Systems vs. systems

Adam Smith is best known for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations–a book that has influenced economists more than any other work ever written. What you may not be aware of is that Smith also wrote a collection of his thoughts on how to be a good person, entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Even though The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a treasure-trove of insight and wisdom, the average modern reader would have a difficult go at it (including me!). Luckily, Russ Roberts wrote How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, which distills Smith’s essential thoughts about living a moral life.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is a wonderful read in its entirety, and educators can benefit greatly from the portion of the book devoted to Smith’s thoughts concerning Systems. In the field of education, professionals have been setting up Systems of improvement for years. Intervention, assessments, instruction, technology, and more have all had gurus who wrap the edu-buzzwords into a System and sell it to schools and school districts to ease all ills. Unfortunately, a System directed toward a large population of students is nothing more than snake oil. Roberts writes:

But Smith reserved his greatest disdain for what, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he called the man of system, the leader with a scheme to remake society according to some master plan or vision. He warned that such people fall in love with their vision of the ideal society and lose the ability to imagine any deviation from that perfection.

I capitalized ‘System’ above because I was referring to a plan created by a ‘man of system’ that is intended to revolutionize society. I’ll talk about the lowercase ‘system’ at the end of this post, but before that, let’s discuss five problems inherent in educational Systems:

  1. The leader (man of system) fails to see the imperfections in the plan. All Systems have flaws, but the leader who is trying to remake education on his or her own can’t be bothered with confronting challenges.

  2. No System can solve what ails whole schools or districts. There are too many moving parts, and these places of learning have to struggle with complexity using the items at their disposal. Believing that one System can help 2, 10, or 50 different schools in a district is folly.

  3. If the leader retires, switches jobs, is demoted, or dies, the System will fall apart.

  4. Widespread and complicated Systems introduce fragility into an organization.

  5. A System will strip autonomy away from school sites–taking decision-making power away from the people who know what’s most needed for students.

Channeling Adam Smith, Roberts provides some historical examples:

The man of system is an apt name for those remakers of society who claim to be able to remake man–Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, dictators who had a dream system they imagined they could impose from the top down. The result was as Smith describes–the highest degree of disorder and disaster.

It would be foolish to compare the figures above with any System created in the field of education, but the principle of using a one-size-fits-all approach to fixing a problem concerning student learning is clear: Top down approaches rarely work because teachers and students usually don’t have buy-in, and there is often too much complexity that comes into play concerning school site locations, staff, and kids. Roberts writes:

…when you are trying to legislate behavior in a complex world, you have to remember that people have certain natural desires and dreams. Legislation may not achieve what its proponents intend, and it is likely to lead to unforeseen problems.

Which leads us back to the importance of pursuing antifragility. (If you’re not familiar with the term ‘antifragile’, I highly recommend clicking the link. The term will greatly help your understanding of the world–at least it did for me.) Leaders who introduce a System to the masses fail to comprehend–or just plain ignore–the complexity of the organization and the fact that the System will not be a balm because of that complexity. Introducing a System into a school district is similar to the following story:

A family friend of mine just bought a house in Florida on the ocean. She and her husband want to convert the backyard pool into an infinity pool. A contractor analyzed the area and came to the conclusion that in order to make the transformation, a portion of one of the pool’s sides would need to be removed, including a significant amount of rebar. The contractor couldn’t say for sure, but he was highly concerned that this upgrade would compromise the integrity of the pool and lead to disaster.

Before introducing a System, a leader should ask himself or herself: Is this System going to compromise the integrity of my school or district? Oftentimes, the answer is yes.


We’ve discussed large-scale Systems, of which Adam Smith and Russ Roberts are extremely leery. Examining history and developing a healthy understanding of how Systems introduce antifragility into organizations will provide a clear perspective concerning the best ways to help schools.

Keeping this in mind, it’s important to note that systems on a small and individual scale are beneficial, which I’ll refer to as lowercase ‘systems’. Teachers must have their own systems set up in order to help students learn. This includes rules, procedures, analyzing data within Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and methods for learning material and solving problems. It also includes digital infrastructure for assigning assignments, collecting assignments, and facilitating the students’ digital learning and production.

Creating personal systems of success are extremely important. They help at work, as mentioned in the above paragraph, and they also help in our personal lives for morning routines, exercise, reading books, eating healthy food, purchasing groceries efficiently, etc.

‘Systems’ with a capital s can cause disaster, while ‘systems’ with a lowercase s can improve your life. Providing PD at school sites that promote a leader’s System will go nowhere and may even cause harm. Providing PD that gives teachers the autonomy to implement systems such as teaching/classroom management strategies, programs, apps, in-class intervention, and more can lead to buy-in and success.

Teachers need to be given the power to make decisions for themselves. It reminds me of Hermann Hesse’s Sidhartha:

It is not for me to judge another man’s life. I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself. For myself, alone.

5 thoughts on “Systems vs. systems

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s