The Difference Between Systems and Linear Thinking

A recent LinkedIn article compared the similarity between Learning and Change as well as link between the business side and the educational side of the school.    I commented that learning and change are indeed congruent, as both involve processes.  Educators are great at processes, and change management is all about transition, which is a process.  The difficulty is that the business side of a school involves a system, and the educational side is also a system.  While the elements in the educational side work well together, many times, the elements on the business side of the school do not function well as a system, and sometimes, consequently, to the detriment of the school.

If you’ve been reading these “Tetrahedronics” articles, you’ve seen examples of systems.  If one element of the system is missing, the system is incomplete, and does not function properly.  This column will soon feature a series of 5 articles that articulate the 5 systems included in every faith-based school.  Just as your body is a system of systems, your school is a living entity, where each element of a system has an effect on every other element of that system, and every system has an effect on the other connected systems.

Catholic schools just finished its week-long celebration this month, and still wonder why, in some areas of the country, enrollment is declining, schools are merging, and eventually closing.  Christian schools are also seeing challenges.  Faith-based school leaders may think that children are leaving and going to public schools, but today’s parents are looking into all educational options, such as charter schools and homeschooling too.  Many parents have college degrees today, and, in the eyes of the State, that makes them qualified to educate their children.  Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges parents as the first and primary educators of their children, so one could even argue that homeschooling is fulfilling their role as defined by the Catholic church.

I believe there are five reasons why, despite concerted efforts at enrollment, marketing and development activities, schools are still struggling to survive.  Educational leaders usually point to two – difficult economic conditions and shifting demographics.  But those are only two, and a complete system has five – which is why correcting the concern is a difficult process.  One of these additional 3 concerns deals with mindsets of the 5 individuals/groups involved in a faith-based school (the pastor, the principal (and/or the board), the business manager (and/or the finance council), the parents, and the advancement director).  The remaining two are an awareness of systems thinking, and an awareness of linear thinking.  Let’s focus on those last two, since our schools are great at linear, or process, thinking.

In any goal-oriented endeavor, the goal is defined, then objectives break the down the goal into smaller components, then strategies are developed to achieve the objectives, and processes are employed to make progress toward reaching the goal.  Behavioral change is necessary, which is why it’s been said that if you focus on the goal, you will never change; but it if you focus on the change, you will achieve the goal.

This is why individuals get frustrated, or coaches who speak to always focusing on the goal can create frustration in their teams when the team doesn’t reach the goal.   Just think of the New Year’s resolution you made this year and have already given up on.  Focusing on the process to get there, however, after the goal has been determined, allows one to pay attention to the steps that are necessary to reach the goal.  The vision, remember, isn’t “out there.”  It’s all around you.

While our schools are all about linear or process thinking, the difficulty is that we don’t have an awareness of where that process can lead, and then we become frustrated when it doesn’t lead to where we want it to lead.  A great tongue-in-cheek example of linear thinking is the iconic series of television commercials highlighting the drawbacks of cable TV.  One begins, “When your cable goes out, you take karate lessons.  When you take karate lessons, you want to show that you’re tough.  When you want to show that you’re tough, you wear an eye patch.  When you wear an eyepatch, people think you’re tough.  When people think you’re tough, you can end up in a ditch.  Don’t end up in a ditch.”  Right now, our educational process moves children through kindergarten through grade 12, then through higher education, then to graduate education, then to a job.  Note that for 19 years of schooling, classes, teachers, schools and assignments are changing all the time.  Then the student lands a job – where they may do the … same … thing … each … and … every … day.

Technology is, of course, further changing the educational environment.  An online calculus class may have 10th graders through graduates and adults that have returned to school in it.  Some high schools have begun a “Chrome from Home” program.  Every student has ChromeBook (a $300 computer) and on days of inclement weather, they “Chrome from Home.”  Teachers post assignments, and students “work from home,” which means there are no more “snow days.”  Imagine these kids being told by an employer that they don’t have the option to work from home.  These are the Millennials, and they’re very different from any generation that has come before them.  Baby Boomers would comply; Generation X would see if there was something they could do to make the situation easier for them; Millennials, however, would have no qualms about looking for another job where policies make sense for the current age, rather than fulfilling the expectation of “this is the way things are done around here.”

Not seeing where process thinking leads can be a huge problem, and here’s the big one that no one has seemed to realize yet regarding Catholic school closures (which can also apply to a Church-supported Christian school).  If anyone has realized it, it’s not a widely publicized topic of discussion.  The closing of a Catholic school creates a “hole” in the life of the parish.  There is a time of grieving, but the focus is always on the children, as there are other Catholic schools they can attend and new friendships can be established.  Kids, after all, are resilient.  All that is absolutely true.

But let’s look at the parish.

The parish where the school was located now has a building that isn’t being used.  If parents with toddlers are in the area, and they’re looking at educational options for their children, they’re looking near where the functioning school is located.  There’s a good chance that those young parents will worship at the site where their children will attend school, and, even though they may live in the area established as a particular parish, they will join the parish where their children attend school.  The parish with the closed school will see their population age, and while young families may move in to the area, they’ll be involved with parish that hosts the school.  As the population of the parish ages, the congregation will shrink, and eventually, the parish will either be merged or suppressed, and the church site could close.

Sound far-fetched?  The church I was baptized in was merged into a parish some time ago with 4 worship sites.  It was announced last year that this church, where my mom and dad were married, where I was baptized, and where my grandparents and aunts were buried from, will now be torn down to create a parking lot.  As for the parish I was raised in, along with 3 other local parishes, all had Catholic schools at one time.  All the schools are now closed, and the four parishes are now merged into one parish with 4 worship sites…for now.

What’s the message of linear thinking here?  The closure of a Catholic school may be the precursor to closure of a parish.  This year, let’s be aware of what needs to be done to keep faith-based schools a vibrant part of our communities.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2016