Reconsidering the Impact of Systems

Guest post by Dr. Doug Stilwell

“Systems were made to rule, to divide and abuse you…” From the song “Systems” by Julian Marley

Over the past 20 years I have taught a course in systems thinking to students enrolled in Drake University’s principal preparation program.  While the course offers a significant challenge to students’ paradigms – moving from silo thinking to systems thinking as Dr. Ackoff phrased it – students overwhelmingly have enjoyed the new learning and perspective gained regarding their classrooms, schools, and school districts.  As a testament to the significant impact of this learning, over the years many students have inquired about and voiced their concerns as to why they did not learn about systems in their undergraduate programs (a topic for another time), for they believed the learning would have had a significant impact on their work as teachers and their students’ learning; a sentiment that reinforced my belief in the power of teaching systems concepts.

A Transformative Encounter: Reconsidering the Impact of Systems on Marginalized Groups

In the fall of 2023, I experienced my own new learning and paradigm shift.  During the first break of the first morning in my systems leadership class, a student of Guatemalan descent approached me with some striking thoughts. Born in the U.S. to parents who had immigrated from Guatemala, he shared his perspective candidly.  Paraphrasing his comments, he said confidently that systems are oppressive, especially for people in marginalized groups.  My initial response was one of defensiveness and my instinct was to push back on his thoughts.  Then, taking a breath, I realized that it was more important for me to listen than to challenge what he had shared so honestly.  We continued to visit and then with our break coming to an end, I offered that we should continue the conversation at another time so I could better understand what he was sharing.

This student’s courageous words not only took me by surprise, but following the first weekend of class caused me to think deeply about what he had said.  To be honest, I still struggled with what he had shared for it challenged my deeply held beliefs about the positive power of a systems approach to school improvement and transformation.  As I thought long and hard about it, the new learning began to sink in, offering a new perspective to me and a course I’ve been teaching for so long. It gave me a great deal to consider – “soul-searching” one might say.

Reflecting on the conversation I recalled when I discovered a song by Julian Marley several years ago entitled “Systems” while searching for a song about systems to play in class. Marley’s powerful lyrics — “Systems were made to rule, to divide and abuse you”— echoed the frustration my student expressed, highlighting the darker side of systems that are easily overlooked; and it was for that reason I chose not to play it.  In our class, inspired by the works of Dr. W. Edwards Deming and Dr. Peter Senge, we focus on making systems more efficient and effective. However, this student’s conversation revealed the need to consider how these systems have the potential to control and marginalize.

I’ve asked myself how I had not realized this before, and after some reflection the answer was simple:  as a white male in my 60’s I am not and never had been a member of marginalized group in our country.  While I was certainly aware of oppression from an intellectual perspective, I had not experienced the damage systems can have on people for whom the systems were never designed to support and perhaps were designed, either explicitly or implicitly, to oppress.

Although “oppression” is a very strong word, it is fitting.  As such, it is imperative to ask an important question: Are our systems oppressive to students from marginalized groups in schools?  I believe the answer to that question is yes and is clearly demonstrated by taking a look at school performance levels.  According to a 2020 article in the World Economic Forum, “…the difference in standardized test scores between White and Black students currently amounts to roughly two years of education. And the gap between White and Hispanic students is almost as big.”  The article goes on to say that the fault does not lie entirely with schools, as there are larger economic and societal systems at work, of which education is a sub system.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is a psychological concept that refers to the tendency to attribute others’ behaviors to their character or personality while underestimating the influence of situational or systemic factors. This error can significantly impact the perception of achievement levels among students from marginalized groups.  Through my own reflection, I have concluded that educators and society must confront and take a stand on a critical and potentially controversial issue: either students from marginalized groups are inherently less capable academically than their peers from majority groups, or the systems themselves (societal, economic, educational) are responsible for the achievement disparities.  People functioning through a Fundamental Attribution Error paradigm (emphasis on “error”) might believe that the problem lies with the group of students themselves. However, those who understand the fallacy of the FAE recognize that it is the system, not the students, that is responsible, a belief I espouse. As Dr. Deming, who believed that 95% of the results in a system result from the system itself, famously said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” In other words, the system – and the outcomes it was designed to produce—prevails, often resulting in losses for those it was not designed to support. The impact of these losses is both known (achievement levels and dropout rates) and unknown (future economic potential, decreased self-esteem and motivation, increased stress and mental health issues, loss of diverse leadership, and untapped potential).  As Dr. Deming might assert, these losses highlight the critical need to design and manage systems holistically, considering both measurable outcomes and the deeper, often hidden consequences, to achieve true improvement and equity.

Final Thoughts

From our initial conversation on the first day of class through ongoing conversations over the course of the year, this student’s perspective opened a new dimension to my thinking despite my initial level of discomfort. Systems, though designed to bring purpose, order and improvement, can also perpetuate inequality. While the course I teach focuses on understanding the nature of educational systems and identifying leverage points to improve them, the real challenge for school leaders is not just to understand these systems but to learn how to transform them to ensure they serve everyone fairly. It is a moral imperative for leaders to recognize that systems can have both positive and negative effects, and to work towards creating systems that promote equity and justice for everyone. We must never forget that the very principles designed to promote positive system results can also perpetuate negative and even catastrophic outcomes, with history providing numerous examples to support this reality.

Through this experience I am reminded of the power of and need to listen to students; for they offer new perspectives that can be additive to our own learning, teaching and leading.  The powerful interactions with this courageous student opened my mind to a deeper exploration of the dual nature of systems, especially their impact on marginalized groups.



Hunter, J. (1993). A bad system will beat a good person every time. The Deming Institute.

Marley, J. (2003). Systems [Song]. Genius.

World Economic Forum. (2020, October 16). This is what the racial education gap in the US looks like right now. World Economic Forum.


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