“When you spend years responding to problems, you can sometimes overlook the fact that you could be preventing them.”~ Dan Heath
In Chapter 1 of Dan Heath’s book, Upstream – How to Solve Problems Before They Happen, he writes about being fascinated by how upstream efforts reflect humanity at its best and worst. Heath sees going upstream as a declaration of agency: “I don’t have to be at the mercy of these forces — I can control them. I can shape my world.” This declaration of agency is an example of self-efficacy. Now let’s take this a step further. Let’s gather a group of teachers that are confident in their abilities to guide students to success. The teachers meet regularly to engage in teacher collaborative routines. These practices help teachers gain knowledge and expertise from their peers, moving them closer to collective teacher efficacy. The research of John Hattie and his team determined that collective teacher efficacy, with an effect size of 1.57, is the number one influence on student achievement. Now, instead of relying on the herculean efforts of individual teachers, there is a group of like-minded teachers collectively moving upstream. This group seeks to prevent problems before they happen or reduce the harm caused by the problems.
So what are the actionable steps needed to achieve this goal? According to Heath, it’s important to overcome the barrier of problem blindness. This is the belief that negative outcomes are natural or inevitable. “As a teacher, if you accept that your job is to support students, not appraise them, it changes everything.” It’s vital that educators approach collaboration and teaching with a growth mindset. If they are unsure of how to reach a particular student, they can consult their colleagues for suggestions or advice. Teaching is a learning experience. Carol Dweck suggests that educators begin by acting on their answers to some questions: “What can I do to unleash this student’s motivation? What does this student not understand that is preventing them from learning?”
A second barrier to upstream efforts is a lack of ownership. Heath writes that a lack of ownership means that the parties who are capable of addressing a problem are saying, “That’s not mine to fix.” Teacher collaborative teams that are composed of upstream thinkers take responsibility for fixing the problems. By focusing on their collective efforts they are able to avoid the third barrier of tunneling. Tunneling confines teachers to short-term, reactive thinking which means oftentimes putting a band-aid on the problem and pushing it down the road. Heath says that in order to escape the tunnel you need slack. “Slack, in this context, means a reserve of time or resources that can be spent on problem solving.” This is why it’s important to have scheduled time, norms, and protocols for collaboration time. As John Hattie states in his 2013 book, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, “Accomplishing the maximum impact on student learning depends on teams of teachers working together, with excellent leaders or coaches, agreeing on worthwhile outcomes, setting high expectations, knowing the students’ starting point and desired success in learning, seeking evidence continually about their impact on all students, modifying their teaching in light of this evaluation, and joining in the success of truly making a difference to student outcomes.” It is time to shift our energies upstream!