How We Spent “Summer Vacation” 2014

Remember that classic, first-week-of-school composition assignment, “Write about what you did during your summer vacation”?  We in the Waters Foundation (WF) are excited to take on that assignment this fall, as the articles in this edition of the newsletter will illustrate.

Summer vacation traditionally begins with Memorial Day in the desert southwest, so the Systems UntitledThinking Level 1 workshop commenced the very next day in Tucson.  Four of the Waters Foundation’s Facilitators-in-Training (FiTs) deftly collaborated to work with the enthusiastic workshop participants, whose insightful questions and feedback throughout the week helped us refine some of our materials.  Successive approximation in practice! 

A few of the facilitators and participants from the Level 1 workshop became part of the group of 30 educators attending the Project Based Learning 101 Workshop that the WF hosted in Tucson the next week.  No one minded deferring vacation as they energetically engaged with colleagues to learn (e.g. the eight essentials for authentic PBL work) and make their plans for fall classroom implementation.

What felt more like vacation because of the conference and “camp” atmosphere was the work that many of the WF leadership team, FiTs, and some colleagues from the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson took part in at the Creative Learning Exchange’s Systems Thinking and Dynamic Modeling Conference  in Wellesley, MA and at SoLEd’s Camp Snowball  in Portland, OR. The Waters Foundation-sponsored group pooled their efforts to facilitate 11 sessions at these conferences, receiving positive and useful feedback that will inform our work.

Oh, the places we went (Dr. Seuss …) also included Colorado, California, New York, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Turkey.  Year after year, we find dedicated educators throughout the country, and the world, valuing systems thinking enough to put vacation on hold.

Everyone’s back in school now, rested from vacation, excitedly working with students and applying what they learned during the summer. Look for us in your school (or online), following up on some of the summer work we did together! (And if you don’t see us, join us for a webinar or Contact Us through the WF website.) 

District Highlights

Hewlett-Woodmere Public Schools

Located in Long Island, NY, Hewlett-Woodmere is a preK-12 school district with three early learning and elementary schools, one middle and one high school.  For the SY 2014-15 we have developed a comprehensive systems thinking capacity-building plan for the 70 teachers and principals that aligns TB newsletter imagewell with their vision, mission and current initiatives.  The plan kicked off August 25 – 27 with an active and highly participatory Systems Thinking Level 1 workshop.  One highlight was a visit by four of the H-W students—all active participants in Camp Snowball—who shared their systems thinking experiences with their teachers.  The students inspired and encouraged the teachers to provide every student, not just those who have attended Camp Snowball, the habits and tools of systems thinking in classrooms through Hewlett-Woodmere.  Follow-up onsite coaching days and workshop extensions are scheduled for November and March.


Milwaukee Public School District

This large urban school district serves 78,500 students preK-12 and began working with the Waters Foundation in the spring of 2014.  Through an application process five school teams, each consisting of the principal and four teachers, were selected to participate in the long-term capacity-building plan.  In May the teams began with a two-day introductory session, followed by a day of coaching for each site.  Fifteen of these teachers plus some additional cohort recruits were able to extend their learning by attending Camp Snowball in July.  Waters Foundation trainers returned to Milwaukee in August to complete the introductory workshop session and since then have returned, providing coaching to ensure teachers had a successful start of the school year implementing their summer learning of systems thinking.  Teachers are actively using a wide variety of systems thinking habits and tools to support student learning and district-level initiatives including implementation of the Common Core State Standards.


Portland Public Schools

A one-year STEM grant from the Oregon Department of Education is providing two Portland schools with support for the integration of systems thinking and problem-based learning into instruction.  iceberg-wgraphicsSupport and coaching from the Waters Foundation team is an ongoing aspect of the grant.  The initial step of that support took place in August as the cohort of teachers responsible for implementation of the grant met to prepare for the year of work.  Guided by the image of the iceberg visual, participants clarified their vision for the project, as well as their mental models and the structures that would be essential to achieving success.  As a result of the discussion, a project theory emerged, represented by a reinforcing loop that highlights the interdependent relationship between meaningful, engaging strategies and positive attitudes about school.  Throughout the school year, teachers are meeting regularly to collaborate and assess progress.  They plan to document the ways in which they are combining systems thinking and problem-based learning to increase student engagement and positive attitudes about school.  


Twin Rivers Unified School District

September 23 and 24, 2014 marked the start of a multi-year, capacity-building plan for the Twin Rivers Unified School District located outside of Sacramento, CA.   This district is the 28th largest school district in California by enrollment, and serves approximately 28,000 students who come from families that speak 46 languages.  Twin Rivers encompasses 120 square miles in a growing, ethnically diverse region characterized by a mix of suburban development and light industry. During this first year of the systems thinking capacity-building plan, the Waters Foundation is working with 150 certified and classified administrators and support personnel.  The plan alternates workshop days with coaching days that include eight separate site visitations for SY 2014-15. In subsequent years, the capacity-building work will grow to reach instructional support personnel, assistant principals, teachers and students with the goal to eventually have an entire district actively using the language, habits and tools of systems thinking in teaching, leading and learning.


Celebrating the Completion and New Beginning of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WS/FCS) Systems Thinking Project

In June 2014 the 3-year systems thinking capacity-building plan for WS/FCS came to an impressive closure.  Waters Foundation long-term plans with districts like WS/FCS include the building of internal capacity for district personnel to be certified Waters Foundation associate trainers and to be tb newletter image 2in positions to support the ongoing systems thinking learning without the aid of outside consultants.  This goal was clearly met with successful 4-day Level 1 and Level 2 workshops facilitated solely by WS/FCS systems thinking facilitators.  The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and after working with over 100 teachers and principals in schools throughout the county, many WS/FCS students are actively using systems thinking habits and tools in and out of their classrooms.  As a result of the 3-year project, some results reported in the final evaluation include:

  • Teachers reported increased growth for students as a result of using systems thinking.
  • Teachers saw the most growth in students being able to communicate with others about the material they have learned, use critical thinking skills, and problem solve; they also saw improvement in student engagement.
  • Teachers most frequently used the ST tools to help students understand the interconnected relationships in the content.
  • Teachers used the tools to help students think through problems, to differentiate instruction, and to help students understand the underlying structures of the content they were learning.
  • Teachers indicated that they think differently about education to some degree, including understanding that students are capable of greater things than they had originally believed.
  • Teachers felt that they better understood how their students think, they have changed their goals as teachers to create lifelong learners who are problem solvers and critical thinkers, they have a more integrated approach to teaching, they better understand the “big picture,” and they have “a more worldly-global way of thinking.”
  • Teachers claimed systems thinking to be the most valuable professional development they’ve received through WS/FCS.

We continue to stay connected with WS/FCS through their new WS/FCS Waters Foundation associates.  We look forward to next summer when again, they will offer both Level 1 and Level 2 training to new and interested teachers and principals. The sustained work in WS/FCS demonstrates the positive influence systems thinking learning can bring to schools and classrooms. One teacher’s summary really touched us as she wrote in her project evaluation, “Systems thinking should be used in schools everywhere. I will take it with me wherever I go for the rest of my teaching career and it has also impacted me so that I use it in my own life! I hope to encourage other teachers to use these tools and habits in their classroom because of the impact I’ve seen.”

Systems Thinking and Project Based Learning: A Weaving Together of Proven Practice

Since 1987 the Buck Institute for Education has been working “to expand the effective use of Project Based Learning throughout the world.”  In June 2014 the Waters Foundation hosted a PBL 101 Workshop in Tucson, Arizona, so that teachers experienced with systems thinking tools and habits could further refine their skills at creating authentic, relevant learning opportunities for students.  Thirty-five local practitioners attended the three-day workshop, experiencing many elements of an actual project, including generating their driving questions.  Participants were also given time to develop ideas for future projects with protocols in place for teachers to share their ideas with others and receive feedback.  Finally, participants generated ideas for assessing student projects.

As with systems thinking, instruction infused with PBL seeks to “involve meaningful inquiry that engages students’ minds.”  The Buck Institute identifies eight essentials for authentic PBL work.  Projects must:

  • Require Significant Content
  • Include an entry event to develop a student’s Need to Knowwordle_opt
  • Be focused on a Driving Question that is clear and compelling
  • Offer Voice and Choice for all students
  • Result in student attainment of 21st Century Competencies
  • Necessitate In-Depth Inquiry
  • Allow opportunities for Critique and Revision
  • Include opportunities to present and/or produce for a Public Audience

The workshop was a great opportunity for colleagues to learn and share together, but as is true of most professional development, the real capacity is being built as teachers work this fall to implement their learning.  In further support of teachers and their efforts to apply their new learning, Waters Foundation personnel will reach out to schools and individuals who participated in the June training to design a personalized follow-up opportunity during this school year.  Committed to supporting teachers’ professional learning, the Waters Foundation will continue to seek ways to help teachers make connections among best practices that produce real thinking and learning for their students.


Systems in Motion: Exploring Complexity through an Interdisciplinary Lens

by Jennifer Andersen and Anne LaVigne

Released in summer 2014 by the Creative Learning Exchange, this set of three books consolidates powerful lessons about systems and dynamics in one place! Each book is written for a general age group (or reading level), and each lesson includes connections to current curricular standards with an accompanying, free, online simulation

The series allows students from kindergarten through high school to explore and see the deeper nature of what is causing particular behaviors. Why does a Slinky® oscillate? How might relationships on a playground or within a work of fiction have ups and downs? What causes populations to rise and fall? What are patterns of burnout?  What impacts oscillations in commodity markets?


Through asking “what if” questions as part of their exploration, students can discover that the structure of a system itself creates the resulting trends. Given this understanding, they can move beyond blame to look within a system itself to consider how to change undesirable behavior.

Feel free to explore one or more of the lessons in this series as a way to have students reflect on some of the “ups and downs” in life as they practice thinking skills such as making and comparing predictions, analyzing data trends, exploring consequences, and finding cause-and-effect feedback relationships.

Systems Thinking in Turkey

There couldn’t be a more picturesque place for a Systems Thinking Level 1:  Developing Critical Thinking workshop than Izmir, Turkey.  Located on the edge of the Aegean Sea, the Kordon, a seaside promenade, with its clear, blue water and cool breeze is an amazing place; however, the amazing group of teachers who assembled for the training was far more impressive.  Sixteen early childhood educators, committed to providing high-quality experiences for their three-to-five year old students, were enthusiastic participants. The Aegean Modern Education Foundation, EÇEV, funded the workshop.  Şule Eskiner, Secretary General of EÇEV, was excited to bring a new, proven strategy to their teachers for helping students’ creative thinking and problem solving.

 Here is what some participants said about the workshop:

“Before the workshop, I had some doubts about the feasibility of Systems Thinking in preschool and elementary school.  But after the things I learned and the activities I participated in, my opinion has completely changed.  This system can be applied in classrooms without any difficulty.  I think by using this method, it is possible for my students to become system thinkers.  Fatih Gökler, Rota College, Primary Class Teacher

I gained a lot through the Systems Thinking in Schools workshop.  As we apply these methods, the number of students thinking, making inquiries and seeing the whole will increase.  As a result future generations will identify cause-effect relationships much better.  By students taking responsibility for developing their own solutions for problems, the condition of humanity will improve.  Systems Thinking will make my job and life easier. Şahizer Senem Telli,  EÇEV Education Projects Coordinator

I’m very happy with what I learned and experienced during the 4-day workshop led by the Waters Big-PictureFoundation.  I think as an educator I will be more productive and create meaningful learning environments by seeing the big picture and controlling variables.  I believe, by changing the structure of thinking specifically for young students, I can raise individuals that will recognize and solve problems before they appear. Zeynep Akçay, SEV Elementary School, Kindergarten Teacher

Systems Thinking in Schools will shed light for our teachers and students in finding new solutions by giving a new perspective on our habits and problems.  It’s a method that brings the capability of practical thinking to our students.  With this system of thinking, students will master all subjects by bringing math into literature, science into math.  Many thanks to EÇEV for introducing this Systems Thinking.  Filiz Dağbași, Rota College, Kindergarten Teacher

In recent years, we have seen a pollution of educational methods with different names, making almost no difference.  Application of these methods sometimes creates some excitement but results make no difference and the real result is frustration.  Systems Thinking is an exciting, promising approach that visualizes concrete change.  Applying Systems Thinking in schools gives hope for a beautiful future, the best we can do for the next generation.  I am very pleased to meet this kind of thinking.”  Nurdan Ellez, Ekin College Vice Principal. 

Emre Göktepe, an energetic individual with a strong commitment to ST principles, was largely responsible for bringing the Waters Foundation Level 1 workshop to Turkey. Going forward he has organized monthly systems thinking collaboratives and weekly coaching conversations with all participating teachers.  Given this level of support, there is no doubt these teachers will be applying ST concepts and habits in their classrooms with their students.  Special thanks to Emre for translating before, during and after the workshop.  You will be able to check out his translation work on our website, as the Habits of a Systems Thinker in Turkish will be available soon.


Resource Corner

A kinesthetic experience called the Bean Game is a way to explore use of a non-renewable resource over a number of generations.  Groups (called families) receive an extraction tool to gather the resource, and that tool gets passed down from generation to generation.  Since not all extraction tools are equally effective, family members begin to realize that not everyone has equal ability to gather the resource

One Family's Data
One Family’s Dataresource.

The conversation that follows can include a variety of topics including implications of using a common resource in the short-term vs. the long-term, parallels of inequality within one’s own country or around the globe, and differences between renewable and non-renewable resources. The debrief can also include a variety of systems thinking tools, including behavior-over-time graphs, a stock/flow diagram, a systems archetype, and/or an iceberg visual. 

The Bean Game lesson has just been made available for download.  It includes instructions for facilitating the activity (for fourth grade and up), a list of materials needed, and multiple options for debriefing the experience.  You can find the lesson here

Announcing Our New Blog!

Our Waters Foundation team is proud to announce the launch of our new blog,


We will publish a new entry the first and third week of every month. The first few months will highlight various Habits of a Systems Thinker, like “Keeping in Step with the Big Picture” and “The Success in Successive Approximation.”  From time to time blog entries may stray from the Habits and discuss related and timely topics—like Systems thinking for very early learners, and How systems thinking supports the Common Core Standards, all guaranteed to provide you with “Ink that makes you Think!”

Readers are encouraged to share inklings, comments and questions to fuel the space with new insights and enthusiastic dialogue.  

Constructing Meaning by Understanding Structure

Amidst a whirl of controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), for those who have taken the time to carefully read the standards, the standards offer a well-defined path of skills to move students from non-reader to one who can thoughtfully read and comprehend unfamiliar text. Given an understanding of the standards, recognizing the hand-in-glove fit between the habits and tools of systems thinking and the standards is difficult to miss.  Systems thinking offers specific strategies to promote the deep learning and critical thinking called for in the CCSS. 

One specific example of this perfect fit is an examination of how the structure of the reading standards parallels a popular systems thinking tool, the iceberg visual.  The English Language Arts CCSS for both reading literature and reading informational text are categorized into three clusters of standards, with three standards in each cluster:  Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure and the Integration of Knowledge. An iceberg visual is one tool to help students master these standards. By considering a text in light of the layers of the iceberg, readers are applying all of the reading standards and internalizing the key concepts of these standards as they read.

iceberg nlGood readers automatically internalize the information they read, comparing it to what they already know, analyzing the accuracy of the information and making judgments about their level of agreement with the text.  In contrast, weaker readers attempt to assimilate everything they read as discrete pieces of information.  Their comprehension is severely impaired as this layering of information leaves them with a large set of random facts that they cannot remember, making their overall comprehension of the text very weak.

In the Key Ideas and Details section of the standards, readers are asked to read closely to determine what the text says, cite textual evidence, determine central themes, analyze their development, and summarize key ideas and details.   Determining central events, patterns and trends as called for in the top section of the iceberg visual closely parallels these standards.  The graphical nature of a Behavior-Over-Time Graph (BOTG) supports readers in being able to determine and explain key ideas in the text.  It is also true that in primary classrooms where teachers consistently use BOTGs readers come to recognize (innertextual awareness) patterns common to other texts (intratextual awareness).  Both of these understandings, innertextual awareness, the ability to recognize familiar patterns in text at a metacognitive level, and intratextual awareness, the ability to identify text strucutres, are characteristics of good readers. Giving students a tool with which to visually represent story structure has proven very helpful for students both in terms of their retention of story details and their ability to use the structure of text to understand deeply what the author is communicating through the writing.

Moving down the iceberg and to the next cluster of standards, craft and structure, readers are expected to analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs and larger portions of the text shape meaning and to assess how point of view and purpose shape the content and style of text. As well as helping readers identify the key ideas and details, BOTGs also support an understanding of text structure.  In addition, other systems tools, such as causal loops and stock/flow diagrams, create a visual representation of deeper meanings of the text and scaffold comprehension so that readers can determine point of view and author’s purpose.  Teachers using these tools report that the language of the systems tools and habits give students additional vocabulary to discuss the structure of text.

Completing this tight parallel between systems thinking and reading standards is the relationship of mental models to the Integration of Knowledge.   This cluster of standards is filled with verbs reflective of high level, critical thinking like integrate, evaluate, delineate and analyze.  Mental models are defined as deeply ingrained assumptions or beliefs.  All readers bring their own mental models to a text every time they engage in the process of reading.  Good readers continually refine their mental models based on their understanding of text.  Consciously and intentionally surfacing and testing these mental models provides readers with a tool for deeply comprehending text.             

Reading is defined as a process of constructing meaning.  The CCSS for reading are well crafted to reinforce this definition of reading.  They require the reader to be actively engaged in deep comprehension of text.  The concepts and tools of systems thinking, including the iceberg visual, provide teachers with strategies to explicitly teach the standards and support students in mastering these important skills.


Systems Thinking and Assessment Work Together

Educators and the public in general care deeply about how well young people are prepared to succeed, whether it be in the next phase of their learning as second graders or ultimately in college and/or their future careers, which is why so many people focus on assessment results in school.  Teachers who have decided that using systems thinking habits and tools as part of their instructional repertoire enhances their students’ ability to succeed can assess their students’ progress as they work toward their goals in a number of ways.

toolsFormative assessment provides life and direction to a lesson — students “come alive” as they engage and respond, and the teacher gauges where the students currently are in their learning, thereby determining where the lesson goes next.  Teachers use ST tools such as BOTGs (“Everyone draw a BOTG in the air to show what the [variable, historical or fictional character] did next.”); causal loops and connection circles (“Now that we’ve started the connection circle as a class, please work with your partner for 5 minutes to label three more connections and pull out a causal loop diagram.”) and the ladder of inference (“Fill in the last three rungs of the ladder yourself and be ready to share your thoughts.”) as a means of formative assessment.  They circulate through their classrooms “spot checking” their students’ understanding and analysis of material as the students use the ST tools to show their current thinking.  From there, the students and teacher know what questions to ask next and how to proceed to deeper learning.

When teachers use the ST habits and tools as part of an in-depth learning experience, such as the one written about in “Constructing Meaning by Understanding Structure,” teachers may want to use a rubric to assess their students’ learning.  The Waters Foundation has recently posted two new rubrics, one for BOTGs and one for the Iceberg visual, within the Resources section of the website.  The Systems Thinking Rubrics that include student self-assessment, teacher-self assessment and ST concept rubrics are also available.  The rubrics lend themselves to use in a summative situation, such as when a social studies teacher has had students demonstrate analysis and understanding of the dynamics of a historical period by “creating” an iceberg visual, or in a portfolio situation when students who begin using BOTGs as 1st graders have the chance to see their growth through the years as their scores on the BOTG rubric change.

Whether you use systems thinking tools as part of your essential formative assessment or as you’re doing summative assessment of the learning your students have been doing while they’ve used ST habits and tools, ST in the classroom and assessment always work together.

New Ways of Thinking About the Work You Do

Highlights from the First 5 California’s Early Childhood Effectiveness Exchange (E4) 1st Annual Meeting

First 5 California selected WestEd’s Center for Child and Family Studies to implement the Early Education Effectiveness Exchange (E4) training and technical assistance academy. The E4 facilitates quality improvements in early learning programs throughout California. 

On February 26th, over 175 early childhood leaders and representatives from all across the state of California gathered at the beautiful Paradise Point on Mission Bay in San Diego to learn and work together, share notable successes and have some fun.  The Waters Foundation was privileged to have been asked to work with this impressive group of early childhood professionals for a good part of the day.  After a series of welcome comments and a videotaped greeting and framing by Peter Senge, Sheri Marlin and Tracy Benson facilitated a morning plenary and afternoon work sessions.  Participants experienced an introduction to the Habits of a Systems Thinker, hands-on practice with some of the systems thinking tools and time to apply the habits and tools to early childhood work.  Small groups used the systems thinking iceberg visual to analyze specific efforts that involved a wide array of subjects. 

PS E4-Iceberg

Parent involvement, quality professional development for early childhood teachers, home visitations, structures for child advocacy and leadership development were just some topics that groups analyzed in terms of trends, structures that included both symptomatic and fundamental solutions to problems, and the mental models that influence the system.  We heard comments like:

“I typically go to these meetings and hear about things I already know.  This was different as I was challenged and learned new tools and strategies that will help me in my work.” 

“The day went so fast. I especially liked the hands-on exercises as they got us up and moving around and got us thinking in different ways.” 

“I can’t wait to take what I learned today back to my staff.  When is your next workshop?  I want to learn more!”

To learn more about how E4 is improving early learning throughout California, we encourage you to check out their brand new website and their library of resources, especially those related to systems thinking.


An Innovative Approach to School Improvement

Utilizing a professional learning community approach, the New York Regents Research Council is facilitating a strategic planning process with systems thinking and adult learning as areas of focus to leverage school improvement.  Eleven school districts, all with identified Title I focus/priority schools, elected to participate in the initial stages of implementing this process.  Since January 2014, the project has included both workshop and online discussion formats.  The first workshop included a review of thehabits-deck-new-big vision and assumptions guiding the project and development of community agreements.  That workshop was followed by an online forum based on discussion of the relationship between the habits of systems thinking and the core competencies for leadership identified by Michael Fullan.  The February workshop involved participants in additional study of the habits, along with practice activities using the tools of systems thinking (behavior-over-time graphs, causal loop archetypes, and connection circles) to enact the habits and assist in the identification of leverage.

Ongoing work will include study of the keys to adult learning, development of school and district improvement plans assisted through online support and site visitation, and face-to-face coaching in July.  The Regents Research Council is demonstrating commendable leadership by modeling the importance of identifying leverage areas of focus – systems thinking and adult learning.   The Council is facilitating a step-by-step process that combines learning, reflection and collaborative planning that is supported by both online and face-to-face interaction.  The process is a perfect fit for both the habits and the tools of systems thinking.  The results over time will serve to inform continued development of the use of systems thinking to enhance school improvement.

Online Resource Corner

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 3.23.22 PMA new selection in the Resource section is “Translations.”  Over time this section will expand; currently a few documents are available in Spanish and Portuguese.  One of these translations is a one-page Spanish version of the Habits of a Systems Thinker.  In addition to general use with Spanish-speaking systems thinkers, other ideas for use of this resource include: 

1. Incorporate it into a Spanish language course

  • as a way to practice the language.
  • to have discussions about habits needed to learn a second language.
  • as a frame for understanding models and traditions of different cultures.

2. Provide it as a supplemental resource for English language learners who are learning about the habits within their classrooms.

In addition to the habits, translations are available for the iceberg visual and the ladder of inference. To access the translations, go to the Resource section on the website and click on Spanish or Portuguese in the Translations area.


Online Resource Corner

Have you checked out the Resource section on the website recently?  Some new additions have recently made their way to the site including lessons, examples, and templates.  In each newsletter, we’ll highlight one of them here.  Some may be old favorites, while others could be new “friends.” 


This month, you may want to take a look at an old favorite, The Giver Simulation, originally designed for a middle school audience but adaptable for younger or older students. It received a new facelift and is nowavailable as a free, online simulation. It’s easy to use in a classroom or lab setting with just an Internet connection, and no additional software is needed. 

In addition, the lesson with accompanying handouts is available for download.  See the lesson overview with a link to the simulation. 

Pensamiento Sistémico (Systems Thinking) in Medellín, Colombia

During the first week of October, 2013 Tracy Benson of the Waters Foundation teamed up with Taishi Consulting owner, Omar Ossés and his colleague, Sandra Fajn, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and traveled to Medellín, Colombia to facilitate two systems thinking workshops.  This opportunity was not typical for Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation work because the scheduled workshops were not for educators, but for leaders in the fashion industry and adult and student leaders of the company’s foundation.  “Just do what you normally do with educators,” Omar Ossés advised.  “The way you teach systems thinking habits and tools is so practical, the corporate and foundation leaders will see the benefits and be able to easily make the connections to their work.”  Thus, the 75 corporate leaders from Carmel’s Linea Directa actively participated in a 3-day systems thinking leadership workshop and learned the habits and tools just as any 3rd grade student would learn in schools.  Participants were engaged in experiential activities and small group exercises using behavior-over-time graphs, causal loops and icebergs.  They made large group presentations and plans for how they would continue to use the tools in their work.  


columb 1
 Each company division used the iceberg
to analyze their contributions to the company.
columb 2
The Yurt Circle was used as a closing activity to help all see
the system as a whole and the important influence each member
has on the success of the whole.

After the corporate leaders experienced systems thinking, Tracy, Omar and Sandra spent two inspiring days working with the MultiEstudio Foundation.  This foundation supports the transition of students from school to the workplace.  The workshop was held in an open-air tent setting outside of Medellín with beautiful views that made it hard to stay focused on facilitation. 

columb 3

MultiEstudio workshop participants do “Circles in the Air” to
experience the systems thinking habit of “Changes perspectives
to increase understanding.”

The Colombian people who attended both workshops are passionate about their country, their work and their futures.  The facilitators left with long-lasting memories of their experience and new friends and colleagues who helped reinforce the important connection between relationship building, learning and leading.  As they were developing a common language and expertise using a set of visual tools around systems thinking, the workshop participants highlighted the importance of the human social system and the value relationships bring to the corporate world and the community.  It was an inspiring experience that will inform the work of the Waters Foundation across the US and abroad.

columb 4

Ending the second workshop with a whole-group reflection 


McPherson Staff’s Systems Thinking Journey … So Far

Just as every learner’s path is unique, every school travels a unique path as it encounters countless challenges and opportunities.  One part of the journey for McPherson Elementary School staff members in northern California has included exploring how systems thinking tools enhance student learning and the learning environment.

Market ToolsA group of McPherson staff members, most of whom attended Camp Snowball 2011, have become the school’s “Systems Thinking Team.” In the first year of their journey, the ST team members worked to incorporate systems thinking within their own classrooms and fields of practice, regularly meeting to share questions and student results.  They also began to share their systems thinking experiences and student work samples during staff meetings, encouraging colleagues to join them on the journey. 

That happened in SY 2012-2013 when the entire staff participated in a one-day Introduction to Systems Thinking workshop.  The staff decided to use systems thinking tools to help address school-wide concerns with bullying and gossiping.  Could using behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs), causal loop diagrams or connection circles help surface issues that needed to be addressed and lead to finding leverage actions?  If so, that could be a worthwhile journey.

Although last year’s journey was worthwhile, the ST Team, school administrators and staff wanted more.  They had used some systems tools to improve aspects of the learning environment, which was important, but after additional training from Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation this fall, many realized the potential was there to use the systems tools to help achieve this year’s school-wide writing goals and achievement of CCSS. 

One teacher had great success taking her students from drawing BOTGs of a character’s fear to writing about fear.  But, as a staff member astutely said about her colleagues, “They’re up to their ears with BOTGs.”  Would it be a case of “tool intolerance”?

Luckily, the answer has been, no!  Once two teachers found the same success moving from BOTGs in response to literature to BOTGs as a prewriting activity and shared that with their colleagues, others have begun using the technique.  The data coach at the school reports that a natural by-product of using the BOTGs in writing has been the increased development of student voice.  And there’s been a request to include discussion of systems thinking implementation in PLC meetings.

The systems thinking journey may have just begun at McPherson!

Developing Very Young Systems Thinkers

Several years ago, teachers from Valley View Early Learning Center (VVELC) in the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson, Arizona participated in a Waters Foundation Introduction to Systems Thinking workshop.  A wide variety of instructional strategies, tools and practice exercises related to systems thinking were presented with the goal of encouraging teachers to use these strategies with their preschool children.  At first, the reaction was skepticism as the VVELC educators were not sure that 3 and 4 year old children could learn to use the tools, and further wondered if the tools were even developmentally appropriate for young children. Yet, with a little encouragement from their Director, Dana Mulay, and a strong belief in children’s capabilities, teachers Jen Parker, Jennifer Dooley, Lauren Clarke and Cynthia Zuniga dove in and brought systems thinking to their children. Thus began a learning adventure for both teachers and children as they all discovered the power and benefits of systems thinking visual tools.  The learning discoveries included the recognition that systems thinking helped children become self-regulated learners capable of taking on different perspectives and making connections as they actively engaged in the learning process. 

Valley View Early Learning Center ( is one of several preschool learning environments that have embraced the value of visual systems tools to support children’s innate abilities to see connections and think systemically.  Their teachers incorporate tools like behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs) to help children identify patterns and trends and then consider the causal factors that influence those trends over time.  BOTGs are simple line graphs that children draw to show change over time.  When introduced within a developmentally appropriate environment, these graphs provide children a way to express their understanding of stories and systems of interest showing deep levels of thinking rarely seen in preschool classrooms.  “Their ability to do these graphs really surprised me,” said VVELC teacher Jen Parker after trying BOTGs with her children.  “The graph itself wasn’t perfect, but the conversation and vocabulary that children used as they talked about the graph was at a level I have never heard before.” 

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When teachers first introduce BOTGs, they often use the technique of guiding children through the sequencing of key events of a story by placing pictures that depict those events along the x-axis (horizontal axis) of a graph. The teacher chooses one key element within the story that changes over time, as in the size of a character (I Know a Coyote Who Swallowed a Flea), the level of happiness of a particular character (The Pout- Pout Fish or Ladybug’s Birthday) or the number of objects that change (The Napping House).  Using pictures, degrees of the changing element are drawn along the y-axis of the graph (e.g. pictures of big, medium and little, happy and sad faces or numbers).  The y-axis pictures help children see the range that is possible when focusing on the change.   Together, the teacher and children identify the level of the changing element at each point of the story and ultimately draw a line with key points or dots along the way to show the trend line.

The teachers at VVELC and other preschools who have worked with Waters Foundation coaches have come to value BOTGs because they:

  • help children notice change over time, instead of focusing on single events
  • help children understand causes for change
  • help children think more deeply about what is happening and why
  • allow children to express and communicate ideas visually
  • increase vocabulary
  • create engaging activities and facilitate lively discussions

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 In addition to BOTGs, teachers at VVELC and other preschools throughout the country also incorporate casual loop diagrams and stock and flow maps to bring developmentally appropriate challenge and engagement to their learning centers.

Director Dana Mulay explains, “As a program, we were working to improve instructional support for analysis and reasoning, advanced language, and prompting thought processes. The visual tools helped teachers be more intentional about including higher level thinking skills in the planning and implementation of their daily practice.”

 As Jen Parker, teacher of 3 and 4 year old children at VVELC, reflects on her experience using systems thinking habits and tools, she concludes, “Systems thinking uses simple tools that create engaging conversations and many opportunities for higher level thinking. I have noticed a change in my students’ thinking; 3-5 year old children are noticing patterns in stories, having in-depth conversations about emotions, and showing a deeper understanding of specific concepts.” 

The results include the delivery of long-lasting academic results, social/emotional wellness and lifetime benefits to children.  This approach reinforces children’s natural capacity to see whole systems, to connect learning with real-world situations and to begin to anticipate and predict results of actions. Teachers involved in a systems thinking approach are intentional about the learning environment they create and the teaching and learning strategies they use in the classroom to promote children’s thinking capacities.

After Jen Parker and Tracy Benson, President of Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation, facilitated a session about systems thinking for early childhood environments at the 2013 NAEYC conference, they heard from many participants planning on trying to use the tools with their students.  “I think I can do this, and it will be so exciting to see my children learn along with me!”

To explore examples of how early childhood teachers are using systems thinking tools with literature, see “Early Childhood – Systems Thinking and Children’s Literature”.

Three Years of Systems Thinking Capacity Building in Winston-Salem, NC

Educators throughout 24 Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools and in the district administration have voluntarily participated in training workshops and received follow-up coaching from Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation (STIS/WF) coaches. Since June 2011 this group has explored how they can use systems thinking (ST) visual tools and habits to achieve the district’s instructional and organizational goals.  By implementing a 3-year ST adoption and integration plan similar to the plan featured in the Professional Development and Events section of the STIS/WF website, district teachers, counselors, curriculum coordinators and administrators have been building their capacity to effectively use ST tools to positively impact classroom practice as well as school and district leadership.

An essential component of the 3-year plan has been the coaching that has taken place between the district staff members and their “systems coaches.”  The STIS/WF coaches travel to Winston-Salem for a week at a time, three or four times a year, at which time the participating district teachers, counselors, curriculum coordinators and administrators welcome them into their classrooms and schools for individual coaching sessions.  The content of a coaching session is driven by the hosting educator’s preference and need, with the goal that each educator will be observed teaching a lesson or actively using ST tools or habits independently at some point each year and will receive feedback.  After each coaching session, participants self-assess their progress and development using the WF Systems Thinking Instructional Rubric.

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Kindergarten teacher records children’s
thinking in a lesson on change over time





Between the scheduled coaching visits, the systems thinking learning has continued by design through the years.  The coaches provide phone and email support to discuss lesson plan ideas, respond to specific questions about a tool or strategy, and to provide resources.  The communication has evolved beyond  “coaches providing support,” though, which is what the coaches want as the official 3-year plan nears its end. For example, a second grade teacher who started in “Cohort 1” back in June 2011, wrote in October of this year, “I am loving using Systems Thinking with this group of kids.  They are loving causal loops and they did an awesome connection circle last week.  We had read an article about … .  I was able to use BOTGs, stock/flow, causal loops, and a connection circle.”

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2nd graders graph
important changes over time
on BOTGs after a class activity



And it’s not just classroom teachers from Cohort 1 who have been building their systems thinking capacity.  During their September visit in WSFCS, the systems coaches observed that:

  • several counselors and curriculum coordinators were applying the systems tools to support school-wide programs.
  • compared to the previous two years, more principals expressed a desired to use the ST tools as part of their staff meetings.
  • a number of Cohort 2 teachers who had not been independent with the ST tools last year taught lessons that effectively applied the tools to facilitate student thinking.
  • more Cohort 1 and Cohort 2 members are collaborating with, coaching and mentoring colleagues with less systems thinking experience, either from Cohort 3 or who haven’t yet attended summer training.
  • an increased number of teachers who teach the same grade level, whether within the same school or at different schools, were planning “systems lessons” together and sharing samples of student work.

The final phase of WSFCS’s current 3-year ST plan will come to fruition when this summer’s systems thinking training workshops are conducted by teachers rather than by STIS/WF coaches.  Eleven teachers who qualified based on early expertise in applying ST in their work with students, as well as a willingness to take on extra learning and work, have gone through a Training-of-Trainers (ToT) program.  The ToTs acted as assistant trainers last summer and this summer will serve as both the lead trainers and as the assistant trainers.

From the summer of 2011 to the summer of 2014—three years.  Designed plans rarely run their prescribed course, but with the help of their systems coaches, it seems the educators in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools who signed on to build their capacity in systems thinking to positively impact district classrooms and schools have seen benefits, so they’ve stuck with the plan.