What I’ve learned about Systems Theory

Banathy’s (1973) model of human/educational activity systems was helpful in providing me with not only a thorough narrative description of what constitutes a complex system, but also a visual depiction of one. Prior to reading Banathy, I had problems visualizing a system. I envisioned it as a sort of “black box”. I could imagine the system with inputs and outputs going into and out of the system, and I understood that the system would respond to feedback and produce change, but could not visualize the processes that took place inside the system which caused that change to take place. Banathy’s model helped me make sense of how the system responded to feedback both through the inputs and outputs to the system and used those to undergo a process of transformation to either adapt to small changes in the environment or co-evolve along with the environment in response to major changes.

The two readings on chaos theory further assisted in refining my understanding of systems. Both Eoyang (1993) and Reigeluth (2004) compared complex systems to chaos theory as found in the hard sciences. Eoyang described complex systems in terms of the patterns that it holds in common with chaos theory. These patterns include nonlinearity and unpredictability which helped me understand that in a complex system it is not possible to predict a future state of the system based on the current state. Their example was weather; even with our advanced technology, meteorologists cannot predict weather in the future with perfect accuracy. We can look at patterns and try to interpret what they might mean, but as humans we often behave erratically and not according to previously established habits; just because a football team usually punts on 3rd and long does not mean they will do so this down.

Eoyang (1993) also spoke of autopoesis. I particularly liked this comparison. The ability of a system to adapt to its environment and yet maintain its own identity was a unique pattern not spoken of by the other authors. While change is a necessary part of being a system, change should not cost your identity. In Eoyang’s description, people within the organization change over time but the organization retains its identity. I can also imagine this with the system of an individual person. I have pictures of my son, Michael from when he was little. He has changed quite a lot over the years; however, I can still see the same person in him that I saw back then, and the things that make him Michael; his kind heart, quick mind, and generous nature, have not changed either as he has grown.

Reigeluth (2004) focused instead on the processes of chaos that a complex system undergoes as it transforms. Watching these steps unfold was enlightening to me. While he describes some of the same items as Banathy such as co-evolution and feedback, for me, learning that disequilibrium and perturbance were actually good for a system and helped the system in the necessary transformative process was a healthy dose of reality. Like any human, I grate against disharmony and want to see it as a bad thing, and learning to accept that when my world feels out of balance that is actually a good and healthy thing is going to make my life less stressful, I believe.

Both Reigeluth and Eoyang described fractals, which seem to be core values around which the system is organized. These become effective for transformation when new fractals become widely accepted by the stakeholders in the system.

The most recently assigned article by Laszlo and Krippner (1998) explained the history of systems theory and how it came to be used to describe systems in the social sciences. The article demonstrated the benefits of having a unifying theory by which to explain both hard and soft systems, or those found in both natural and social sciences. Being able to compare complex social systems such as an individual’s emotions or the organizational structure of a school to more definite hard systems like an individual’s cardiovascular system or a city’s sewer system made it a lot easier for me to conceptualize the way a system works and its interdependence on subsystems, as well as the effect it has on its environment.

Obviously, anything that involves humans in it is going to be necessarily complex. The readings have helped me classify and make sense of some of the complexities of a particular system. Any given system can have dozens or even hundreds of subsystems, each interdependent on some or all of the others, and a supra-system, on which the system depends and on which the system has an impact, as well as the ever-change environment to which the system belongs and because of which the system is required to adapt or evolve. This complexity is part of the charm of a system but also makes it increasingly difficult to fully understand a system. The complexity also makes systems more interesting.

Immediately upon beginning the readings I began recognizing the patterns and functions of systems both in myself and other systems of which I am a part. I see the patterns emerging in my workplace; I see them unfolding in my own life and in the relationships I play out with my family members. In some ways understanding systems thinking is helpful for understanding the way the organizations or systems of which I am a part are functioning and where in the transformative process I find myself. In other aspects, it could be disheartening to read these articles and to realize that if my school, for example, does not respond to the feedback and make the appropriate adjustments necessary to transform into the new kind of school it needs to be for our changing environment; if it does not co-evolve, we may find our system has terminated.

There are definitely challenges involved in fully understanding systems. Systems are complex. The processes they undergo and the patterns that emerge are also complex. It would be easy to miss a cue or misread something and fail to interpret your position in the system correctly. The smallest system is still infinitely complex, with processes unique to that system that depend on other processes and which, in turn, interrelate with external systems. Even if I think I understand the system today, the transformations it undergoes today might be so different as to make it difficult to understand tomorrow.


Banathy, B. H. (1973). Developing a systems view of education: The systems-model approach. Salinas, CA: Intersystems Publications.

Eoyang, G. H. (1993). A brief introduction to complexity in organizations. In paper presented at the Chaos Network Conference in 1993.

Laszlo, A., & Krippner, S. (1998). Systems Theories: Their Origins, Foundations, and Development. In J. S. Jordan (Ed.), Systems Theories and A Priori Aspects of Perception (pp. 47–74). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.

Reigeluth, C. M. (2004). Chaos theory and the sciences of complexity: Foundations for transforming education. In annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. San Diego, CA.

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