Shifting My Mental Model: Systems Thinking in Action

Topics: Systems Change

Everyone carries ideas and beliefs about how systems are structured and how the problems within them operate. Those ideas and beliefs are called mental models. They guide our actions, inform our conversations, and help us simplify the complex realities in which we live. Systems thinking offers ways to make our mental models explicit, which creates a starting point for discussion and collaborative problem solving.

My mental model recently shifted in an important and useful way, and I have systems thinking tools (and a generous colleague) to thank for opening the conversation that led me to new insights.

When we published our systems thinking guidebook, we included the diagram below to illustrate how different components of a system interact to create a feedback loop. A feedback loop is circular cause and effect; the components are causing one another to change while also being changed by one another.

The factors in this diagram interact to create certain outcomes, namely that the connections between property taxes, school funding and public perception of school quality interact to determine home values, at least in part.

I had the opportunity to reflect on this diagram with Jeremy Chan-Kraushar, the director of implicit bias and culturally responsive education at the New York City Department of Education. While he agreed that the dynamic we illustrated is at play, he saw the diagram as being an incomplete and possibly misleading and harmful interpretation of how the system operates.

Feedback Loop: Starting at variable Home Values, directing with causal link to Revenue from Property Taxes moving to Per-Pupil Spending moving to Perception of School Quality moving back to Home Values

Our diagram did not illustrate the racist policies and beliefs that led homes in predominately White neighborhoods to be valued more highly. It did not illustrate that White parents often draw conclusions about a school’s quality based on its demographics, believing that a school that serves mostly White children is a better school than one that serves mostly Black children. It did not illustrate that many wealthier schools and districts, which already have access to more tax revenue, also receive private funds from parents and community members, further concentrating resources.

Because I put my mental model about the relationships among home values, school resources and perceptions of school quality on paper, Jeremy and I had a place to begin our conversation. We were able to discuss and uncover some nuances that I had neglected to include in the first draft of my systems map.

After that conversation, I revisited the diagram. It still does not capture all of the dynamics listed above, but it does dig further into how racism feeds into both perceptions of school and neighborhood “quality” and home values.

four circles exist in a feedback loop, the two bottom circles are connected in between them by one circle, the variable of the perception that white neighborhoods are better than Black neighborhoods. Center variable: Perception that White neighborhoods are better than Black neighborhoods. Following the arrow in the lower right leads to “Willingness to provide loans in Black neighborhoods” to “Level of investment in Black neighborhoods” to “Home values in Black neighborhoods.” One arrow goes back to perception, and the other goes to “Revenue from property taxes in Black neighborhoods” to “Per-pupil spending in Black neighborhood schools” to “Perception of Black neighborhood school quality.” The variables on the left-hand side are the same, except with White neighborhood (and the +/- is different). When you increase the center variable, then you take away from the right side, which is Black neighborhood variables and put those resources into the left-side variables, which are White neighborhoods.

Creating systems diagrams involves learning and reflection. This revised version allowed me to think deeply about how policies and perceptions interplay and influence one another over time. Policies and their outcomes have the power to reinforce or upend existing perceptions. Perceptions have the power to lead people to support or reject certain policies. If a policy is enacted, the ensuing changes will shape the way people think about an issue, but not right away. If a perception shifts, new policies will likely follow (again, not right away).

Such insights invite us to consider new questions to ask as we seek to solve problems. What policies are at play? What perceptions? How do might they affect one another over time? Such lines of inquiry can help us see new connections and take a long-term view of our work.

I know that this revised systems map remains incomplete. No diagram will ever capture the complexity of a real system. But we can continue to iterate, discuss and revise our representations of systems until they reflect our mental models and lived experiences as closely as possible.

I hope that the revised systems diagram sparks other questions, ideas and objections about what is included and what is excluded. The entire point of creating systems diagrams is to surface those disagreements and differences of experience so that can use that information as we develop solutions and design new systems. Our work to understand our systems and others’ experiences within them is never complete; we are only making new stops along the learning journey.

You can check out Looking Beneath the Surface: The Education Changemaker’s Guidebook to Systems Thinking to be introduced to the theories, language, mindsets and tools of systems thinking for the purpose of informing approaches to systems change.