Systems Thinking, Professional Education,

and Rational Transitions in Curriculum

James F. Amend Department of Physiology and Pharmacology

College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University,

College Station, Texas 77843-4466



From K-12 programs to adult education environments, educators engage in a continuous search for improved curriculum content and delivery. Progress in communications technologies and educational philosophies, together with explosively expanding knowledge bases, requires that modern curricula be truly "complex adaptive systems." Yet the complexity of any modern curriculum, coupled with pressures for its timely adaptation to rapid changes in society and in knowledge, makes curriculum transition a daunting task.

Historically, design of curricula in professional schools has provided each student with exposure to units of circumscribed knowledge, and experience with sets of specified procedures. Ordinarily, "core knowledge" and "core procedures" in each curriculum have been defined using mental models espoused by professional leaders of the time. Professional curriculum transition then generally has progressed by adding, modifying, and deleting units of content and procedure until each iteration has created its "new" professional curriculum.

As the twentieth century comes to an end, communications technologies assure that learners no longer need to depend upon teachers for access to information. Fresh educational philosophies suggest that learners at every level may legitimately bring their own contributions of information and experience to the educational table. Traditionally passive learning roles become active; learners seek validation of their individuality. Professional education, still largely driven by an "expert" pedagogical model, searches for curriculum transitions which can rationalize these tensions.

Options or Obligations

This paper ponders the idea of learner-focused - not expert-driven - curriculum transitions. It proposes that "next-generation" successes in professional curriculum change will arise more from student-teacher collaboration, and "scaffolding" that supports learning options. Today's "expert" restructuring and recycling of learning obligations will retreat to a minor role. To achieve a viable approach of this nature, however, those who teach must come to see creation of diverse "educational ecologies" as more productive and enduring than are traditional selection, delivery, and "coverage" of information.

If the idea of a fully nurturing educational ecology - a world of interactive educational systems which assure prosperity of learners as a "species" - is to be realized, we must better understand evolution of learners whose "organismal" prosperity we seek. Educational practices still "evolve" largely through age-defined units - for professionals, this process requires career-long continuing study. Today, initial stages of this learning sequence increasingly provide ecologies of participation and knowledge construction. Post-secondary, including professional, stages remain largely expert-directed, gradient-dependent, passive/absorptive learning environments.

Professional Education

This paper is concerned with the future of professional education, and ways to guide choices which effectively adapt content and process for future professional curricula. Every educational environment encounters cycles of adaptation, as changing societal needs demand new capabilities from those emerging from particular educational experiences. However, professional preparation is perhaps unique among educational targets of societal demands, since products of professional education are so specifically defined by their societal roles, and by expectations society has of them. At the same time, there is deep specialization in professional education. This often leads those guiding that education to see decisions about curriculum more as derivatives of expertise, and less as responses to societal expectations.

For example, a major tension in American medical education in recent times has been the debate over generalist versus specialist curricula. Social pressures have encouraged expansion of generalist or family practice curricula, while medical educators, most often specialists themselves, have rightly valued and regularly defended specialty curricula. Two solutions have been found - the first being governmental encouragement of family practice options, through legislative and financial investments and incentives for medical colleges and students. The second is the establishment, within the medical profession, of family practice as a recognized medical specialty. Those who employ a systems perspective will see - wrapped in this medical education microcosm - themes of integration-vs-fragmentation, synthesis-vs-reduction, and ultimately a partially equilibrated accommodation.

Products of Professional Education

From a societal point of view, the identity of a professional person is tightly coupled to specific expectations of service. This means that professional education, to retain public support, must produce individuals who meet expectations. Yet society can only define the ends it expects. Educators in the professions reserve the expertise to define the means - content and process of a curriculum - by which service to those ends will be achieved. In part, transitions in professional curricula are seen as successful when they resolve tensions between external (societal) constituencies, and internal (expert) constituencies.

It is perhaps of interest to note that the constituency of professional students, those most immediately impacted by transition in their curricula, rarely participate in or influence curriculum debate in any significant way.

Professional education creates quality "products" by implementing two critical agendas. One is selection; the other is curriculum. The approach, simply, is first to identify "raw material" which shows optimally suitable pre-professional attributes. Secondly, curricular information and experiences are applied to mold this material into the desired final professional product. Structurally and operationally, both of these processes have been and remain fundamentally linear. Their logistics rarely encourage recursive behavior of people or ideas.

It is instructive to think about the nature of these events from a systems perspective. Both selection processes and curriculum designs are amalgams of fragmenting and integrating decisions. Systems thinking may offer its primary merit by promoting a preponderance of integrating over fragmenting decisions. If this is so, then "futuring" about professional education through systems thinking can help us approach these two critical professional agendas in a more creative manner.

Knowledge - Declarative and Procedural

Professional education is facts and acts - the essentials of theory and practice relevant to currently accepted standards of competency in a given profession. More formally, professional knowledge is both declarative - articulating a requisite information content - and procedural - demonstrating appropriate technical capabilities, at appropriate levels of performance. Agendas for selection and curriculum are governed by these contrasting and cooperating models of professional knowledge.

Consider a student's successful entry into a professional educational process, and subsequent successful completion of it. These events are profoundly dependent upon student performance that minimizes dissonance between the student's mental models, and those of educators who define declarative and procedural knowledge for the profession. Currently, this can realistically be described as a process in which students largely follow default paths toward security and survival - a somewhat ecological construct.

It is appropriate to ask, from a systems thinking perspective: How does this affect maturity and complexity of the student as a "system-within-the-learning-system ?" How does this shape the professional product which emerges from the learning system ? It is likely that these questions will only be properly addressed by a systems thinking perspective.

Fashionable "New" Science:

In the field of physical science, discoveries of the twentieth century have brought us theory of complex systems, ideas of deterministic chaos, and concepts of system self-organization. Among these ideas, there appears to be some agreement that complex systems in general will progress, prosper, and endure to the degree that they can sustain their energy in spite of adaptation toward increasing complexity. This means that certain systems will not tend toward equilibrium and entropy, but rather will dissipate a share of entropy to other systems, thus sustaining their energy, complexity, and "far-from-equilibrium" status.

If this is so, then we should wonder about the nurturing of suitable professional "complexity" - that productive combination of maturity and competence - if our educational environments actually encourage students to adapt toward the secure and the simplified. Could it be that these students are actually "systems" into which a share of professional entropy is conveniently dissipated ? Can systems thinkers shed light on this question ?

Educational Ecology

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, educators such as John Dewey and others have argued for consideration of learning process and environment as a complete ecology. This metaphor draws together ideas of system interactions, system health and integrity, and distribution of energy. It is a ready linkage to see curriculum as a determinant of educational ecosystem interactions, integrity, and energy sharing. Further, as a curriculum moves into transition and change, it soon also becomes a result of these same system behaviors. Finally, modern day approaches to the understanding of ecosystems are profoundly supported by suitable modeling techniques. Systems thinkers will see the opportunity awaiting those who choose to examine educational ecosystems, including those professional in nature, in this light.

To Inform or to Appeal ?

Post-secondary education in general, and professional education in particular, orchestrate expert-directed, linear learning systems. Firmly established logistics, and the isolation of competition, assure that students are largely processed by, rather than fully participate in, their education. Shortly, generations of new professional students will appear, whose early education has been dominantly shaped by collaboration, self-driven information access, and independent, recursive learning through technology. Their arrival must be preceded by rational curriculum transitions which prepare commensurate and responsive professional learning ecologies for them.

This paper presumes no special wisdom that might inform about these issues. Rather, as an appeal, it calls attention to a unique opportunity, and truly the practical necessity, for applying systems thinking to these professional educational concerns. Those currently in charge of professional education, with all due respect, have mastered and generally advocate linear learning models. More bluntly, as written elsewhere, the "enemy is us." The new and evolving ecology of early educational options allows freedom for capabilities and expectations of learners to "self-organize." If adaptation to a rigid ecology of professional educational obligations then becomes necessary, it simply wastes energy which could contribute to learning.. One must ask, then, from the student's point of view, does the entropy of today's professional education come, or does it go ? Perhaps some good systems models, assembled by some good system thinkers, can help us understand.


An annotated bibliography for this paper (and its expanded counterpart found in the virtual proceedings) may be obtained at SD97, or by request to the email address above.

ISDC '97 CD Sponsor