A project to end teacher shortages in the United States is demonstrating how thinking about social systems as networks can help us prioritize the most effective strategies.
Some social problems are so complex that they feel impossible to solve. That seeming intractability arises from our inability to understand systems in all their complexity—to identify the scope of a problem, and the short- and long-term benefits of one solution versus another. If we look at a problem like gun violence, for example, we see myriad causes all tangled up: the Second Amendment, the gun lobby, political fundraising, and lackluster voting on gun issues, to name just a few. More often than not, when we try to untangle the mess, we either throw up our hands in defeat or myopically focus on whatever narrow problem we have a chance of affecting. Neither leads to progress; instead, they fuel discontent and apathy.
But at their core, complex systems are about connections: Who depends on whom? And what causes what? One way to understand these connections is through structural network analysis, which looks at the basic structures and patterns of a system and asks how any one root cause of a problem affects another. Structural network analysis teaches that the secret to simplifying complex systems is to recognize that while everything is connected, those connections are not random. And the more connected a node is to other nodes, the greater the chance that positively affecting that first node will improve the system as a whole.
So what if there were a way to model, map, analyze, and therefore make progress on big, complex social problems? What if we approach these complex systems as networks and focus on gleaning insights from their structure about the dynamics at play within them?
We’re already proving it’s possible, starting with STEM education in the United States. With 4 million teachers and 50 million students attending 100,000 public and public charter schools, and with federal, state, and local laws and regulations layered on top of deep cultural expectations and norms, the American education system is thorny, vast, and uniquely complex. As with any complex problem, there are numerous issues at play. One of the most fundamental is the shortage of teachers in America’s classrooms, especially those qualified to teach STEM subjects. As a recent New York Times article put it, “A country’s proficiency in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is vital in generating economic growth, advancing scientific innovation and creating good jobs.” Yet America lacks the number of qualified teachers it needs to pass along these skills and mindsets.
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