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.  


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 Each company division used the iceberg
to analyze their contributions to the company.
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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. 

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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.

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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.