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