Upstream Thinking . . . How to Change the System

“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?