Applying Systems Thinking to Address Educational Inequities

Systems Thinking Educational Inequitiesjpg

Authors: Sara Kraemer, Blueprint for Education, and Don Gillian-Daniel, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Delta Program in Research, Teaching & Learning and Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching & Learning (CIRTL) Network  

In this blog post, we highlight how high-impact, systems-thinking professional development practices address educational outcome inequities more effectively than other approaches, drawing from our 2015 Change article, “Faculty Development to Address the Achievement Gap”.

Institutions of higher education and K-12 school systems consist of a myriad of complex institutional, structural, organizational, and human factors that contribute to disparities in educational outcomes between minority and non-minority students. Often, however, programs, policies, and practices made to address these factors favor a “silver bullet” solution that addresses only one or two facets of the overall system, and such approaches often fail to be as effective as hoped.

A more effective path to address systemic educational inequities is to use and implement systems thinking approaches. Systems thinking integrates the various factors - and their relationships to one another - to identify, and ultimately re-design the systems that lead to poor, inadequate, and unjust outcomes.

We applied a systems thinking approach to a faculty and course instructor development and training program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which aimed to build faculty members’ capacity to close opportunity gaps in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) classes.

Through a year-long, immersive program, we built course instructors’ capacity for successfully learning and implementing culturally responsive teaching practices, adapting the learning environment to align with these practices, improving engagement with students, building self-efficacy for positive change, and working effectively with student level data to identify areas for change. We focused on these instructional leaders because they are a key leverage point for implementing complex change in the higher educational system, since educator quality is the single largest factor that affects student learning that is under the control of the institution (Bensimon, 2007).

The key systems thinking levels of the systems thinking development program are summarized in the following figure: individual (faculty, course instructor), data, institutional, student, and class structure. This figure summarizes the key levels in the university system that contribute to systemic opportunity gaps. We place the faculty or instructor at the center of the system because our professional learning system leveraged the various levels of the system to build the capacity of the instructor ultimately change and improve the learning environment of the course.

  • Individual Faculty or Course Instructor Level: Simultaneous with understanding the patterns of achievement in their classrooms, faculty immersed themselves in a year-long cohort experience that examined a range of equity issues that challenged their racial assumptions. This included group readings, activities, and speakers that educated the faculty on the impacts on student learning of microaggressions, stereotype threat, and white privilege, among other issues

  • Data Level: data were collected at various times throughout the course semester; distinctions were made between formative data (e.g., absences, tests, quizzes) and summative (e.g., drop counts/rates, final grades). These data were further stratified by gender, first generation status, minority (non-white) students, and other types of differentiating factors, such as specific discussion groups or laboratory. Faculty and course instructors did this both for their current course, and also past courses, to understand patterns and trends of when various students groups. Faculty and course instructors worked with the campus Registrar’s Office and Academic Planning and Institutional Research Office to obtain summative data across students across demographics, which is a key office to engage in this type of systems-level work to understand broader campus patterns.

    • Analysis revealed patterns in the data about when and how student performance across student groups started to decline - for example, during the first set of mid-term tests, or when particularly challenging homework was assigned.

  • Institutional Level: Faculty engaged at the institutional level with the Registrar’s Office, Academic Planning and Institutional Research, and Chief Diversity Officer Office, to understand broader patterns of opportunity gaps campus-wide, as well as other available resources and programs to support students. The Registrar’s and Academic Planning and Institutional Research Offices, in particular, are key to participants’ understanding of how their individual course data patterns fit within the patterns in courses across campus (see data-level).

  • Student Level: Faculty learned directly from students’ experiences during facilitated student panels, and were encouraged to hold focus groups with students in their classes to better understand why and how students’ failed to thrive in their courses.

  • Class Structure Level: Faculty learned about research-proven practices that are shown to positively impact opportunity gaps, such as active learning, group-based learning, creating supportive learning environments, and providing inclusive examples of diversity that are embedded in course content.

We found engaging in faculty development that embodied a systems approach to influencing classroom-based changes highly effective at positively influencing opportunity gaps. We believe that this is because the design of the professional development experience reflected the systemic nature of why opportunity gaps exist in the first place. We propose that by strengthening faculty capacity to understand their own role in addressing systemic opportunity gaps and concurrently expanding their view of how institutional, student, and teaching practice factors also contribute to opportunity gaps, developers can help faculty more intelligently adapt their own teaching practice, classroom presence, and classroom environment based on patterns they see in their own course data to positively impact student learning outcomes.


Bensimon, E.M. (2007). The underestimated significance of practitioner knowledge in the scholarship on student success. The Review of Higher Education, 30 (4), 441-469.