Upstream Thinking . . . How to get early warning of the problem?

“A technician checks into a building at the front desk before fixing the elevator, but the clerk tells him there’s nothing wrong with it. Confused by who sent him, the technician clarifies that it was the new guy, IBM Watson, who sensed that the third elevator would malfunction in two days and alerted an engineer of the problem.”

(IBM Watson TV Commercial, 2017)

The above quote is referencing a 2017 commercial for IBM, Watson at Work: Engineering.  This commercial is a perfect example of how technology can support having early warnings of the problem. After you watch the 30-second commercial, think about the following prompts:  

  • Do you use data and technology to hunt for early-warning signs of problems? 
  • What might that look and sound like for you, your building, your district? 
  • Have you been able to use those early-warning signals to successfully avoid problems? Why or why not?
  • How might the problem-solving, performance management, and communications systems be leveraged to successfully avoid problems?

We began this Blueprint Bulletin using “only if” thinking.  Only if I could’ve seen “x”, then I might’ve been able to prevent “y”.  As district and building instructional leaders, you might think in terms of if/then statements. For example, if your school-level historical trend data shows that prior to a holiday break, your office discipline referrals (ODRs) drastically increase, then you and your building network could use your problem-solving system to determine causation, leverage the systems and routines you have, and action plan around preventing those ODR increases around holidays from happening in the future.  You already have early-warning signs with each dataset.  What might your next if/then statement be?  How might you leverage the systems and routines you have intentionally built to think upstream and prevent problems from occurring?

In Upstream, Heath reminds the reader of the devastating Sandy Hook story.  As you reflect on that day, there are so many “if only” statements that could be made.  Because of Sandy Hook and other tragedies, school districts across our nation have protocols in place to react to such massacres.  The cofounder of the Sandy Hook Promise, Nicole Hockley, felt that the focus needed to shift from “we have an active shooter — what are you going to do?” to “how can we help this person before it ever gets to that point?”  Based on early-warning signs that were missed, the Sandy Hook Promise launched a training program to educate students on the warning signs, which include 1) a strong fascination with firearms, 2) acting aggressively for seemingly minor reasons, 3) extreme feelings of social isolation, 4) bragging about access to guns, and 5) explicit threats of violence. “The students were taught that, if they observed other students acting in these ways, they should share their concerns with a trusted adult” (p. 147).  By training students of these early warnings, schools are deploying human sensors (eyes and ears).  Two additional programs were created stemming from the Sandy Hook Promise, the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, and the Safe2Say Something program.  These are additional examples where it is necessary to have eyes and ears close to the problem so to have early warnings.

A brief released by the U.S. Department of Education in September 2016, defines an early-warning system as a system based on student data to identify students who exhibit behavior or academic performance that puts them at risk of dropping out of school. Michigan has an early warning system in place.  The Early Warning Intervention and Monitoring System (EWIMS) is an evidence-based process for identifying and monitoring students who are at risk of dropping out of school.  If you can identify student issues early on, you can strategically address student needs before students fail.  Continue reading in the Teacher’s Corner section to make connections to upstream thinking and the EWIMS process.