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Examining the use of systems thinking approach to school development : a case study of five schools in the Umgungundlovu District.

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The research aimed at examining the understanding, use of system thinking approach, benefits and challenges thereof. The problem which gave rise to the research was how to formulate a framework that will address the gaps in existing approaches school development. School systems are bound by the hard to change patterns which need to be revisited and looked at from a whole systems perspective. Systems thinking offer the thinking tools to empower the leadership with the capacity to invest in more difficult and more lasting fundamental school development. A systemic view seeks to enhance the ability of principals to shift away from using non-linear and reductionist methods when faced with problematic issues. A qualitative case study design was deemed appropriate from five purposely selected school principals who were previously exposed to systems thinking. In addition, I drew on a constructivist-interpretative and critical theory paradigm to guide the design. Data was collected from by way of qualitative semi-structured interviews, focus groups and collections of reflections from diaries and journals. The study is constructivist and interpretive in its nature. Findings from data were discussed in terms of emerging themes on understanding, the benefits and challenges of the efficacy of systems thinking to school development. Findings point to basic, simplistic, linear and functional understanding and views on systems thinking. SWOT analysis was solely used as system tool for strategic thinking. Systemic and holistic thinking is observed as of benefit to teaching and learning, curriculum development, continuous professional development, formation of clusters and networks, participation in extra-curricular activities, and infrastructural development and formation of partnerships to handling of social ills. The principals understanding of systems thinking was minimal and limited, however their application of its tenets in practice was of benefit to school development. The use of systems tools is minimal, due to lack of understanding the techniques involved in applying such to practice. Finding also point to lack of sustainability is use of systems theory and lack of engagement in reflective thinking. These findings present evidence that suggests the value of developing a holistic and multi-methodological framework for systemic school development. The Systemic School Development Framework (SSDF) was formulated to address the identified gaps as a holistic, multi-methodological model. Its assumptions are based on the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), Systems Dynamics (SD), Viable Systems Methodology (VSM), Critical Systems Heuristics and Systemic Leadership. Its basic principles are systemic reform and upscaling of school development to pervade the three tiers of the system, i.e. province, district and school systems. The structure of the model was explained, and explicit guidelines for operationalizing it in practice were provided. Based on the findings and the construction of the model, a number of recommendations were put forward to guide the implementation, adaptation of the model. The recommendations point to leverage points identified for future research and practice at school, circuit, district and provincial level. It advocates for engineering the systemic structures at the provincial, district and school levels to reconsider systemic leadership as the framework for undergirding the three tiers. In conclusion, this research study contributed to the body of knowledge by examining the efficacy of systems thinking to school development, which until now has not been covered in the existing literature and research. The study culminated in a theoretical model which can be used for systemic and holistic school development. The model is designed to allow adaptation and flexibility given the complexity of contextual factors prevailing in the system. It is an innovative participatory idea considering the reductionist and linear approach which has been a norm in the system. Hopefully, the SSDF model will be tried in practice in a participatory and action learning study for purposes of reflecting on its efficacy, benefits and challenges in implementation.


Doctor of Philosophy in Education Studies. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Edgewood 2015.


Monitorial system of education -- South Africa -- Pietermaritzburg., School discipline -- South Africa -- Pietermaritzburg., School principals -- South Africa -- Pietermaritzburg -- Discipline., Theses -- Education., System thinking approach., School development.