Socialism. Communism. “Nazism.” American Exceptionalism. Indoctrination. Buddhism. Meditation. “Americanism.” These are not words or terms one would typically expect to hear in a Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board meeting. But in the Board’s last meeting on October 9th, they peppered the statements of public commenters and Board Members alike.
It is not uncommon to hear heated discussions between Board members, some of whom have been working together on the Board for 18 years. It is also not uncommon for partisan discussions to take place, although for the 4 year term between 2010 and 2014 the members were elected in “non-partisan” elections. Prayer still opens the Board of Education meetings, and public-private partnerships between schools and churches which provide tutoring, weekend backpack snack programs, and building or grounds beautification are often acknowledged in the sessions. But rarely have partisan ideologies or religious beliefs had such a center stage at a School Board meeting as they did this week.
The agenda item that gave rise to the passionate dialogue and the political terminology-slinging was an issue over whether or not to continue to utilize, and offer further training in, a tool known as Systems Thinking. First introduced to about 30 teachers in 7 schools during the 2010-2011 school year, Systems Thinking has now been learned by more than 130 teachers in 14 schools. That number may sound high, but the WS/FC School System has more than 4,000 teachers in 80 schools, meaning just over 3% of its teachers have been trained.
Systems Thinking is, at its simplest, a process to understand how parts influence each other within the whole. Often described as a tool, Systems Thinking is an assortment of graphic organizers, a collection of terms, and a set of habits, or processes, used together to help people organize information, utilize common terminology in describing it, and encourage problem solving thought processes to address issues in a manner that can create real solutions within an existing or desired system.
As education moves away from straight reductionism, the idea that information and processes can be reduced to the part and its interaction with other parts, to a systems based education, which incorporates the idea that information and processes are better learned in the context of the whole and the relationship that a part and system has with other systems, systems based thinking is playing an increasing role in new educational models and curriculums.
After including training in Systems Thinking in the District’s Race to the Top grant, the School System was required to demonstrate how they would measure the effectiveness of the professional development based on student outcomes. Corliss Brown, the District’s Race to the Top Program Evaluation Specialist, gave a presentation on exactly how those outcomes and efficacies will be measured. Brown stated that because the training has been implemented in select classes in limited schools, she will be able to measure factors in classes on the same grade level within one school as well as in different schools. Brown gave several ways that both teachers and students would be assessed, listing the processes that would be evaluated as well as the outcomes that would be measured over the next 3 years.
Dr. Donald Martin, Superintendent of Schools in the WS/FC system, believes that Systems Thinking will help assist teachers and administrators in the District as they move toward full implementation of the new Common Core and Essential Standards curriculum recently adopted by the State. At least 45 other states have adopted these same standards along with North Carolina. Systems Thinking training was chosen as a method to meet some of the new curriculum requirements which include teaching the students to answer more open-ended questions, learning problem solving in a manner requiring students’ evaluation and ability to determine best answers and solutions, and a greater emphasis on real world application.
However, not all of the School Board members or local citizens agree with Dr. Martin. At Tuesday’s meeting, four of the 15 people who spoke on Systems Thinking did not agree with the inclusion of Systems Thinking as an educational tool.
Irene May, a biologist, declared herself a strong supporter of individuality and stated that she felt that the “communal and collective thinking” she saw in Systems Thinking “undermines the ability to think on our own.” She declared a “strong religious objection” to its use, citing the environmental reverence and the green and environmental agenda she found in some forms of Systems Thinking to be a form of state sanctioned religion. May also stated that she believed in a global economy, but not in a global society, a tenet she believed to be taught in Systems Thinking.
A lady named Joyce said that she thought Systems Thinking to be a “convoluted bunch of stuff,” further declaring “If it’s so complicated that I can’t understand it, I don’t want little children learning it.” She continued in her comments to state that “We are not global citizens, we are American citizens.”
A gentleman used his allotted time in the comment period to state his reservations about Systems Thinking, connecting the concept with Agenda 21 (a UN effort towards environmental sustainability) then stating that the idea itself is “against American individualism, against our American values… against American Exceptionalism.”
Marie was almost overlooked, standing in the crowd to declare her right to speak after Chairman Lambeth attempted to declare the comment period closed. She stated that she had been late to sign up because she had been having dinner with her parents, members of the “greatest generation.” Marie stated that she grew up in a patriotic neighborhood, a part of Ardmore then called Short Circuit Hill, where she was taught the concept of American Exceptionalism. She lamented the fact that she did not hear of that concept in the meeting’s discussion on Systems Thinking and felt that to be a by-product of the teachers and administrators present having the Systems Thinking “coming out” as they spoke. She passionately stated “Communism, Fascism, Nazism – these are the kinds of communities, governments, people that naysay anyone who dares to disagree with someone who has another agenda.”
Eleven others utilized the public comment period to express high praise for Systems Thinking. Ten teachers and administrators, some of who were also parents, spoke of the impact of Systems Thinking on the students in their classes and schools. One parent, Jan Brown, emotionally described how much her child had struggled in school from Kindergarten through 3rd grade, being disinterested in academics and having a low self-esteem. She had seen a real turnaround in her son since he learned the principles in Systems Thinking and believed in them so much that she was “begging, not asking, begging [the Board] to consider continuation of the program.”
Floyd Lowman, Principal at Bolton Elementary, praised Systems Thinking for helping his students with “cause and effect relationships, collaborative problem solving and the processes needed to think creatively.”
Anna Garris, a 2nd grade teacher at Bolton Elementary stated that Systems Thinking was “the most valuable, powerful tool [she’d] ever been trained in.” Garris rhetorically asked the Board if they’d ever tried to teach a 7 year old how to infer or draw a conclusion, saying it is one of the hardest things she has to undertake every year, but that with the use of Systems Thinking she has students inferencing, demonstrating cause and effect, and justifying their answers.
Administrators, a speech pathologist, and teachers from Elementary, High School and Exceptional Children’s classes followed each other in rapid succession, each praising Systems Thinking as an invaluable resource in their classrooms. All of them claimed the same successes with the tools, noting their students’ ability to find connections, grasp content, summarize, infer, draw conclusions and justify answers in ways and at depths they’d never before been able to achieve. The same responses came from educators in their first few years of teaching up to those who have been in the profession for 40 years. Educators continued to declare the training “the best professional development” they’d received and begged the Board to let them “keep this tool.”
Suzanne Arnold, a 4th grade teacher at Lewisville Elementary, said that Systems Thinking provided her students with “a strong key to understanding personal relationships and ability to see another’s viewpoint,” and declared that as a mother and an educator she feels that “we need this desperately in our Middle Schools.” Arnold went on to speak to what she felt might be some people’s concern with Systems Thinking – a fear that it somehow stood in contrast to other religious values. She stated that her faith is a strong guide in her life and that she “would never teach anything that goes against [her] faith.” She firmly believed that nothing in what she was teaching or was taught in Systems Thinking in any way went against her faith.
Other items were discussed after the public comment period closed and Corliss Brown gave her presentation on how the Systems Thinking training outcomes would be measured before the Board got to discuss the issue. It quickly became obvious that not everyone on the School Board agreed with the Educator’s assessments of Systems Thinking, or even their reason for speaking at the meeting.
Board member Jeannie Metcalf condescendingly looked toward Superintendent Martin and said “Well, I’m real impressed with what you’ve put on for us tonight. You’ve sorta taken a page out of my book – lined up your speakers and sort of, uh, trying to overload us with good stuff so that we don’t see the bad stuff.” Metcalf went on to say “I appreciate the teachers, however I will never support anything that has to do with Systems Thinking.”
To be continued…