[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

What are some personal things you’d like to accomplish? Learn another language? Master an instrument? Go to the gym? Eat healthier? Save more money? Whatever it is, you may think the best way to attain what you want is by setting goals, and you might frame it like this:

  • I’ll conjugate X number of verbs by Friday.
  • I’ll learn X number of chords on the guitar by Friday.
  • I’ll go to the gym every weekday.
  • I’ll eat X number of vegetables a day.
  • I’ll not spend X amount of money each month so I can save it instead.

You probably read the above statements and found them to be reasonable–perhaps even noble. There are some people who can set goals and then power through until they’re accomplished. If that’s you, and you’re successful, then that’s great. Unfortunately, for many of us, goals set us up for failure. That foreign language never gets learned. The guitar remains on the stand that was purchased from the local instrument store. The gym never becomes more welcoming than a warm bed on a cold morning. Vegetables never become tastier than pizza, and saving money in one’s Roth IRA isn’t as fun as attending a Bruno Mars concert.

Setting a goal doesn’t mean a thing. Unfortunately, the simple act of creating a goal makes people feel they’ve accomplished something when they haven’t–at least not yet. This occurs on an individual level, and it happens within schools and districts as well. Administrators and teachers set professional development goals all the time.

  • We’ll learn to deploy blended learning strategies by the end of the year.
  • We’ll send everyone to a direct instruction training.
  • All teachers will use the adopted curriculum by the end of the quarter.
  • Program X will be implemented by the second semester.

We’re quick to make checklists, and then we’ll go to town checking items off in the mad rush to 100 percent implementation. While checklists are extremely powerful on many occasions, learning within an organization is not one of them.

Goals can lead us astray. Instead, what we need are systems. For example, when I set out to write this book, I didn’t say, “I’m going to have the first ten pages done by Friday… I’ll have the rough draft finished in nine months… I’ll proofread it by the end of the summer.” Instead, I set aside a period of time each day where I did nothing but work on this book. Oftentimes, I woke up at 4:45 A.M. and wrote until 6:00 A.M. This wasn’t a goal–I simply set my alarm for 4:45 A.M., woke up, walked to my laptop, and began typing. During each morning session, the words poured out. Some days I was lucky if I could muster 300 words that made sense. On other days, 1,000 or more words leapt onto the screen effortlessly.

If I would have set goals for myself, I don’t think you would be reading what’s in front of your eyes right now. The creation of this book was the product of setting up a system within my day when the work would get done, and that made all the difference. Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, wrote a book entitled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. In it, he states, “Success isn’t magic; it’s generally the product of picking a good system and following it until luck finds you.” Adams is a huge proponent of the systems-over-goals mentality. Harkening back to the first section of this book regarding purpose and passion, Adams writes, “How much passion does this fellow have for his chosen field? Answer: zero. What he has is a spectacular system, and that beats passion every time.” Even without passion, there’s always a purpose, and systems assist the purpose-driven person in attaining heights that goals and passion can’t reach.

Likewise, I believe schools would benefit from creating systems where adults can’t help but learn how to become better teachers and administrators. Goals aren’t cutting it when it comes to professional development–what we need are systems set up throughout every week, possibly each day, where administrators and teachers can learn (whether they feel like it or not). Whenever this time takes place (staff meetings, PLC meetings, prep periods, lunch), the learning opportunity isn’t about checking off that learning has occurred. Rather, it’s about deep learning. This means what’s being learned is part of a coherent framework that’s more concerned with mastery over compliance. In this scenario, ad hoc strategies are banished so everything being learned is connected. This allows administrators and teachers to make clear connections among district-wide implementations, adopted curriculum, technology, ELD strategies, formative assessments, data protocols, and so on.

To be honest, it all comes down to a campus full of lead learners.

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.