Systems thinking is an approach to solve complex problems. The simple rules of systems thinking are making distinctions, organizing systems of part and whole, recognizing relationships, and taking multiple perspectives to break down complex problems. One such problem is that 1.2 million children aged five to nine are not attending schools in Punjab, and the government has been unable to reduce this number. I am approaching this problem differently using systems thinking through the deconstruction of both the government’s and parents’ mental models. The government wants to send children to school to achieve millennium development goals, show achievement to the general public, reduce religious extremism, and improve human capital. A parent’s enrollment decision is based on the quality of the school and the resultant economic achievement of the student after education. Previous work done by the Punjabi government has only considered a singular mental model. Systems thinking tools reveal that the issue persists because of the difference in the government’s and parents’ mental models and, consequently, any viable solution must consider both viewpoints.


The simple rules of systems thinking are widely accepted as the following: making distinctions, organizing systems of part and whole, recognizing relationships, and acknowledging multiple perspectives on the issue at hand. Systems thinking helps address issues from multiple perspectives, observe relationships between multiple ideas, and also further deconstruct relationships into part-whole systems. These tools restructure problems so they can be better understood and more easily communicated to any audience.

A current challenge which systems thinking can analyze and solve is the 1.2 million children between the ages of five and nine who do not attend school in Punjab. The local government has had difficulty reducing this number; having worked in the government on this issue previously, I will show in this paper how I approached this problem differently using systems thinking. Systems thinking tools allowed me to recognize that the government’s inability to fix this problem stems from the difference between the local schools’ and parents’ mental models of the problem. Therefore, any viable solution must consider both mental models.

Only 88% of children ages five to nine are enrolled in school in Punjab, and though the government is trying to enroll these pupils, it has been unable to reduce the gap. This is a complex problem as there are many stakeholders with different interests, making it difficult to discern how each party will affect enrollment. My previous work with the government was characterized by the belief that this problem is complex, and thus can only be solved through complex solutions.

Systems thinking teaches us to look for relationships between ideas and think more deeply about the parts of the relationship between them. To approach the problem of students’ enrollment through systems thinking, first, the two ideas—the population of children currently unenrolled, and the government’s efforts to increase enrollment—need to be linked. DSRP shows further examination into the relationship between these two ideas, which leads to two basic questions: “Why does the government want to send children to school?” and “How are they sending children to school?”

Government Trying to send out-of-school Children to Schools

The government has put great effort into increasing enrollment but, as of yet, has not been successful. The government wants to send children to school to achieve millennium development goals, show achievement to the general public, reduce religious extremism, improve human capital, and implement article 25A[1] of its constitution, which states that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure every child is educated. There is international pressure to achieve millennium development goals, as most other countries have already achieved them, and Pakistan lags in educational achievement. Therefore, improving school enrollment allows the government to show this achievement to the domestic public and international audiences.

Lack of education may also a contributing factor to religious extremism in Pakistan. While there are other reasons that lead to religious extremism such as poverty and unemployment, the major issue contributing to extremism is a lack of education in South Punjab. As such, they are making efforts to enroll every child in school. The government also wants to improve human capital by educating the whole population.

The primary ways the government tries to enroll children in school are through enrollment campaigns and voucher programs. The enrollment campaign is considered by the public as an initiative wherein a teacher from every school visits nearby households and tries to convince parents to enroll out-of-school children. Teachers campaign for the benefits of education, inform residents about the importance and benefits of education, and communicate that there is no fee for schools and books are provided to children at no cost. Voucher programs give an option to parents in areas where there are no schools: the vouchers allow parents to enroll their children in private schools at no cost. However, vouchers only pay for their tuition fees, and parents have to bear other school-related expenses.

Deconstruction of the mental model of the government leads to a better understanding of the enrollment problem. The same application of systems thinking tools can be used to also understand the mental model of parents.

In my previous work with the government, we only considered the governmental mental model while trying to solve the problem of low enrollment. In traditional problem solving methods, people often make distinctions and see part-whole systems, but are not cognizant of doing so. However, systems thinking allows for the observation of ideas from not one but from multiple perspectives, and therefore the approach can offer new insights. A full analysis of the reasons children are not going to school will enhance our understanding of this problem.

I believe it is possible that children do not go to school because parents do not want to send them, either because there is no school nearby or the children are not interested in education. It is also possible that the majority of children who do not attend school are significantly influenced by the educational decisions of their parents. Therefore, I believe it prudent to focus on the parents’ motives for not sending their children to school.

Parents’ enrollment decisions are based on the quality of the school and anticipated economic achievement of their child post-education. For example, parents may judge the quality of a school by teacher attendance, and whether teachers are trained and capable to teach children. They can also consider student outcomes, which can be measured by asking fifth grade students to write their name; if they can, parents might believe that their child is learning something in school.

Parents’ Decision-Making Process


It is evident to most parents that if many students are unable to even write their name, they may be unable to find jobs after completing their education. Additionally, students may not assist or work for their parents at home because the parents believe working at home is not doing justice to their children’s abilities. These possibilities indicate that parents think about both the economic benefits of education and the quality of education in school relative to the earning prospects of students after they complete their education.

After analyzing the problem through a systems thinking approach, it is possible that a difference exits between the mental models of the government and children’s parents, and this difference has gone unrecognized in trying to solve the low enrollment in Punjab. Furthermore, the government unknowingly considers only its mental model when implementing reforms and solutions, and not the mental models of parents.

Considering both mental models can provide solutions regarding the enrollment problem; some of these are feasible for the government to implement. For example, the government can invest more in vocational training institutes, which enable children to learn vocational skills after completing their primary education. Such institutes can give students more job opportunities or equip them with needed skills to start their own businesses. Another initiative to consider is a massive campaign to improve literacy in schools so that students can read and write, which will also change the perspective of parents on the quality of schools while also serving the governments goals of literacy. In conclusion, systems thinking suggests that the government should tackle the enrollment problem by striving to conceptualize issues from different perspectives and fully considering both the governmental and parental mental model in their solutions

  1. Section 9 of the Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Act, 2010 (10 of 2010), inserted a new Art. 25A, after Art. 25 of the Constitution, (w.e.f. April 19, 2010).

About the Author: Muhammad Bilal has worked in the education sector of Punjab as a consultant and helped the government to bring about needed reforms. He is pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Administration at Cornell University’s Institute for Public Affairs.