Upstream Thinking . . . How to Change the System

This year’s Blueprint Bulletin theme is around Upstream thinking for systems improvement. The first Blueprint Bulletin began our series where the primary focus was around the three forces that push us downstream:  1) problem blindness, 2) lack of ownership, and 3) tunneling. The second Blueprint Bulletin focused on the first of Dan Heath’s seven questions for Upstream leaders, How to unite the right people? 

This edition will continue with Heath’s second question, How to change the system? The Blueprint Connections, Leader’s Corner, and Teacher’s Corner sections will be utilized to confirm your thinking and give you some additional food-for-thought and potential actions.  

Heath suggests that we need to fight for systems change by shaping the environment and being careful to not enable a flawed system (pp 97-114).  What might that mean?  So many times, we get used to (some might even say complacent with) living and/or working within a system that we just accept “as is.”  How might we apply upstream thinking to change the system? To shape the environment?  To change our willingness to accept “as is”?  

Blueprint Connections

“Part of every social-sector organization’s mission should be to push upstream. To prevent wounds as well as bandage them; to eliminate injustice as well as assisting those who suffered them.”

~ Dan Heath

This past spring was a bandage situation for most districts.  Many have taken lessons that they learned from the shutdown to make system adjustments for 2020-21. It is important for districts to look at the big picture.  As Heath states, “Good intentions cannot overcome bad systems.”  What does this mean for a Blueprint district?  What existing systems might we leverage or tweak to meet our desired results?  What problems are we trying to prevent and how might we anticipate barriers?  

Unfortunately, there is little research available around best practices for effective online/virtual instruction, much less online instruction in a pandemic setting.  Recent studies have identified general themes of best practices including: 

  1. providing clear explanations and scaffolding in the virtual setting,
  2. incorporating peer and teacher interactions and feedback,
  3. using games and simulations to help keep students engaged, and
  4. being sure material and technological support are available.

These studies are also lifting two common challenges for students:  access and engagement.  Based on this knowledge, how might we be upstream thinkers to avoid, or at the very least minimize, these barriers?  Knowing that the first challenge is ensuring that all students have access to instructional materials, what systems might you leverage to ensure success?  How might you leverage the communications system to gather the data (feedback) that you need to create and/or tweak the supports available to families equitably?  How are you using that knowledge and your data to “assist those who have suffered” disproportionately?  Because virtual tools are new to everyone, regular feedback on topics like accessibility and ease of use is crucial. Teachers should post simple surveys asking questions like, “Have you encountered any technical issues?” and “Can you easily locate your assignments?” to ensure that students experience a smooth-running virtual learning space.

The second challenge, ensuring that students and families will engage with the learning environment, provides another opportunity to be upstream thinkers.  Once again, how might you leverage your communications system?  What small nudges might be made for families?  The study states that “providing parents with information about their child’s academic performance was twice as effecive as reminding parents to check on their child’s performance.”  Informational nudges could be a useful tool to promote engagement in virtual learning for those who have been able to overcome impediments to access (Prettyman & Sass, 2020).

What is your district’s desired output for access to instructional materials and student and family engagement?  What processes are needed to achieve the desired output?  How often will the school and district monitor progress?  How might upstream thinking and using improvement cycles help prevent your district from putting bandages on problems and aid in addressing potential barriers?

The Leader’s and Teacher’s Corner sections will support you with deeper thinking around how to change the system.

Leader’s Corner

“The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them.”

~ Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

Upstream work is about reducing the probability that problems will happen.  You might remember the quote, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”  This implies that we need to change the system that is causing the problem(s) in the first place. What problems are you trying to solve? Perhaps it’s low student achievement or graduation rates?  Possibly lack of family and/or student engagement?  How about higher-than-desired suspensions and office referrals?  What questions do we need to ask ourselves to get us to think upstream instead of putting bandages on these problems?  Let’s consider:

  • Problem:  low student achievement or graduation rates.  
    • Possible upstream question:  Can we prevent low student achievement or graduation rates by ensuring that instructional staff are using high-quality instructional strategies aligned with the district’s vision for each child?  “Too often, school visions and the strategies educators develop to meet them are concerned with fixing the present as opposed to embracing the future” (McTighe & Curtis, 2019, p. 7).  
  • Problem:  lack of family and/or student engagement.  
    • Possible upstream question: Can we prevent students and families from disengaging in a remote learning environment by listening to student and parent voices during planning, effectively communicating throughout the entire process, allowing for flexible and independent learning, and partnering with caregivers to address children’s social and emotional needs?  “. . . for schools to provide a quality education for all children, all parents and families must be included as purposeful partners in the educational process . . . Family resources, schedules, language differences, literacy levels, and past experiences with schools are some of the considerations that schools need to address in order to meaningfully engage families”  (Teaching for Change, 2016). 
  • Problem:  higher-than-desired suspensions and office referrals.  
    • Possible upstream question:  Can we prevent racial and ethnic disparities in school disciplinary referrals and suspensions from happening by building relationships with students?  Joshua Starr, former superintendent of Montgomery County, Maryland, states, “ . . . our main goal shouldn’t be to reduce suspensions . . . when educators set that kind of a numerical target, it becomes tempting (and easy) to manipulate the data. Rather, the goal should be to improve our relationships with students, making sure that each and every child in the system felt valued and had at least one adult they could go to if they had a problem.”  After their schools launched a wide range of efforts to improve classroom climate, communication, and teacher-student relationships, within a couple of years, the district “saw a 50% reduction in discretionary suspensions and a 37% reduction in suspensions overall, including a significant reduction in racial and ethnic disparities” (Starr, 2018).

Knowing that upstream work is about reducing the probability that problems will happen, as these examples demonstrate, questions are asked to anticipate barriers.  Instead of putting bandages on the problem after-the-fact, how might you engage in upstream thinking in order to answer the question, How to change the system? 

Teacher’s corner

“The idea of this work is that you are part of something bigger than yourself . . . You’re not helpless. You have an enormous amount of individual power and collective power . . . ”

~ Anthony Iton

The quote above comes from Anthony Iton. Iton’s story is featured in the book Upstream.  In 2010, Iton helped to create and lead an ambitious program called Building Healthy Communities. The vision of Iton’s team was to start with power. He wanted to show the citizens in California’s most challenged neighborhoods how to fight for themselves and reshape their environments. So, as a teacher, how are you supporting your students across the boundaries of race, culture, class, and age in an effort to improve and reshape their school culture and climate? How will you change the system? What is it that you can do as an individual and collectively to influence and impact student outcomes?  

To begin to address these questions, let’s start with the research. According to John Hattie, based on a synthesis of more than 1,500 meta-analyses, collective teacher efficacy has an effect size of 1.57 on student learning and achievement. The findings in a study conducted by Susan Johnson suggest that the perception of collective efficacy is significantly affected when teachers collaborate compared to those who do not. Further, it was found that when teachers collaborated three or more times per week, collective efficacy perceptions were significantly and positively affected.  Knowing and applying the research can help you chart a course to change the system within your classroom and school. How might you prioritize participation in teacher collaborative routines?  How will your actions lead to increased collective teacher efficacy that positively impacts you and your colleagues along with improving and reshaping the school culture and climate for your students?   

Another piece of research comes from Jay McTighe and Elliott Seif who co-authored the article, “An Implementation Framework to Support 21st Century Skills.”  They identify ten learning principles that reflect research and best practice to guide instruction.  Two of these principles are:

  • Learning is purposeful and contextual. Therefore, students should be helped to see the purpose in what they are asked to learn.  Learning should be framed by relevant questions, meaningful challenges, and authentic applications.
  • Experts organize or chunk their knowledge around transferable, core concepts (“big ideas”) that guide their thinking about the domain and help them integrate new knowledge.  Therefore, content instruction should be framed in terms of core ideas and transferable processes, not as discrete facts and skills.

As we are planning instruction, how might upstream thinking support us in anticipating a possible lack of engagement?  By helping students see the purpose in what they are learning, contextualize this learning to their own background and environment, and help them to chunk their learning to guide their thinking, we are being proactive in addressing possible barriers.  What conversations might you and your colleagues engage with in order to ensure that these principles are taking place in your classrooms?  How will your actions lead to increased student achievement?  As you reflect on this information, it’s important to recognize that you have an enormous amount of individual and collective power.  It is up to you what you do with this knowledge.

Timely Topics

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In Closing 

“On whatever scale we work–in organizations or across communities–systems change takes time. But those changes are our best hope for improving people’s odds in life.”

~ Dan Heath

If you’d like to hear more about how Anthony Iton (referenced in the Teachers’ Corner) used data to study how and when zip codes become more important than genetic codes when it comes to people’s health, watch his TEDx Talk, Change the Odds for Health.  His team led the effort to empower residents in 14 cities across California with the worst health outcomes to fight for changes in their communities that will help them lead healthier lives.  He truly answered the question, “How do you remake a system that’s hopelessly broken?”  As you watch, listen for upstream thinking.  What connections might you make to your district? Your school? Your classroom?

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Hattie, J. (2013). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge. 

Heath, D. Upstream – How to Solve Problems Before They Happen. London, Transworld Publishers, 2020.

Johnson, S. B. (2012). The impact of collaborative structures on perceived collective efficacy. Dissertation. Notre Dame of Maryland University. 

King, K., Romero, M., Prince, K., & Swanson, J. (2020, June 30). In Looking Beneath the Surface – The Education Changemaker’s Guidebook to Systems Thinking. Retrieved from

McTighe, J., & Seif, E. (2010). An implementation framework to support 21st century skills. In J. Bellanca & R. Brandt (Eds.), 21st century skills: Rethinking how students learn. (pp. 149-172). Solution Tree.

McTighe, J., & Curtis, G. Leading Modern Learning – A Blueprint for Vision-Driven Schools. 2nd ed., Bloomington, Solution Tree Press, 2019.

Prettyman, A., & Sass, T. R. (2020). The Efficacy of Virtual Instruction in K-12 Education: A Review of the Literature. Metro Atlanta Policy Lab for Education, 4–7. 

Starr, J. (2018). Reducing suspensions or building relationships? Reframing the problem. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (8), 72-73

Teaching for Change. Between Families and Schools: Creating Meaningful Relationships. 2nd ed., vol. 2, Teaching for Change, 2016,

TED. (2016, November 4).  Change the odds for health | Anthony Iton [Video].  YouTube.

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