The Open Educative Systems Concept

To Begin, a thought experiment…

It’s summer, 2019 in the United States. What do we usually think of when we hear or read the word “education”?

  • A high school building
  • An elementary school classroom filled with kids
  • University lecture hall
  • The principal’s office
  • A diploma
  • A better job
  • ___________(fill in your answer here)

For most of us, our concept of education is intimately connected to the idea of a place where children and young adults go to meet with teachers and peers to participate in a familiar set of curricular activities intended to insure that we acquire a predetermined body of facts and skills. In the US, our primary schools have experienced “feature creep” with the addition of services such as after-school day care, meal programs and health screening. Our high schools and community colleges have become focused on job training and employment preparation. Our universities have become diversified and now offer “life-long extension courses” to their surrounding communities, professional-like sports events, basic and commercial research, hospital services, to name just a few. Maybe it’s time to refocus, to stop asking these institutions to be all things to all people.

If all our educational infrastructure suddenly evaporated and we had to start anew, what would we build? This is the thought experiment behind Open Educative Systems (OES).

What is a system?…

A system, as defined in Google’s “Dictionary”, is


  1. a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.
    “the state railroad system”
    synonyms: structure, organization, order, arrangement, complex, apparatus, network;

  2. 2.
    a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.
    “a multiparty system of government”
    synonyms: method, methodology, technique, process, procedure, approach, practice, line, line of action, line of attack, attack, means, way, manner, mode, framework, modus operandi;

More specifically, a system is a set of nodes or elements connected by relationships and separated, conceptually, from its surroundings by a boundary. That boundary may be closed, so that nothing comes into or moves out of the system under consideration, or open, always a sub-system of and in communication with a larger system of which it is itself an element.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 11.34.46 AM

In the picture to the right the large circle is the boundary of Ford Middle School. Outside this boundary is the rest of the community where the school is located. The other institutions in the Ford School District, that is, the other schools, the city government agencies, other social institutions such as the YMCA, are not shown. Inside Ford Middle School there are two grades, 7 and 8, each of which has multiple classrooms. Each element in this picture is a sub-system of a larger system and could be expanded to explain its elements and relationships in greater detail. We commonly think of education in terms of the particular elements in this simple picture.

There is no a priori reason to choose one set of elements over another when visualizing or analyzing a system we find in the real world. Often, changing the units of analysis, the elements and relationships depicted, surfaces new insights about how the system functions at present. This process can highlight weaknesses, roadblocks and malfunctions in the way things are going now and open the way for positive change. It can also help us to anticipate negative outcomes from proposed changes before they are built or put into operation.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 11.28.13 AMBy using computer tools such as KUMU, this kind of systems representation can be extremely complex. This model, The Austin Social Innovation Ecosystem Map, includes individual people and their connections to local and distant organizations. It also shows which organizations are connected to each other.

Picturing Open Educative Systems…

Systems maps can also be conceptual in nature. Rather than mapping actual people, events and organizations they show theoretical structures, relationships and flows. To kick off ideas about what an ideal educative system might be constructed I looked at what conventional schools do now. School Functions

Curriculum Delivery (or teaching), administration and record keeping are prominent in every modern school. The other functions are more controversial and many public schools do them badly. As a result private schools and other private educational services have been developed and are available to those who can afford them. To improve our public educational system we frequently pour more money into the existing institutional structures, adding more responsibilities on our existing teachers and administrators and diminishing the time and energy they have to respond to existing deficiencies. What if we divided up these functions into separate but connected organizations that had the freedom to optimize their facilities and staff to serve their specific purpose. Could we go from this way of thinking about educational organizations as places with people inserted :Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 3.04.13 PM


to this view of functions independent of place:

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 3.06.58 PM


This is just an early attempt to diagram an open educative system. More nodes are needed and each node should be described and elaborated. In addition, connections showing flows of people, money, know-how, information and regulations over time will make it possible to predict whether such a system could be implemented in the real world.

What’s next?…

In the coming months I will comb through my files for notes and ideas about Open Educative Systems and add them to this blog along with new material. I’ll expand on each of the categories suggested so far and continue to add new ones. There is plenty of room here for collaborators on both theoretical and implementation levels. The original inspiration for this project came from George Leonard’s pivotal 1968 book, “Education and Ecstasy“. Our rapidly changing communications technologies are making radically different educative systems possible today. We need to explore and expand the limits of our thinking about environments for learning and teaching. Isolated experiments in new and more open educative experiences are being tried around the globe. This blog is one place we can collect this knowledge and integrate it into a systemic whole.



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