There are many definitions of systemic change. Perhaps the most broadly valid definition is “change that pervades all parts of a system, taking into account the interrelationships and interdependencies among those parts.”
We find it useful to distinguish systemic change from piecemeal change. Piecemeal change entails changing one or several parts of a system. If the changes are compatible with the rest of the system, they will often be successful, like replacing blackboards with whiteboards.
The terms most commonly used for this kind of change are “reform” (though it does not actually re-form the system) and “restructure” (though it does not actually re-structure the system). If the changes are not completely compatible with the rest of the system, their success depends on related changes in the other parts of the system.
Systemic change recognizes those interdependencies and makes the necessary changes in those other parts and their interrelationships. Actually, piecemeal change and systemic change are endpoints on a continuum, and the extent to which a change is systemic depends on the extent to which the changes are incompatible with the current system, and therefore the extent to the changes are both fundamental (i.e., they require a complete change in each part) and pervasive (i.e., they occur throughout all parts of the system).
Consider the following changes in transportation systems (chosen because it is both familiar and concrete). Initial system: the horse. Change 1: adding a saddle and bridle. Change 2: adding a wagon or coach. Change 3: replacing the horse with a gasoline engine. Change 4: replacing the whole thing with an airplane. Clearly these represent vastly different points on the continuum from piecemeal to systemic change.
When a system’s “systemic environment” undergoes few and small changes, piecemeal change to a system is most appropriate. When the systemic environment undergoes big changes, systemic change is needed. When communities evolved from the agrarian age to the industrial age, big changes occurred in educational systems’ environment.
Consequently, extreme systemic change (which we refer to as paradigm change) was necessary in schools, and the factory model of schools replaced the one-room schoolhouse. Now that communities are evolving from the industrial age to the information age, there is again a need for paradigm change in education. Therefore, the Division for Systemic Change is focusing mostly on paradigm change. The term most commonly used for this kind of change is transform, for it does actually create a new form or structure for the system.
Knowledge about systemic change is of two different, but of course interrelated, kinds: process and product, or means and ends. Knowledge about the product or ends is knowledge about what the paradigm of education should be like to meet the educational needs of the information age. Knowledge about the process or means is knowledge about how to transform existing educational systems and how to design and implement new ones. One is the destination and the other is how to get there from here. The term “systemic change” can refer to both.
We invite discussion of alternative perspectives and views about systemic change.