System thinking in education

In the midst of another standardized testing cycle, here is something to think about.

I taught the sixth grade at the Congdon Campus School at SUNY Potsdam in 1956. At that time, the school was the only public elementary school in the village of Potsdam. My class was typical of any public school group. In June of 1957, I met with the parent of one of my students. He was a member of the college’s history department and a former teacher of mine. His name was Charles “Chuck” Lahey. He chose to study local, state and American history over a lucrative career in professional baseball.

We had a contentious parent conference since he was convinced that I was perhaps the worst teacher of history he had ever seen or heard about. Once the air cleared, we decided to work together with his daughter’s class at the seventh-grade level, where New York state history and geography was the prescribed state curriculum.

It was agreed that the seventh-graders and I would learn what it means to create an accurate historical and geographical narrative from a collection of primary-source documents that had been collected for Chuck’s doctoral dissertation. The collection was based primarily on the records of David Parish, the founder of Parishville.

The collection contained records of the personal and business dealings of Parish, who was an international financier and developer of St. Lawrence County in the early 1800s. The Parish records were supplemented with census data, gazetteers, atlases, diaries, letters, contracts, historical narratives, maps, charts and everything imaginable that would help us piece together an accurate picture of what life was like then and there in St. Lawrence County, in upstate New York, from roughly 1800 to 1850.

Having grown up on a nearly self-sufficient farm in the Adirondacks where the growing season was short and the winters long, I had experienced a great deal of the natural physical attributes of a geographic setting. Little did I know at the outset that this would be invaluable experience in helping my class come to grips with history and geography as ways of creating and communicating knowledge.

As we began perusing our collection of primary-source data to see how we could make sense of them, we decided to build a 3D-scaled model in the middle of our classroom upon which we could plot the facts of history and geography drawn from the records. Our model enabled us to synthesize the record of the county and paint or plot it on the model. Everything we displayed had to stand the test of accuracy and validity, or it didn’t get approved for entry.

Since 1993, after discovering general systems theory, I have been referring to our model-building exercise as systems design. We were assembling the parts of the natural/physical features of our local county and combining them with the social/cultural, economic and political activities that the records indicated. In time, we assembled an accurate and detailed graphic picture of life as it existed in its setting; we constructed a system.

We learned that a system is made up of parts that form a unitary whole. We found that all the parts were needed to form a complete system that would reflect what Whitehead suggested as “life in all its manifestations,” exhibiting the relationships between one set of ideas and another. We knew when a part didn’t fit well with other parts and we understood future possibilities when changes were made; we continuously adjusted our model as a result of our critical thinking.

We learned procedures and insights that we could easily transfer to understanding the next county and the next, across the state and the U.S. of A., each investigation adding to our knowledge base. We gained confidence in how we could put our minds to good use. We stayed together through the eighth grade and applied our skills to the study of U.S. history and geography. By this time we were confident we could make sense out of life so we decided to challenge the state to a test.

New York state used a standardized test called the “Social Studies Survey Exam.” It normally was administered at the end of the ninth grade after a course in “World Economic Geography” had been completed; we hadn’t taken that course. We didn’t need a test to help us know what we knew and could recite. Nevertheless, we blew the top off the exam. A local superintendent suggested we must have cheated. We had learned the principles of systems design and systems analysis so well that we could construct in our minds credible answers to questions even about areas we had not directly studied.

Nearly 30 years after this experience, I met up with one of those students. His first question was, “Are you still doing what we did back then?” He went on to say, “That was the most important educational experience of my life. As a successful attorney, I use those procedures continuously in my practice as I prepare cases for trial.”

This experience shows the way to a significant change in the way we engage students in learning and how we assess and evaluate their learning processes and outcomes. Over those many years since the Potsdam experiment, a procedure called the Constructive, Assessment, Recordkeeping and Evaluation System (CARES) has been under refinement with financial support from a variety of sources and tested in a variety of situations.

This learner-centered and learner-managed computerized record of experiences with systems construction, combined with systems analysis, has been shown to be individualized, open-ended, developmentally sensitive, accurate, authentic and manageable. It can literally take the place of standardized tests by re-defining the Common Core to accurately reflect the productive processes of learning.

With some help in assembling local primary-source documents, any school system could look forward to a bright future, opening up a new era for assessment and evaluation, with a waiver to implement the CARES model with minimum financial outlay and staff training time.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He is the author of the Constructive Assessment, Recordkeeping and Evaluation System (CARES), found in his book “Remaking our Schools for the Twenty-First Century A Blueprint for Change/Improvement in our Educational Systems,” available on