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.