In his now-classic book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge describes systems thinking as a “discipline for seeing wholes.” It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots. “Systems thinking,” Senge writes, “offers a language that begins by restructuring how we think.” (1990, p. 69).

In his now-classic book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge describes systems thinking as a “discipline for seeing wholes.” It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots. “Systems thinking,” Senge writes, “offers a language that begins by restructuring how we think.” (1990, p. 69).

Fullan (1991) recognized systems thinking’s importance in education by writing that too many education reformers promote piecemeal change that can result in unintended consequences, or no consequence, due to mitigating circumstances in other areas of an organization. Promoting systemic change in organizations is challenging. Reformers look for change strategies with leverage to promote improvements throughout a system, rather than in just one part of a system.

School reformers want the same thing: great teaching for every student every day. Researchers, policy makers, and educators agree that the single most important factor in ensuring high levels of learning for all students is the quality of instruction.

The most powerful strategy school systems have to impact the quality of instruction in classrooms is professional development that promotes the kind of systemic change that has a positive and permanent effect throughout an organization. This approach is embodied in the National Staff Development Council’s (NSDC) purpose statement: “Every educator engages in effective professional learning every day so every student achieves.”

This purpose is characterized in a vision for professional development that is very different from what most educators currently experience. Within every school, it is essential that school-wide professional learning be planned by the entire faculty or learning community. The community engages in an improvement process that embeds schoolwide professional learning that benefits all faculty and all students. The process begins with an examination of data on student performance. From this analysis, school improvement goals are set, student needs are prioritized, an adult learning agenda is established, and a timetable for learning and assessing is built. The learning agenda contributes to a school culture necessary to sustain continuous improvement as well as shared responsibility for schoolwide success. While the community learns, discusses, applies, and assesses the impact of new strategies on the schoolwide goals, more specific objectives are identified for grade levels and subject areas.

Within this vision for professional development, it is also essential that every teacher be a member of grade-level or subject-area learning team. As learning team members, teachers commit to sharing collective responsibility for the students in team members’ classes. Teams are provided several hours a week for participation in a carefully orchestrated cycle of continuous improvement.

A well-prepared and supported teacher leader or other assigned staff member facilitates the continuous improvement cycle. The cycle begins with a closer examination of data on their students’ performance. From there, team members determine student learning needs, as well as their own learning needs. Once the team addresses its learning needs, it is ready to collectively combine its new learning and previous experience to design lesson plans and assessments that promote student learning. Team members try out the lessons, observe to gather additional perspectives, give assessments, and if the majority of students master objectives, the lesson is reviewed, revised, and filed for future reference. Where results are less than anticipated, the team regroups, continues to study, and selects new approaches for re-teaching the main objectives. The cycle continues throughout the year as new data is evaluated, new objectives identified, and curriculum implemented.

This approach to professional development is powerful because of the expectation that every staff member participates. This builds collective responsibility for both educator and student learning. More traditional staff development is driven by individual needs and choices; as a result, it impacts selected teachers and their students. Within this vision, no teacher can opt out, and every teacher benefits. Within this framework it is more likely good practices spread from classroom to classroom and school to school.

Fritz (1989) proposes that structures are powerful forces in preserving the status quo and preventing systemic change. He suggests, however, that it is not impossible to free ourselves from the pull of traditional structures. It requires (1) a morally compelling vision; (2) ruthless assessment of reality; and (3) two to three of the most powerful strategies imaginable. NSDC’s vision for professional learning stems from its moral obligation to ensure great teaching for every child every day. We believe a school, a system, and a nation make this a reality for more children by ensuring every educator engages in effective professional development every day. Through our own ruthless assessment of reality, we see several things that prevent the attainment of this vision as well as opportunities for advancing it.

Professional development is often treated as an end, rather than a means to accomplish important goals. Too much of the professional development conversation focuses on credits, licenses, and salaries. States spend considerable effort figuring out what counts, rather than what matters. The person served by professional development is the participant. To serve its rightful purpose, professional development must be driven by what students need, and its importance measured against whether those needs are meant.

Limitations in the ways we measure the impact of professional development pose a second major problem. Most researchers seek to study professional development as an intervention or treatment imposed on an organization. This creates challenges for reformers who understand the importance of integrating professional development into the improvement process. Backwards mapping studies can provide evidence about the contribution of professional development in school transformation. If hard evidence on the impact of various professional development approaches is important, then new ways to demonstrate must be found as well.

A third problem revolves around resources and capacity. Many systems and schools will need guidance with scheduling. State requirements that specify time limits for courses, subject area, school days, and school years need to be reconsidered if the vision is to become a reality. Systems cannot assume that school leaders have the knowledge and skills to lead successful community and team-based learning. Thoughtful capacity building strategies are essential if professional learning is to produce its intended results. Central office must embrace new roles if the cycle of improvement is to be effectively implemented in all schools.

System and school leaders might consider these actions to advance this vision and promote systemic change:

  • Adopt a local professional development policy, one that embraces the vision outlined in this article. Take the lead from the Santee School System (CA) by adapting NSDC’s vision and/or definition into local policy.
  • Alter state or district requirements from school improvement plans to school improvement evaluation. As a result, department and school leaders can spend time reflecting on what worked, what they learned, and what they need to study next year in order to continue to improve results.
  • Provide support for schools committed to the vision. These schools can serve as demonstration sites as well as teaching tools for promoting systemic change. Their results will provide the additional leverage and support necessary to sustain any successful change effort.

Each year, parents approach school or district administrators for help in getting their children assigned to the “best teachers” or transferred to the “best schools.” As we strive to implement strategies that promote systemic change, we must do so with the goal that no matter where students are assigned, they have the benefit of the thinking, expertise, and dedication of all teachers in that grade level or subject area; that they are part of a school system that requires all teachers to participate in learning teams that are provided regular time to plan, study, and problem solve together; and that this collaboration ensures that great practices and high expectations spread across classrooms, grade levels, and schools. Through the commitment to systemic change we ensure that every student experiences great teaching every day.


Fritz, R. (1989). The Path of Least Resistance. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

Fullan, M. (1991). The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College Press.

Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Discipline of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday

Stephanie Hirsh is the executive director of the National Staff Development Council (NSDC). Dr. Hirsh presents, publishes, and consults on NSDC’s behalf across North America. She facilitated the process that led to the publication and national dissemination of NSDC’s Standards for Staff Development. Hirsh also directed the development of Innovation Configurations, described in the book Moving NSDC’s Staff Development Standards Into Practice: Innovation Configurations. Prior to her position with NSDC, Dr. Hirsh completed 15 years of district and school-based leadership positions, including: community college teaching, consulting teacher for free enterprise, and program and staff development director.