Upstream Thinking . . . Uniting the Right People

“If you want to help solve big problems in the world, seek out groups who have ambitious goals coupled with close-up experience”. 

~ Dan Heath

Last month’s Blueprint Bulletin began our series around Upstream thinking where our primary focus was around the three forces that push us downstream:  1) problem blindness, 2) lack of ownership, and 3) tunneling. We also made connections to the Blueprint Framework. To delve further into solving problems before they happen, Dan Heath, during a recent interview, talked into 4 Ways to Go Upstream to Solve Problems in Education where he also made connections to the forces that push us downstream.  

Beginning with this edition, the focus will be on one of Heath’s seven questions for Upstream leaders and where the Blueprint Connections, Leader’s Corner, and Teacher’s Corner sections may confirm your thinking and give you some additional food-for-thought and potential actions.  Our focus this month . . . How to unite the right people?  Heath suggests that you surround the problem AND use data for learning as opposed to using data for inspection.

According to Heath, “The lesson of the high-risk team’s success seems to be:  Surround the problem with the right people; give them early notice of that problem; and align their efforts toward preventing specific instances of that problem” (p 88).  Surrounding the problem means working together from multiple perspectives and not one person having all the answers; aligning these efforts means collaboration and coordination.  Students are more successful when a building or district is working together, which means that we need to meet.  “Doctors prescribe, miners dig, teachers teach, and upstreamers meet. . . . When done right, upstream meetings can be energizing:  creative and honest and improvisational, with the kind of camaraderie that emerges from the shared struggle to achieve something meaningful” (p 80).  To do this, we must use data to inform and guide our work tomorrow, this and next week, this and next month, and year.  Who from your internal and external school community might be your upstream thinkers?  How might you unite them?

Blueprint Connections

“If we want to fix a big problem, we need to overhaul the system.”

~ Dan Heath

When thinking about surrounding the problem with the right people and using data for learning as opposed to using data for inspection, what Blueprint connections come to mind?  Early Blueprint adopters might think about the district and building networks as well as the performance management and problem-solving drivers, high-quality walkthroughs, and competency data.  Most recently, Blueprint-installing districts are focusing on Improvement Cycles (formerly referred to as small-system cycles) and the System Flow (Input Process Output Feedback [IPOF]) model where multiple people at multiple levels and roles work well together to achieve desired outcomes.  

How might the IPOF model connect to MDE’s Michigan Integrated Continuous Improvement Process (MICIP)?  MICIP defines systems as a series of interdependent and aligned processes and people working together toward a common goal to bring desired results.  When putting the IPOF model, systems thinking, and the MICIP pieces together, there is a continuous improvement process that utilizes systems, routines, and people where data is used for learning, guiding, and improving. 

Let’s bring this thinking full circle.  When thinking about Heath’s quote, “If we want to fix a big problem, we need to overhaul the system”, how did Chicago Public Schools use continuous improvement, system thinking, uniting the right people, and using data to guide their actions to increase their graduation rates from 52.4% to 78%?  Shifting to upstream thinking, eliminating problem blindness, taking ownership of the problem, and putting systems in place, by 2018, CPS’ graduation rate increased.

Leader’s Corner

“ . . . groups do their best work when they are given a clear, compelling aim and a useful, real-time stream of data to measure their progress, and then . . . leave them alone”.

~ Joe McCannon

Creating a culture where upstream thinkers are curious about the data and not only want to get to the root cause of the success (to replicate) or the challenge (to close gaps), these collaborators believe that they can and will make a difference.  We know that our beliefs lead to our actions and these upstream collaborators get beyond admiring the problem. 

Part of upstream thinking is using data for learning as opposed to using data for inspection.  What are examples of each that you have encountered in your life? What does it feel like when data is used for inspection?  When using data for inspection, one might hear, “Mrs. Jones, I didn’t observe high-quality reading instruction today, what happened?” When using data for learning, one might think of formative data . . . data that would be used to guide our next steps and may sound like, “What were some of the instructional strategies used that are aligned to high-quality reading instruction?  How might you know that they were effective?  What do you want to stay mindful of from now on?”

Many of the upstream successes shared in Heath’s book involve the use of a “by-name list”. Using CPS as an example, the Freshman OnTrack team focused on each student’s metrics to prevent each student from dropping out.  The thinking is that if you’re engaged in a conversation about Joey, you care about Joey.  “What are we going to do about Joey next week?”  Why might such a hyper-focus yield different results? What’s different between the abstract focus on “increasing all students’ achievement” and the specific focus of “getting Joey Smith to graduate”? 

These upstream collaborators use improvement cycles to determine their desired outcomes and think in ways to prevent problems from happening instead of remaining in reactionary mode.   As we previously mentioned,  “The lesson of the high-risk team’s success seems to be:  Surround the problem with the right people; give them early notice of that problem; and align their efforts toward preventing specific instances of that problem” (p 88).  What might your upstream thinkers focus on?  How might you build that upstream-thinking culture?

Teacher’s Corner

“So the first step, as in many upstream efforts, was to surround the problem — to recruit a multifaceted group of people and organizations united by a common aim”.

~ Dan Heath

A multifaceted group of people united by a common aim.  That sounds like teacher collaboration. If we want to succeed in meeting the learning needs of each and every student, then we must take advantage of every possible avenue that will increase our likelihood of success.  Think of how much easier it will be to share this responsibility with other educators you work with every day.  Research clearly indicates that teachers must regularly and frequently meet to discuss instruction and understand how students learn.  

As mentioned in the Leader’s Corner, part of upstream thinking is using data for learning as opposed to using data for inspection. You likely spend a lot of time looking at your own data.  Based on your interpretation of the data, you make choices about what students have learned and how you’ll move forward with your instruction.  While this is important in day-to-day planning, there is an obvious benefit to having thought-partners in your data analysis. In Upstream, Heath lifts the primacy of data as being a theme that he observed repeatedly in his research.  “I knew data would be important for generating insights and measuring progress, but I didn’t anticipate that it would be the centerpiece of many upstream efforts” (p 88).  Discussing your students’ work and leveraging the expertise of your colleagues helps you arrive at sound data interpretations.  

There is much to gain from your colleagues about student learning if you intentionally share your experiences, collective knowledge, and insights.  Meaningful professional interactions focused on teaching and learning can significantly influence your own growth and the growth of each student. Maintaining focus on individual students, recognizing each by name and his/her strengths, helps to ensure that each student is seen. Teacher collaborative groups, organized by a common aim of improving student learning, demonstrates a collective approach where the expertise of peers is honored and valued.  This is collective teacher efficacy . . . a collective belief that together what you do can and will make a difference in student achievement. Collective teacher efficacy provides the greatest chance of student success. What is your next step in either implementing or strengthening teacher collaborative routines?  How will you ensure that your collaborative team is united by a common aim? How might you, as an upstream thinker, consider ways to move teacher collaboration into an online learning environment?

To deepen your understanding of these collaborative practices, consider participating in the online Teacher Collaborative Routines course.  The next course is scheduled to begin on November 18, 2020. Information and registration can be found by clicking on this link.

Timely Topics

The focus for the Leadership Network for Building and Central Office Leaders on November 12, from 9 – 11 a.m. will be:

  • making connections to upstream thinking . . . How might you support your district/school in addressing problem blindness, tunneling, and lack of ownership to move upstream?  
  • deepening understanding of observations and formative feedback and what that might look and sound like in a remote learning environment
  • Networking with colleagues from around the state around a problem-of-practice 

The Superintendent Network, scheduled for November 19, from 9 – 10 a.m., will focus on: 

  • Empowering principals around instructional improvement
  • Learning Focused Partnerships focusing on instructional improvement

SWFT Online interactive courses, Winter I Term, are quickly approaching and begin on November 18. 

Changing Minds to Address Poverty in the Classroom is a powerful course for instructional staff.  Based on the work of Eric Jensen, this course provides background on the effect of living in poverty has on students’ brains and their learning in the classroom. The course moves beyond the theory and provides practical classroom strategies that enrich the learning environment and increase the likelihood of success for students living in poverty. Participants will explore seven essential mindsets shown to positively impact student learning. This course provides strategies and tools to make changes in your classroom so students living in poverty have a greater chance of learning what they need to succeed in your classroom and in life.

Browse the professional learning calendar for courses that may interest you and/or your district’s goals. To register, click Events Registration

In Closing

Heath states, “To succeed in upstream efforts, you need to surround the problem.  Meaning you need to attract people who can address all the key dimensions of the issue. . . . Once you’ve surrounded the problem, then you need to organize all those people’s efforts.  And you need an aim that’s compelling and important – a shared goal that keeps them contributing even in stressful situations where . . . people’s lives may depend on your work” (p 82).  How will you support your school and district in uniting the right people?

Heath, D. (2020). Upstream: The quest to solve problems before they happen. New York: Avid Reader Press.
Heath, D. Interview by Vicki Davis. “4 Ways to Go Upstream to Solve Problems.” 5 Mar. 2020.

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