Upstream Thinking . . . Uniting the Right People

“ . . . 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?

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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