Creating an Expectation of Failure

“We need to think about failure differently. I’m not the first to say that failure, when approached properly, can be an opportunity for growth. But the way most people interpret this assertion is that mistakes are a necessary evil. Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new … And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge that acknowledging this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to diminish our understanding of its worth. To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the reality of the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.”   Ed Catmull—founder of Pixar

Pixar, the company responsible for popular movies such as Toy Story, Cars, and A Bug’s Life, boasts a culture of failure.  Led by founder Ed Catmull and true of many of the company’s leaders the expectation at Pixar is that if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough risks.

Catmull, goes on to explain that when people talk about learning from failures and that is the positive view.  However, the more common view of failure is to equate failure with messing up or being not smart. In business failure is a source of angst.  In school, failure is a source of shame.

Andrew Stanton, a Pixar employee, says, “fail early and fail fast…be wrong as fast as you can.” No one would expect to learn to ride a bike without stumbling at first.  Stanton suggests that if we would apply this mindset to all new attempts it would overcome the negative connotation associated with making mistakes. He suggests this is a way to go beyond learning from failure to understanding that failure is an essential part of a successful outcome.

10-successive-01One of the habits of a systems thinker offers a strategy to help embrace failure.  A systems thinker checks results and changes actions if needed.  This habit is also referred to as successive approximation.  Successive approximation is grounded in the belief that all great work will require adjustments a long the way.  Anticipating those minor adjustments is one way to embrace failure.

What are some ways you could bring the expectation of failure to your personal life, your work place or your school system?  The results could be amazing!


Seeing Circles with Six-year-olds

What happens when first grade students are asked to make connections, given some chalk, a sidewalk, a simple drawing, some rocks and a garden? The answer is: an enthusiastic rendering of new ideas about how the world works.garden1s

At Borton Magnet School, Molly Reed, Outdoor Learning Coordinator, brought a group of first graders out to the school’s garden to help maintain various projects in progress. What also resulted was an impromptu lesson about garden health.

  • What does it mean for our garden to be healthy?
  • How do we know it’s healthy?
  • What increases the garden’s health and what decreases it?

Blank stock-flow templates and behavior-over-time graphs were painted directly on the sidewalk there, just waiting for students to think about the dynamics and interconnected nature of the garden. Rocks and chalk were standing by. The stock became “Garden health” and the flows increased and decreased that health.

garden2sStudents chose rocks painted with words of different garden parts, placed them near the inflow or outflow, and drew cause-and-effect arrows. They showed that some “rock elements” directly affect the increase of garden health, such as sunlight. Some rock elements affect one another, such as the worms affect the soil [quality], which increases the health of the garden. Other rock elements affect the decrease of garden health, such as animals that eat plants.



The “big question” about feedback came then; it’s a question that teachers sometimes wonder whether their young students can understand.  “How does the stock affect other parts of the system?”

Can students understand this concept of feedback in a stock-flow map? That is, can they represent how a particular stock affects other parts of the system they’re drawing? The only way to find out is to be willing to take a leap, to put a question about feedback out there, and see how students respond. Questions like:

  • “How does the health of the garden affect other parts?”
  • “What happens if you have a really healthy garden; what will that affect?”

Without any additional prompting, one girl immediately described a connection between the stock of garden health and the worms. She drew an arrow to represent her idea. So the healthier the garden is, the more worms there will be. Another student saw a connection between health and soil, adding on another arrow to show his idea.garden4s

So given the chance, the short answer is a resounding yes! Students can take the next step beyond seeing what increases and decreases a stock. They can indeed realize that the stock is also an important part of the system that affects other parts, thus illustrating the feedback relationships that exist in their garden.

The next challenge: can young students see the feedback loop they created in the stock-flow map and then draw it out as a causal loop? That’s  a “big question” for another day.

Coming Soon: A Systems Approach to Strategic Planning and School Improvement

On Tuesday, November 1, at 10:00 a.m. PDT, Carrie Brennan, Executive Director of CITY Center for Collaborative Learning, will present a webinar to share her story of how she has engaged stakeholders in a process of developing shared vision. Carrie began her work with systems thinking as a classroom teacher and now brings those skills to her work as an educational leader.  In the webinar, she will explore ways that systems thinking can help leaders take a more collaborative approach to developing strategic school improvement plans.

You will be encouraged by the CITY story.  It is the story of committed educators who came together to create learning environments that deliver benefits to students.  You will recognize challenges common to modern education–testing and accountability, changing curriculum standards, meeting the needs of students with diverse backgrounds—and you will be encouraged by how these challenges are being addressed as part of the ongoing work of school improvement.

Carrie will also explore how this approach can create a ripple effect that leads to more community engagement in schools.  You will see systems thinking principles like exponential growth, reinforcing feedback and the use of leverage applied in this real world context.

Register for the webinar to learn more and participate in the discussion.


Complicated or Complex:  What’s the difference?

A fourth grader from Milwaukee Public Schools recently proclaimed, “Let me tell you why I love systems thinking.  It lets you do really complicated things, but it makes them not so complicated.”  In his book Living with Complexity, Donald Norman writes, “Complexity is a world state, but complicated is a mind state.  So if one spends the necessary time with a complex concept, it won’t seem so complicated. “  Connecting these two ideas seems to offer a strategy for making complex a little less complicated.

Few would argue that we live in a complex world.  Complexity is apparent in relationships, in changing circumstances, in business dealings, and yet we have all witnessed individuals, who deal with extreme amounts of complexity with confidence and positivity, while other individuals respond with frustration and bitterness. Perhaps, in addition to time, one thing that makes a difference is the ability to accept the complexity and apply a skill set that makes it a little less complicated.  The tools and habits of systems thinking are a valuable part of that skill set.

Let’s go back to our fourth grade systems thinking enthusiast.  When she is faced with a challenge in school, say a complex word problem in mathematics,  she has a choice. She can throw her hands up in frustration or she can use what she knows about problem solving, the structure of the math problem and even a few tools from her systems thinking toolbox to embrace the challenge and spend the time necessary to solve the problem.  Her successful efforts don’t make the problem less complex, but they do allow her to move beyond the mental state of, “This is hard,” to an understanding of complexity, that in school sounds like, “I have the skills I need to solve this problem.”

Grown-ups can apply the same shift in thinking.  A manger might be faced with solving a difficult problem among his management team.  Personalities, varying levels of work performance, a disgruntled client and even the image of his own looming performance review, could create conditions of a complex problem.  Not unlike the fourth grade math student, this manager has a choice to make.  He can focus on all the elements that make the problem too hard and too complicated, or he can draw upon a skill set that helps him embrace the complexity and devote the time and energy necessary to arrive at a satisfactory solution.

Life can be complex, but if in the complexity you take the time to consider an issue fully, identify patterns and trends, and consider unintended consequences, among other systems thinking habits, you might just find things to be a little less complicated.


An “Olympic” Fix That Backfired

The summer Olympics have been over for about a month, but the drum beats of the Olympic theme song still ring in my head.  It was an exciting Olympics. But along with the noteworthy accomplishments of the athletes, there was a notable event that caused me to consider the Fixes that Backfire archetype.

Ryan Lochte was a swimmer at the top of his game, but he, along with three of his teammates, found themselves under pressure to preserve their image after damaging a lavatory door. The swimmers opted for a quick fix solution to make the problem go away. When faced with accusations from local authorities, they initially provided a story about being held at gunpoint.ftf1-blog0926

In the short term, this seemed like a great solution. It made the problem go away, temporarily. Over time, as the actual events came to light and became more public, the swimmers suffered an unintended consequence. Their story was determined to be untrue. They admitted to what had actually happened, creating even more publicity and making the original problem of preserving their previously positive image even worse.

Archetypes tell classic stories that find their way into our lives on a daily basis. Systems thinkers learn to recognize these archetypical situations in order to anticipate undesirable unintended consequences.


Evidence of a Thinking Classroom

What does thinking really look like in a classroom? Systems thinking is a set of concepts, tools and habits that promote thinking. Evidence of systems thinking may suggest a movement toward classrooms where students are actually engaged in thinking.

Use of the visual tools, such as behavior-over-time graphs or causal loop diagrams, is easy to observe. It can be an artifact from a lesson or a piece of student work. graphBut there are other indicators that a classroom of learners is actively applying systems thinking that may not be so easily observed. CLDThere are certain mental models that are highly compatible with a systems thinking classroom. These mental models translate into specific behaviors such as regularly making connections between current learning and life events. A strong value is placed on learners who are engaged and able to direct their own learning.

Classrooms with more student talk than teacher talk may suggest that thinking is becoming prevalent in the classroom culture. There will be more student voice in a classroom where students take responsibility for their own learning and are encouraged to offer their ideas and suggestions to make learning more meaningful. These classrooms have structures to help students connect their learning to the real world, to personalize their learning and to solve real problems.  Subjects are addressed in interdisciplinary ways that help learners make connections.

Big-PictureSubtle changes in language may reveal a growing value on thinking. A newsletter hanging outside a second grade classroom door offers parents the “big picture” of the week, in a section entitled Academic News. The big picture encourages readers of the newsletter to take into account the sum total of what is to be learned and how to help students make connections between the discreet pieces of knowledge.

The same newsletter explains that the weekly reading objectives are to show the order of events in a story and explain what makes a character interesting. Taken directly from the Common Core State Standards, these two objectives, sequence of events and understanding the dynamics of a character, are skills that lend themselves very naturally to a behavior-over-time graph (BOTG). As systems thinking becomes part of the culture of a school, these curriculum connections to thinking will become increasingly apparent to teachers, students and parents.

In some schools that incorporate systems thinking approaches to teaching and learning, students are provided strategies for goal setting and self-assessment, including the use of BOTGs. The strategies help students focus on small chunks of measurable achievement that all students can accomplish given flexible time periods and needed support.

Systems thinking enhances a collaborative culture. Common tools and language facilitate cooperative problem solving. In systems thinking environments, all members are learners and the voice of the learner is valued.

Freshly Sharpened Pencils

Freshly-sharpened pencils. Open House. First day jitters. There is no doubt that the beginning of school brings excitement, energy, and anticipation for a new year filled with learning. We, at the Waters Foundation, want to wish everyone a very happy new year.

As the “new year” begins, we also want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the resources available on our website. If you are planning a new unit, searching for ways to increase student engagement, or trying to answer a question about systems thinking, take advantage of the resources on the Waters Foundation website. Here are some not- to- be-missed highlights from our website.

Systems Thinking in Education – WebEd Modules

The nine modules in WebEd offer learners a self-paced course in systems thinking tools and habits. Learners can work their way through all nine modules in order for a thorough introduction or can pick and choose from among the available topics. Each module is formatted in the same way for easy access to the information. Teachers often use activities from WebEd as a way of introducing a particular tool to their students.

Click on the Resources tab and you will find a searchable database that contains a variety of resources across subject areas and grade levels. You can find lesson ideas, videos, and lesson plans. Search “all habits” and “templates” and you can download a color, one-page PDF of the Habits of a Systems Thinker.

Example Webinar Recording

We are often asked for specific examples of how educators are using the tools and habits. Our library of prerecorded webinars is a great place to find these examples. You can access webinars by starting in the Events and Services tab and then clicking on webinars. Practitioners facilitate these webinars that cover a range of topics and intended audiences. A new webinar is posted every month. Register for webinars live so you can interact directly with these skilled practitioners.

At the Waters Foundation we also want to connect our followers to other websites and resources. Also in the Events and Services tab you will find a list of these connections under the website link. This list is recently updated and well worth checking out.

ST Habits App – A View of the Home Screen

We couldn’t write a resource blog and not include a reminder that our ST Habits app is now available in the iTunes and Google Play store.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what is available. You can find articles, videos, research and upcoming professional development opportunities by exploring this site. Here is hoping you will make a visit to a “new year” resolution.

The Snowball is Rolling


A few members of the Waters Foundation team and over 200 of our closest systems thinking in education friends spent the week of July 11 in Sacramento, California at Camp Snowball. Camp Snowball began six years ago in Tucson, Arizona, as an opportunity for teams to experience systems thinking in education.  Over the course of five action-packed, fun-filled, informative days participants have an opportunity to focus on building their capacity to fuel student success.  Camp Snowball is unique in that it emphasizes bringing multiple stakeholders–students, teachers, school administrators and community leaders–together to address the need for innovation in education.CS2016-Pres

Given Camp Snowball’s emphasis on student success, it is not surprising that students were sought after for their perspectives and leadership in various module sessions, marketplace displays and PechaKuchas.  For example, the student team from Hewlett-Woodmere, shown here, shared in their PechaKucha how systems thinking informs the work of their “Youth Leadership Forum.”


Desiree Chrun, TreCS2016-icebergvor Hicks, Dianne Lam and Michael Savage, recent graduates from Ritenour High School, are interns at Washington University in St. Louis, where they lead group-modeling processes around critical issues, like gun violence.  At Camp Snowball, accompanied by Ritenour teacher Kristi Ponder, they led a module specifically for secondary students entitled, “Take the Lead!  Student Voice and Action.”  For more information on their work with community modeling process, check out their video.

Student hosts from Pleasanton Unified School District, Nicole Zhang and Samantha Corpuz, led each plenary session with knowledge and poise that helped keep all the campers engaged and on the right track throughout the week.

Each day of Camp Snowball offered a provocation to stretch our mental models about what schools can be and how we can actively work to improve them. Tuesday morning we heard from a panel that included superintendents Parvin Ahmadi of Castro Valley Unified School District, Valerie Williams of Albany Unified School District, and Steven Martinez of Twin Rivers School District.  They shared personal stories of their journey to the role of superintendent while expressing their passion and perspective on ensuring equitable opportunities for students and staff within their respective districts. During the final provocation on Thursday morning, a student panel hosted Stacey Tank, Director of Communications for Home Depot.  Tank graciously shared her personal story of handling complexity at work and at home through a healthy mix of commitment, compassion and contentment.  She inspired attendees to “cross their borders,” taking risks, seizing opportunities, co-creating all the while being certain to have “intentional fun.”

Core modules,12-hour learning sessions, which are a key component of the Camp Snowball experience, were replete with opportunities to learn together. A few of these modules with Waters Foundation connections included, “Equity and Privilege:  Overcoming Barriers,” led by Mary Scheetz featured voices from the field provided by Latish Reed and Teaira McMurtry, both from Milwaukee Public Schools.  Campers suffering from initiative overload joined Sheri Marlin to explore how systems thinking can be a red thread knitting together a number of best practices and helping teachers recognize that not everything that is new has to be separate, but rather can be integrated into a coherent whole. “An Introduction to Systems Thinking for Elementary Schools” was facilitated by the very popular Kelly Nichols and Karen Abbott, both Waters Foundation national faculty, who apply systems thinking in their classrooms on a daily basis and are highly skilled at communicating those concepts to other teachers.  Joan Yates took systems educators deeper into their application of the habits and tools of systems CS2016-ModulePresthinking in the module “Next Steps in Systems Thinking:  Becoming a More Skillful Practitioner.”  Last but certainly not least, participants in Mary Quinnan’s module, “Structures for Effective Collaboration,” learned how applying systems thinking tools and habits can improve the quality of collaboration and take decision making to another level.  School-age campers attended Camp Sunshine which was led by, Dana Sorensen and Samantha Sims, two long-time friends of the Waters Foundation.

Tracy Benson, Waters Foundation President, presided over our Project Marketplace display where we shared our recently revised training materials, promoted our new ST Habits app and announced our soon to be published book The Habit-Forming Guide to Becoming a Systems Thinker.  Waters Foundation learning partner sites that also presented at the Project Marketplace included Hewlett-Woodmere, Pleasanton, Twin Rivers, and Winston-Salem

Special thanks to Camp Director LeAnne Grillo for her coordination of the event and to her assistants Elayne Dorsey, Sally Neider and Christina Wagner. For more about Camp Snowball 2016, visit the Facebook page @CampSnowball.


Systems Thinking: A Great Equalizer


After a number of years teaching in public education, I have a pretty good idea about what students will be able to accomplish when learning something new. Despite a desire to reduce limiting beliefs, and to hold high the ideal that all students are capable of extraordinary achievement, most academic tasks require a similar set of capabilities and a student’s prior school experiences significantly influence the rate at which he or she will master a new academic task. Such is not the case when introducing systems thinking tools. Two first grade students provide a particularly clear illustration of how students are able to master basic systems thinking tools within a learning task at different rates and by drawing on vastly different experiences.

Eric came to school as a kindergartener from a Head Start program. He entered school with an individualized educational plan for language. He had suffered significant developmental delays and spent much of kindergarten learning how to function in a group. He was not speaking in complete sentences. He had limited skills for taking care of himself. In first grade Eric participated in a lesson in which behavior-over-time graphs were introduced as a tool for retelling folk tales. An adult read the story to Eric and he began drawing the key story events across the x-axis of his graph. He plotted a change in the story and then came up to retell me his assigned folk tale. To my delight his retelling was excellent. He was able to explain what had happened in the story. Further, Eric was able to use his behavior-over-time graph to retell the story to his classmates and could still retell the story one month later using his graph. Change over time opened the concept of story structure for Eric. Additionally, he was able to use this tool into the next school year to assist in recalling information. The tool allowed Eric success in school that he had not previously experienced.

In contrast to Eric, Jordan came to school already reading. He had great background knowledge and excellent comprehension allowing him to engage with ease in all aspects of the academic day. When I introduced behavior-over-time graphs to Jordan, he had great difficulty with the graph. He could not grasp the concept of time moving horizontally. He attempted to draw graphs with loops or circles suggesting that events could go back in time. Jordan eventually mastered change over time and eventually used the tool regularly as a part of his academic work; however, what had come easily to a child with historically low academic performance required multiple lessons for Jordan. Jordan expressed frustration and reticence at learning the task because it was difficult for him, a previously unfamiliar experience for him as a learner.  Jordan eventually mastered change over time and began using the tool regularly as a part of his academic work.

Granted, these examples are extremes in the acquisition of systems thinking skills, but they are real stories and are reflective of the fact that systems thinking tools are accessible to all students.  Teaching all learners the tools and habits of systems thinking can provides access to challenging content.



Poetry, Standards, and Structure

The structure of language is one element that sets poetry apart from prose.  For the lover of poetry its unique structure is an element of beauty. For a middle school student who is a reluctant reader, poetry’s unique structure is can be yet another obstacle to understanding the written word. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) offer nine skills readers need to make meaning from text.  Systems thinking—a set of concepts and tools that focus on the web of relationships that make up any given system—provides specific strategies that promote the deep learning and critical thinking called for in the CCSS. Milwaukee Public School teacher, Susan Russell, combines the iceberg model, a systems thinking tool, the ELA standards and the power of poetry to engage her students.

The English Language Arts CCSS for reading both literature and informational texts are categorized into three clusters: Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. The iceberg model provides a simple, visual way to support students in mastering these standards. By considering a text in light of the layers of the iceberg, readers continually deepen their understanding and internalize the key concepts of each of ELA CCSS standards.

iceberg-wksht-graphsThe iceberg model illustrates progressively deeper levels of understanding of a system. In the Key Ideas and Details section of the standards, readers are asked to read closely to determine what the text says. Those skills fall at the top of the iceberg: information that is observable. The next cluster of standards, Craft and Structure, requires readers to analyze the structure of texts, making a solid parallel to the structure section of the iceberg model.  Students reach the deepest level of meaning through the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas cluster of standards. The base of a systems thinking iceberg focuses on how mental models—deeply ingrained assumptions or beliefs—affects the system.   Readers bring their own mental models every time they engage in the process of reading. Good readers continually refine their mental models, based on their understanding of what they have read. They can eventually apply their knowledge to compare one text to another and to look at texts within a historical context. More information on the connections between the standards and the iceberg can be found here.

At the tip of Mrs. Russell’s poetry iceberg students list the main idea and details from the text.  In the accompanying example her students read the poem “Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes. A student identified the main idea in this poem as, “Life ain’t no joke.”   He offered the following evidence from the text, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” In analyzing the craft and structure of the poem, students identify key vocabulary and reflect on the poem’s point of view— a mother sharing wisdom with her son.

student-iceberg-IMG_1191The real understanding of the poem comes when students are able to take information from the text and see how it fits or compares to their understanding of the world.  The power of poetry is its ability to connect individuals from different times and places through the commonality of the human experience.  After reading “Mother to Son” students felt strong agreement with the author that you can’t give up even when you have been through bad experiences.  Students shared connections that included the death of family members, not meeting goals and failing in school.

While it can be difficult to attribute causality in education, Mrs. Russell reports that student performance on regularly scheduled benchmark testing increased dramatically after she introduced this version of the iceberg.  Students continue to use the iceberg to analyze text and demonstrate deeper understanding of what they read.

The Waters Foundation does not just teach systems thinking, but rather builds capacity so that educators like Susan Russell can take the habits and tools of ST and integrate them into their teaching in ways that support students’ learning and thinking. Thank you, Susan, for sharing this idea encompassing poetry, standards and structure with your colleagues and allowing us to share it with an even broader audience of educators committed to deep thinking and meaningful learning.





Teachers in Industry: Partnering with business to prepare the future workforce

One of our favorite quotes at the Waters Foundation, spoken by Gordon Brown, Dean Emeritus of MIT, is “To teach is to prepare students for a future that is yet to be determined.” This is a statement that seems to become more accurate with each passing year as the technologies and needs of a complex society change. That is one reason the Teachers in Industry program at the University of Arizona, Tucson, is so important, as it assists in the professional development of STEM educators in the region.

Teachers in Industry is a mutually beneficial partnership between business and education. STEM-industry employers hire interested teachers to work at their company in the summer. The teachers gain valuable real-world experience that they can bring into their classrooms.  Industry benefits from a highly competent, professional employee who can augment their company’s production during the summer months. Teachers in the summer program also enroll in classes at the University of Arizona. There are two tracks; some teachers opt for a three-year Master’s of Arts in Teaching and Teacher Education, while others enroll in a single, summer professional development course.

In addition to the clear benefits for both teachers and industry, there are numerous benefits to the students privileged to learn from these professional educators. Student benefits include a better understanding of STEM careers, increased opportunities for critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving and creativity in their classrooms. Teachers in Industry is recognized as one of the nation’s most effective STEM learning programs.

As well as providing clear benefits to teachers, students and businesses, Teachers in Industry affects a major system-wide issue, teacher retention. Aimed at early and mid-career teachers, the program has an attrition rate of less than 10% over seven years, compared to 17% a year statewide. Keeping highly skilled educators in the system is critical to improving outcomes for students. Teachers in Industry offers a model that increases teacher retention.

The program also tracks teacher development, using the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP). Participating teachers show positive changes in classroom practice. Program teachers move away from traditional teacher-centered approaches toward more learner-centered classroom instruction. Their students develop proficiencies not only in content but also in skills such as problem solving and collaboration with an emphasis on real-world applications.

Teachers In Industry combines internships, training and support to build an innovative program that is working for teachers, businesses, students and the community in Southern Arizona and should serve as a model for systems in other locations as well. These program leaders have considered fully the issue of addressing the need for STEM educators who are well versed in current industry practices and are committed to continuing the important work of preparing today’s students for the future. They are helping make meaningful connections within and between systems and have utilized an understanding of system structure to effect a leverage action.
06-ConsidersIssue--01   14-connections-01   07-Leverage-01






Using Systems Tools to Analyze Non-Fiction Text

Kara Fusco, a sixth grade Language Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies teacher at Woodmere Middle School on Long Island in New York, facilitated a webinar entitled “Using Systems Tools to Analyze Non-Fiction Text.” Woodmere Middle School uses the Columbia University Teachers College curriculum as the basis of their Language Arts program. The unit featured in the webinar combined non-fiction text with the narrative non-fiction book A Long Walk to Water, set in the South Sudan between 1985-2009. The book describes the plight of the Lost Boys of the Sudan and the need for all people to have access to clean water. The ability to cite textual evidence and develop a claim based on evidence is a key outcome of the Teachers College curriculum from the early grades through the middle school.  In the webinar Ms. Fusco clearly illustrated how use of three systems thinking tools, the behavior-over-time graph, connection circle and ladder of inference, improved her students’ ability to generate theme-based claims.  LongWalkWebinar participants were particularly appreciative of the way Kara carefully articulated the sequence and details of the unit prepared by Kara and the team of teachers with whom she works.

Ms. Fusco knows that when students have access to the tools and habits of systems thinking they can organize their thoughts and think more critically about the texts they are reading. Students used a ladder of inference to analyze the characters’ actions, beliefs and cultures and then developed a theme-based conclusion. They used behavior-over-time graphs to cite specific evidence for how characters are changing throughout the course of the story.  Finally, students used a connection circle, which Kara shared, “really made students’ thinking visible and led to insightful conclusions.”  For example, a student explained how Salva, one of the main narrators in A Long Walk to Water, used his growing leadership skill to increase his innovation for finding solutions to the hardships that faced his people in the South Sudan.

From this unit on non-fiction text, students were able to apply the same systems tools to learn more about teen activism in relationship to one of the following issues: girls’ education, world environment, child labor or animal abandonment.  Kara noted that she sees students spontaneously using the tools with a sophisticated level of independence. Ms. Fusco concluded by saying that, “Systems thinking has improved my teaching because I can help students think more abstractly and go back to the text, which is a critical part of my teaching.”


Click to view the webinar recording.

Social Justice and Systems Thinking

“Good Morning, Scholars,” is how you might hear Danielle Robinson greet her second grade students on any given day of learning at Brown Street Academy in Milwaukee Public Schools.  Teaching social justice in the elementary classroom is not an abstract construct to Ms. Robinson, it is part and parcel of the teaching that she does each and every day.  So it was with great enthusiasm that I listened to her share her perspectives in the webinar she conducted for the Waters Foundation entitled, “Social Justice and Systems Thinking.” You can listen to the archived webinar here.

Danielle uses the habits and tools of systems thinking to integrate social justice topics into her teaching, and she does so in a way that allows her to meet the standards and the needs of her students at the same time. “We don’t have to ignore important topics because of testing and the need to teach standards,” Danielle said. Her meaningful lessons take into account her students’ experiences and generate powerful evidence of student learning. There is a lot of talk these days about personalizing instruction, but one of the things that really impressed me as I listened to Danielle talk about her teaching is her awareness of the needs and interests of her students.  “My students have to see themselves in what they are doing,” she stated.  By focusing on authentic, meaningful concepts, Danielle is able to integrate the standards in lessons that allow her students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.

robinson-icebergA fundamental part of Danielle’s success is her belief that her students are capable problem solvers and critical thinkers.  Further, she teaches her students that fundamental change can only come with a change in belief.  When her students examine real issues, like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or finding ways to beautify their neighborhood, they examine the feelings and beliefs of others and look for how those beliefs impact the situation.  Danielle uses an iceberg model to help her students organize their thinking around these critical issues.

There have been many things written about social justice.  However, in her webinar Danielle shared how to make a significant difference in creating equitable opportunities for students while at the same time teaching in a way that all students can achieve high standards.  The use of systems thinking concepts provides a common vocabulary and a set of tools to help students make their thinking visible. Danielle created a successful recipe for high student achievement with three basic ingredients: build a strong sense of classroom community, make school relevant, and give students opportunities to communicate their thinking. The result of that recipe is a high-achieving classroom for all learners.

See additional details and register for the upcoming webinar “Using Systems Tools to Analyze Non-Fiction Text.”

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Inquiry is a natural process. Infants learn about their world by watching, touching and tasting everything that they see. Through these experiences children begin to make connections, organize and understand their world. Inquiry learning in the classroom has many of these same characteristics. It allows students to construct meaning in order to achieve deeper learning.

14-connections-01An inquiry approach to classroom learning can give schools a child-centered feeling. By definition, inquiry is about finding out, without being told. Inquiry encourages children to formulate and investigate specific questions related to a topic of interest. In order for lasting learning to occur, children must make connections between what they know and what they are learning. This connection helps children retain information, apply information to new situations and reinforces the need for continuous learning. Inquiry inspires children to be curious.

Inquiry increases engagement. When children are seeking answers to real questions, they are more focused and engaged. They are not distracted because they are already participating in something that is meaningful to them. An inquiry focus allows teachers to center instruction around a real-world problem, to create a context for learning and engage children in the learning process.

So does that mean that teachers using an inquiry approach fail to teach the required curriculum? Certainly not! Inquiry-based instruction is taught along a continuum from teacher-directed to student-centered. At some points in the school day it is most appropriate for the teacher to dictate both the content and process of instruction. At other points in the day children may be free to pursue a topic of interest while meeting a set of instructional competencies set forth by the teacher. At other times children are learning about the topic in a manner that best suits their personal interest and learning style.
Inquiry is often thought of in relation to the science curriculum. The inquiry model is heavily predicated on the scientific method. Scientists ask a question, make a hypothesis, develop a procedure, conduct an investigation and evaluate results. During science instruction children are taught to think like scientists and follow that procedure. Inquiry about a topic of personal interest can be a vehicle for developing skills in reading, writing and thinking. Math skills can be practiced in the collection and analysis of data as part of an inquiry study.

Systems thinking is an ideal complement to an inquiry approach. The tools and habits of a systems thinker help the learner to make connections, to ask good questions and construct deeper understandings. Systems thinking allows the inquiring mind to organize its thinking by making it visible. The systems thinker focuses on patterns and trends, looks at circular causality, seeks out multiple perspectives and recognizes interdependencies. All of these habits of thinking are well supported by an instructional environment of inquiry. Applying systems thinking tools (e.g. BOTGs, causal loop diagrams, stock-flow diagrams) helps the learner reflect on her thinking and thus helps generate additional questions for further inquiry.

Inherent in an inquiry approach to education is a deeply held belief that children are capable human beings who can create questions of interest and who must accept responsibility for their own learning. The inquiry approach fosters deep understanding, places the responsibility for learning on the learner and creates a dynamic climate where learning is exciting. Even more important, an inquiry approach when paired with systems thinking gives students the tools they need to be life-long learners with an inquiring mind.

I Think I Am Going to Make a Change…

“I am going to make a change in my personal reflection journal,” exclaimed an excited Jonathan during sharing time in his fifth grade classroom.

His teacher inquired, “What are you going to change?”

“I am going to add a behavior-over-time graph [BOTG] to my journal entry every day, so I can see the trends. It will help me more when I am 20 or so.”

“How will it help you when you are older?”

“Well, I am only 10, and my writing is not so complex. When I am older, I might not really get what I meant, but I’ll always be able to understand the graph. It will help me remember more.”

Jonathan was excited about what the systems thinking tool helped him remember. He committed to using the tool regularly as a part of his weekly journal assignment. At 10 years old, he grasped the power this would have to positively impact his future.

The value of an instructional strategy comes when students are able to use that strategy independently. For Jonathan, the transfer was almost immediate. The BOTG went from an assignment to a personal application that would enhance his ability to communicate. Jonathan’s commitment to using the tool is an example of what makes systems thinking different than other instructional methods. It helps students to clarify, communicate and go deeper with their own thinking.

Recently during a coaching visit a teacher said, “My students are tired of behavior-over-time graphs. I need to find another tool.” As teachers grow in their use and understanding of tools, they need to muster the courage to try new things. However, if students are growing weary of using a particular tool, another question to ask is, “How am I helping students become more independent in their use of the tool?”

Behavior-over-time graphs are an excellent example of a tool that is easy but not simple. In other words, it is not difficult to teach children how to construct a line graph on which the x-axis always represents the time and the y-axis represents something in the system that is changing (i.e. a variable). It can be modeled very concretely with easily accessible data for a variable like temperature. Students can also be taught to use various scales for perceptual data representing dynamics for variables like amount of pain or level of happiness. So while these graphs may be easy to make, their interpretation may be incredibly complex. For instance, students may use multiple sources of information to assess a candidate’s popularity only to learn that depending on the source, the conclusion drawn from the information is very different. Likewise, a student who must retell the story of a graph representing the plot of a novel may have a very difficult time accounting for the increasing level of tension at a given point if he does not fully understand the text being analyzed. The same level of complexity can be seen in an adult example. Comparing a school staff’s perception of the suspension rate to graphs of the actual trends produced by the data can also produce a deep conversation about the accuracies and discrepancies between the data.

The conditions and expectations for use of a behavior-over-time graph as a tool for learning influence the strategy’s effectiveness and the level of student engagement. As teachers increase their sophistication with systems tools, they become increasingly adept at matching the tools and strategies to their instructional objective. The greater the congruence of the tool to the learning outcome, the greater the effect it has on learning and engagement. The other way that teachers and students both grow in their use of the tools is the level of independence and ownership students take for the tools. In the example above, Jonathan had a great level of confidence and independence in his use of the BOTG tool. He was able to personalize the tool in such a way that it helped him take an increasing amount of personal responsibility for his own learning.

There are benefits when a student is able to internalize a systems thinking strategy. Always be ready to make a change, keeping in mind it might not be to a new tool, just a new application.

EdCamp:  Honoring Professional Learning

Hewlett-Woodmere School District took a bold step by transforming their traditional Superintendent’s Conference Day into an innovative opportunity for true professional collaboration.   Using the model of EdCamp, the entire district instructional staff assembled at the high school where educators were allowed to generate topics for professional development that they believed would be meaningful to them.  Following a flurry of activity, the professional development committee built a schedule of 24 sessions matched specifically to the needs of the teachers in the room.

Too often educator professional development is devoid of best practice in teaching and learning.  Teachers know that students learn better when they have opportunities for choice. Students need instruction that is differentiated according to their prior knowledge and learning styles.  Learners need to be actively engaged, not just passive receivers of information.  Nevertheless, on PD days educators have been known to abandon these best practices in favor of large group lecture, with few opportunities for interaction.

08-structure-01Recognizing that a system’s structure generates its behavior, EdCamp creates structures that promote collaboration among educators.  The EdCamp concept, based on an “unconference,” acknowledges that complex problems are solved and deep learning happens when people have the time and space for dialogue and collaboration.  An EdCamp approach honors teachers’ ability to identify their own learning needs.  Educators are professionals who make critical instructional decisions every day. They are definitely capable of identifying the topics and information needed to improve their practice.

Hewlett’s EdCamp had only two rules: be part of a conversation and feel free to walk.  In other words, if a particular session is not meeting your needs, you are free to move to another conversation.  These guidelines sent a clear message that the learner is responsible for his own learning.  In education, teachers assume all the responsibility for learners, leading to learning environments that are passive and sometimes unproductive.  EdCamp makes a clear point of what should be part of all education: the learner is ultimately responsible for his own learning.


One teacher said, “Once topics started coming in, I loved that we could just go with the ideas.”  Learning at its finest.  Congratulations, Hewlett.  Way to innovate, implementing structures that generate professional collaboration and learning for all.

How A Systems Thinking Approach Can Impact Student Learning

Unstoppable Learning, written by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, suggests that a systems thinking approach is essential to creating and delivering effective instruction.  Teachers work in complex, dynamic systems.  In order to meet the needs of the students in their care, teachers must fluidly and regularly practice the Habits of a Systems Thinker.  “The systems thinking classroom requires educators to consider the elements that impact student learning and design structures to leverage these elements.”

According to Fisher and Frey, systems thinking teachers recognize the preeminence of relationships.  They are skillful communicators who “use language to share knowledge and information with one another and to challenge each other’s thinking.” Recognizing that learners are dynamic, educators must be responsive to the students and their learning needs.  Systems thinking educators create sustainable learning environments that produce life-long learners.

In a recent presentation hosted by the Arizona K12 Center, Doug Fisher underscored the need for an ability to create conditions for learning and accurately assess student learning when he stated, “Telling students what you expect from them is a students’ rights issue.  Report cards change parents’ perception of their children and transcripts affect the choices students have after graduation.”  So how should teachers approach the planning, delivery, personalization, and assessment of learning in order to ensure that their objectives are clear and their assessments are accurate? By using the Habits of a Systems Thinker.

The habits can be used as tools to reflect on decisions made in all phases of the teaching and learning process from lesson design and delivery through assessment and transfer.  They can also be used as a common language to help students and teachers be more metacognitive about their own thinking.   The Habits of a Systems Thinker allow for more reflection, more student conversation and simply put — unstoppable learning.

Exploring Systems Thinking with Science in the Elementary School: Webinar Highlights

In their webinar Exploring Systems Thinking with Science in the Elementary School, Karen Abbott and Kelly Nichols illustrate how systems thinking tools and habits can deepen student understanding of the Next Generation Science Standards. They posit, “Systems thinking tools enable students to delve deeply into scientific concepts while making visible the underlying and often unseen variables that influence behavior.” They also quote Kirk Robbins, author of the blog Science for All. Robbins states, “Systems thinking provides a unifying concept for learners to make sense of the natural world from micro to macro.” Karen and Kelly offer a host of examples to show how the pedagogy of systems thinking provides specific strategies for teaching students the types of thinking required by the standards.

Those familiar with the Next Generation Science Standards may recall that under each performance expectation in the standards there are three dimensions: a science or engineering practice, a core disciplinary idea, and a cross-cutting concept.

Here is an example:

NGSS Lead States. 2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States.

In the webinar Karen and Kelly offer a structural framework that brings great clarity to these dimensions. They make the connection between systems tools and science and engineering practices. In the standards these practices include analyzing and interpreting data, designing solutions, and engaging in argument from evidence. Karen and Kelly go on in the webinar to explicitly show how systems tools provide a specific strategy for teaching these practices. They equate the Habits of a Systems Thinker to the crosscutting concepts in the standards. Again the connection between the language in the standards and the language of the Habits of a Systems Thinker could not be more clear: patterns, cause and effect, structure, and interdependence. With a firm grasp of these concepts and the systems thinking habits the learner has a mindset ready to deeply understand the core ideas from the varied disciplines of science.


A final idea that Karen and Kelly drive home so well is that while the systems thinking tools and concepts are useful in achieving a particular standard, ultimately much of the learning happens in the conversation that occurs between learners. Skilled teachers use these tools to promote this productive conversation and gather critical pieces of assessment information through interactions with and among students.

If you were not able to participate in the live webinar, feel free to access this amazing resource. There you will not only hear more about how these ideas fit together to enhance science instruction, but you will be treated to specific ideas for implementing these ideas as part of classroom instruction. Practitioners may also want to share in the upcoming online collaborative set for March 16. For details about online collaboratives and to learn more about how you can participate, visit this page.

Habits of a Systems Thinker: Popularity, Second Edition and What Is Coming Soon

The Habits of a Systems Thinker

The popularity and widespread use of the Habits of a Systems Thinker have been astounding.  Because the Habits help explain systems thinking in practical and meaningful ways, they have become a valued resource for adults and children in many settings and contexts.  For educators, the Habits help define and deepen the kinds of thinking described in 21st century skills and standards.  And as schools prepare students for the future workplace, business leaders have shared that the Habits help develop the thinking capacities that are critical for current and future workforces. 

During the last seven years, over 12,000 Habits of a Systems Thinker card sets have been sold and distributed throughout the world.  With permission, the Habits have been translated into six different languages (Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Turkish), and have been included in print publications such as The Triple Focus by Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge and Mega-Thinking for 21st Century Success, Uniting Brain Science and Thinking Skills, by Mary Ferron.

Second Edition of The Habits of a Systems Thinker

We are thrilled to announce that a newly revised second edition of the Habits of a Systems Thinker is now available.  Click here for the shop online page to purchase the second edition card sets and posters.

Based on customer and user feedback, the new edition of 14 Habits includes some new habits and images.  In addition to two new habits and new images for two existing habits, we have combined two former habits into one that describes the importance of paying attention to consequences of actions (short and long-term and unintended consequences).  See all 14 here:

Highlighting the Two New Habits

Pays attention to accumulations and their rates of change

Systems are made up of many elements including accumulations, i.e., amounts that can increase and decrease over time, and their rates of change.  Accumulations can be physical materials or abstract concepts. A systems thinker may use a tool such as a stock and flow diagram or a system dynamics model to identify accumulations within a system and interdependent relationships among them. These representations of a system can help in communicating an understanding of the structure of a system and in identifying potential leverage for either increasing or decreasing a particular accumulation over time.


Makes meaningful connections within and between systems

A systems thinker intentionally makes connections in order to better understand the relationships in systems.  Learning is achieved when new knowledge is integrated with current understanding. A systems thinker creates meaning by considering how new information connects to previous knowledge by adding, modifying, transferring, and synthesizing the information into a deeper understanding.

Coming Soon

We are excited to announce the upcoming launch of a Habits of a Systems Thinker app for both Android and Apple devices.  (Launch is projected for May 2015.) This resource will help increase and scale up the value and usability of the Habits of a Systems Thinker.  Please stay tuned.