The statistical

 Figure from Panksepp, 2015 via Researchgate.

Remember that stress is an evolutionary argument between neocortex and lizard brain

The brain has evolved in layers, so to speak, and the inner brain is set in its ways; it is in charge of safety at perceived threat so it commands a lot of oxygen when it perceives a flight or fight situation (such as exams). The neocortex, evolved much later, is in the frontal lobes of the brain. It is in charge of “problem-solving, decision-making, action-initiating” (Sylwester, 2005, loc. 1317 in his book How to Explain a Brain) or what we commonly refer to as executive functions.

The emotional center or the reptilian brain is rigid in that it often resorts to the binary response of fight or flight. It is at odds with the neocortex, which is able to cast a wide net over solutions to problems encountered as well as create new solutions by making connections (Burnett, 2017, loc 92). The neocortex is where leaps of thought happen toward innovative thinking.

Fortunately the brain likes patterns

Humans have brains capable of pattern processing which has given rise to features of our thought and world.

Creativity and invention, which have resulted in the development of tools, processes and protocols for solving problems and saving time, and the arts (Goel, 2014; Orban and Caruana, 2014; Zaidel, 2014). Examples include all aspects of agriculture, transportation, science, commerce defense/security, and music; (2) Spoken and written languages that enable rapid communication of highly specific information about all aspects of the physical universe and human experiences; (3) Reasoning and rapid decision-making; (4) Imagination and mental time travel which enables the formulation and rehearsal of potential future scenarios; and (5) Magical thinking/fantasy, cognitive process that involves beliefs in entities and processes that defy accepted laws of causality including telepathy, spirits, and gods (Einstein and Menzies, 2004).

From Mattson, 2014,

In our schools, we can leverage our capacity to seek patterns, design patterns, and use patterns to systematically soothe our fears about assessment and create a somewhat predictably safe environment in which brains can learn.

Systems allow us to address processes in an elemental fashion (Williams & Hummellbrunner, 2009). We can:

  • break down the system into its parts
  • make visible to us the connections between the parts and the processes connecting these
  • examine the limitations or parameters of the system
  • when we see the system’s parameters, we also discern what is within and without its influence

In search of an assessment system that works, the assumption that we hold might be that it is a function of creating agency in our schools. Often the perception that something is out of our control is a source of fear. To remove those triggers, we might enact processes, which make the process of using information (assessment performance) to improve quality in specifically described ways (criteria and descriptors), in cyclical, iterative ways.

Knowing that teacher and student learning is linked, we might enact these cycles systemically in our schools:

Review and Assessment.png
Illustration after Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment with teacher learning communities.

Three systems ideas at work

1 Small disturbances can shift systems

“You don’t have to touch everyone in the system to make a difference.” (Garmston and Wellman, 2016, p. 8).

This principle from Adaptive SchoolsSM teaches us that in dynamical, nonlinear systems, if we wait for all conditions to be perfect, we might never move into action. The agency of enacting change in our systems can begin with small changes in norms and behaviors. If we spend way too much time analyzing causal factors, we might not have enough time to design approaches and strategies and implement actions.

2 Monitoring process impact

This concept addresses how we might influence the direction, speed, and adjustments to a process by closely designing ways to monitor the impacts of interventions we put in place. Discerning the actual processes at work is key in this systems concept (Williams and Hummelbrunner, 2009). The authors give us these guiding questions to consider:

How can the behavior of diverse actors be steered in a desired direction?

What are the key processes for achieving the intended results of an intervention?

What are the consequences for achieving effects if those processes do not take place as foreseen?

What should be done if such gaps between plan and reality occur?

(Williams and Hummelbrunner, 2005, p.92)

Those familiar with the PLC model might recognize some similarity with the above guiding questions and the intentions of creating a PLC for the purpose of learning toward solutions.

3 Solution focusing

This systems concept addresses the internal states of the agents in a system. It seems counter-intuitive to see a solutions focus as internal states of mind. Williams and Hummelbrunner (2009) suggest that shifting the focus to the solution as opposed to focusing on the problem helps us to avoid endless analysis about what has gone wrong and break out of paralysis by analysis into attentive and intentional solution-creation.

In this approach, the thinking is gathered around the desired state. Its creators Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg developed this approach around two assumptions: that there is no necessary connection between the problem and the solution; and that the solution depends on the solution rather than the problem (in Williams and Hummelbrunner, 2009). Hence, the authors ‘dissolve’ the problem and make space for solution thinking.

This approach give us these guiding questions.

What would it be like if the problem suddenly disappeared?

Who should be doing (or stop doing) what, to reach that ideal situation?

How can these actions be supported, and by whom?

Which elements of the solution take place already?

(Williams and Hummelbrunner, 2005, p. 184)

This inquiry into systems is an open-ended task. Knowing our programme framework as we do, and paying attention to the learners in these systems, brings a complex and contextual task of design. It also demands nimble and flexible thought as the task is not able to be reduced to recipe or linear steps.

What the task does guarantee is that we will nurture a shared responsibility for student learning. That solution, in itself, holds the key to our desired state. When we think of what gatherings of shared thought have produced throughout history, we see the trend of optimism upon which we stand.

Our schools are ready for their renaissance. Let’s go.


Burnett, D. (2017). The idiot brain. Place of publication not identified: Guardian Faber Publishing.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups(3rd ed.). London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Panksepp, Jaak. (2015). “Affective preclinical modeling of psychiatric disorders: Taking imbalanced primal emotional feelings of animals seriously in our search for novel antidepressants.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 17, 363-379.

Sylwester, R. (2005). How to Explain a Brain: An Educators Handbook of Brain Terms and Cognitive Processes. Erscheinungsort nicht ermittelbar: Skyhorse Publishing.

Wiliam, D. (2008). Taking assessment for learning to scale. Presentation at Centre for Educational Research (CERI) 40th anniversary conference “Learning in the 21st century; research, innovation and policy.” Retrieved 15 September 2018 from

Williams, B., & Hummelbrunner, R. (2009). Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioners Toolkit. Stanford Business Books.

Featured photo of insect swarm by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at

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