What I learned from systems thinking – Alma Kuijpers  0

How to solve teacher shortage

About two years ago, I started as a post-doc researcher at ICLON to study the effectivity of the Minor in Teaching, an undergraduate teaching module aimed at attracting academic students to a career in teaching, especially in the STEM area. Coming from a chemistry background with experience in the food industry, I switched to education about ten years ago and worked as a lecturer in chemistry before starting this research project. To get an idea of the problem of concern, I started a broad exploration by gathering a large variety of information: all kinds of relevant reports, interviews with students and teacher educators, student entry data from STEM subjects and teacher education tracks. All these data were visualized in a sort of flow chart, showing the flow of STEM students into the academic teacher education (the Dutch academic teacher education follows a consecutive route), together with all kinds of possible problems and obstructions.


About that time, Fred Janssen attended me to systems thinking. I started reading The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (2006) and Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows (2009), and realized that systems thinking provided a suitable framework for my data on the effectivity of the Minor in Teaching. Since its development in the 1970’s and 1980’s, systems thinking has evolved more into a management strategy than a research methodology, however, the methodology addresses complex problems by looking at the whole system of concern and identifying interrelations and patterns of change. Understanding of how the system works will enable identification of leverage points, which are places in a system where a small change will lead to a large shift in behavior. The research data from the Minor in Teaching could easily be structured into a systems thinking framework, and analyzing the student flow patterns in relation to the purpose of the Minor in Teaching led to promising leverage points.


In my opinion systems thinking is a valuable methodology for educational research in general, especially when interventions are concerned. Education is always a complex system, with many stakeholders at different levels, many functions and many interactions. Especially when dealing with a wide variety of complex, mixed-method research data, it could be useful to take a systems thinking approach to define the educational system of concern to integrate the results and identify meaningful interrelations and change patterns. With regard to sustainability of interventions, systems thinking provides a hierarchy of leverage points from weak to strong, enabling prioritization of leverage points.


What made systems thinking even more valuable to me personally, is that it gave me a foundation how to think about complex problems in general, and teacher shortage in particular. In the Netherlands, interventions aimed at resolving teacher shortage have not had any effect, since the number of STEM students entering the academic teacher education remained constant over the last ten years. According to systems thinking this is a “shifting the burden” archetype: interventions address only “problem symptoms” instead of providing “fundamental solutions”. So what is the fundamental problem of the academic teacher education in the Netherlands? In a consecutive system, only STEM graduates are admitted to the teacher training program, but these students are not necessarily interested in teaching as a profession. The fundamental solution is to increase the interest of STEM students in teaching as a career. Systems thinking learned me that complex problems don’t have simple, short-term solutions but need structural solutions to fundamental problems which require a long-term vision and changing mental models across the organization.



Meadows, D. H. (2009). Thinking in systems – a primer (Ed. D. Wright). London: Earthscan
Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline the art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

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