• Susan Farr Gabriele GEMS •Gabriele Educational Materials and Systems


Keywords, General systems theory, social system theory, systemic school renewal, instructional design


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This paper outlines a new theory and a new practice with the goal of improved descriptions of and prescription for schools and social systems.  The theory, gleaned out of Boulding’s nine-level typology of system complexity, is named TPO for the three key domains of schools (technical, personal and organizational).  Informative for instructional designers and school and organization change efforts, it is also a theory for non-specialists (things, people, and outcomes). The need for such a theory is great, given the variety of decision-makers, and the failure of well-intentioned reform efforts. Things, people, and outcomes, the key parts of a social system, have very different properties. First, things (technical) in a social system are of three kinds--Level 1: frameworks  (e.g., buildings, books and equipment); Level 2: clockworks (e.g., school routines, schedules and calendars); and Level 3: thermostat-like systems (e.g., school goals which people--students and educators--self-regulate to attain.) The skillful design of Level 3 systems results is adjustment capacities.  Level 1, 2, and 3 things are predictable and designable.  Second, people (personal) in a social system are not designable. While things like thermostats self-regulate to externally prescribed criteria, living systems self-regulate to internally prescribed criteria (Level 4: open; e.g., cell).  Living systems (Levels 4-7) act to meet their own basic needs first, then, in people, higher needs—generally predictable by Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs: survival, safety, belonging, achievement, self-actualization and transcendence. People’s behavior decreases in predictability due to inherent individual differences (Level 5: blueprint; e.g., plant); differing immediate perceptions from among competing stimuli (Level 6: image-aware; e.g., animal), and their own long term reflections, prior knowledge, choices, and abilities (Level 7: symbol processing; e.g., human).  The third part of a social system is labeled outcomes (organizational).  Outcomes depend on people’s behavior. If things (T) of the systems are designed and arranged to allow people (P) to easily meet their basic needs, outcomes (O) will be desirable.  This principle is not a question of ethics, but a question of physics. It is natural, biological, and scientific law that people will behave to meet their individual and personal needs (Level 7: human) before their social system or organization’s needs (Levels 8 and 9). Level 8 systems (social) are optional. Level 7 functioning is mandatory. A person can transfer schools (Level 8), but cannot transfer bodies (Level 7).  The new practice, observed in the ISSS Morning RoundTable over the last ten years, corresponds to the goals of systemic renewal and the TPO theory. The ISSS RoundTable is a version of the GEMS RoundTable, which has been formally studied in 4th Grade classrooms. Two of these teachers continue with it today. The RoundTable is an excellent example of a TPO practice because of its effective design, arrangement and use of things (T), to maximize opportunities for learning for the participants or people (P).  Furthermore, the result is a system with the excellent adjustment capacities needed for best outcomes (O).

Author Biography

Susan Farr Gabriele, GEMS •Gabriele Educational Materials and Systems

Educational Designer, Consultant, Author. GEMS • Gabriele Educational Materials and Systems Chapman University, Research Methods Graduate Education



How to Cite

Gabriele, S. F. (2010). THE HARD FACTS OF SOFT SOCIAL SYSTEMS: BOULDING’S TYPOLOGY AND THE ROUNDTABLE FOR NEW THEORY AND PRACTICE. Proceedings of the 54th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2010, Waterloo, Canada, 54(1). Retrieved from