Upstream Thinking . . . How to Change the System

“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.