I Think I Am Going to Make a Change…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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