20 from school system bring systems thinking back to WS/FCS
By Kim Underwood Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
JULY 30 – As they work toward putting the new Common Core curriculum in place this school year, some local educators have discovered an ally in systems thinking.
With its focus on helping students learn to think clearly and to see the big picture, systems thinking enhances educators’ ability to reach one of the prime goals of the Common Core curriculum – learning the skills necessary to be successful in an increasingly complex world.
“It’s another set of tools to reinforce the implementation of what we’re currently doing,” said Floyd Lowman, the principal of Bolton Elementary School. “For me, it’s always seeing the interrelatedness of things.”
“This is a tool that allows concrete thinkers to think conceptually,” said Jennifer Hart, who teaches fourth grade at Lewisville Elementary School. “This isn’t a formula; it is modeling critical thinking.”
Lowman and Hart were among 20 from Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools – the group also included people in such roles as curriculum coordinator, program manager and assistant superintendent, as well as school board member Elisabeth Motsinger – who headed out to Arizona earlier this month to learn more about systems thinking and related topics at a conference called Camp Snowball. The 2013 Camp Snowball conference will be held next summer in Winston-Salem on the campus of Wake Forest University.
Conference speakers included people such as Peter Senge and Jim Waters, who are known nationally for their efforts to make education more relevant to today’s world. Senge is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the co-founder of the Society for Organizational Learning. Waters supports systems thinking and similar programs through his foundation, the Waters Foundation. Both Waters and Senge plan to attend the 2013 conference in Winston-Salem.
Senge acknowledged that people unfamiliar with systems thinking might be put off by the word “systems” because it sounds a bit industrial. The approach itself, though, can make both students and educators feel more connected and respected. Students taught with a systems thinking approach say that they appreciate feeling as if the teachers listen to them.
Part of the idea is to create an atmosphere conducive to attending fully to each other. Lowman mentioned that one way he does that is to move people away from his cluttered desk to a quiet corner when they come to his office to talk.
Some on the trip see this school year as a window of opportunity, as WS/FCS and other schools systems across the state and country begin using the Common Core curriculum.
“The classroom has to look and feel different,” said Elaine Whicker, a fifth-grade teacher at Walkertown Elementary School. “Now is the time to be innovative.”
“It will be a learning year for everyone,” said Montá Ervin, the curriculum coordinator and learning team facilitator for social studies at Atkins High School. She is looking forward to sharing what she has learned with others and to using it to enhance the teaching of the Common Core curriculum.
“Student achievement is important by any means necessary,” Ervin said.
Rather than focusing on learning specific facts, systems thinking works toward understanding how things influence each other and developing skills that include understanding the “big picture,” recognizing the role that time delays play in cause-and-effect relationships, appreciating the value of a shift in perspective, examining an issue fully before coming to a conclusion and doing your best not to fall into the trap of treating presumptions as facts. Systems thinking also uses charts and other graphics to illustrate such processes as the ways in which behavior changes over time.
Kathy Steen, a third-grade teacher at Sherwood Forest Elementary School, said that systems thinking enhances some of the things that she was already doing by giving students and teachers a common vocabulary and tools that help them visualize.
“I’m very excited about having tools and habits of thinking that are going to benefit them forever,” Steen said. “There is a lot of deeper stuff that you can get into if you have those tools.”
Systems thinking comes with a sibling – sustainability. It covers more than just the importance of establishing ecological and economic systems that can remain healthy over time. It also focuses on the importance of such healthy and sustainable emotional approaches as kindness, something that the school system is already working to encourage through such programs at Rachel’s Challenge.
Senge thinks that an emphasis on kindness and respect can have a positive effect on academic performance. “There is so much that is missed in schools today on the social dimensions,” he said. “If you want a higher academic performance, create a respectful environment.”
Sustainability can also provide a tangible focus for projects that students can pursue at their schools, such as raising chickens and tending gardens. Melanie Langley, who teaches science at East Forsyth High School, brought her daughter Alexa with her to the conference. After taking a course on “Greening Your School,” Alexa left the conference with ideas about projects that she could suggest at her school, East Forsyth Middle.
As part of their efforts to ensure a healthy and sustainable future for systems thinking here in Forsyth County, educators have been careful to make sure that no one feels as if he or she is being pressured to adopt the approach.
“No one has been told they have to do this,” said Bud Harrelson, the program manager for school improvement. “We’re working on sharing the news….We’re striving to build curiosity.”
Once people come to understand what systems thinking offers, it sells itself, those familiar with it say. “Once you see its value, you’re going to want to have that,” Steen said.
Although some individual educators in the school system have been involved in systems thinking for a number of years, it is relatively new to the school system as a whole. About 30 local educators at seven schools took systems thinking trainings during or following the 2010-11 school year. More educators – some attracted by what they saw their colleagues doing – took trainings during or following this past school year, and more than 130 educators from 14 schools have now trained in systems thinking.
“It was pretty grassroots,” said Jacob Lowther, the principal at Sherwood Forest Elementary School.
“Winston-Salem is doing it right; they are taking enough time,” Waters said. “I think they will be the prototype for other school systems.”
Wicker and Suzanne Arnold, who teaches fourth grade at Lewisville Elementary School, have also helped spread the word in North Carolina by speaking to the State Board of Education.
During the coming school year, systems thinking trainers will return to Forsyth County to provide additional support. “We have this continual support,” said Martha Howell, the technology facilitator at Union Cross Elementary School. “It’s not a drive-by type of workshop.”
In talking about the need for new approaches to education, speakers traced some elements of the education system currently in place – including an emphasis on memorizing facts and asking students superficial questions that don’t require them to understand the underlying processes – back to the days when knowledge was a valuable commodity and schools were designed to turn young people into adults who could work in factories.
Tony Wagner - a founder and former co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and now the Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard – said that approach is obsolete and that schools have to change.
“Knowledge is free,” Wagner said. “That’s not the value-add anymore. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.”
The path that many schools have followed has led to such side effects as an emphasis on standardized tests at the state and national level and a tendency to fret about the test rather than learning the underlying skills. More than one person expressed the fear that, though focusing on becoming better thinkers is sound in the big picture, it could be costly in the short term when it comes to how well students do on standardized tests. Wagner, Senge and others deflected some of that by suggesting that students who think more clearly would do better on tests.
“We think we have a strategy of the kids learning faster and deeper; the tests take care of themselves,” Senge said.
He also understands, though, that it may take several years to see the benefits of the approaches that focus on thinking skills when it comes to standardized test results. “We try to encourage people not to have unrealistic expectations,” Senge said.
David Coleman, the president of the College Board and one of the people who designed the Common Core standards, said that part of the problem is that “state standards became phone books” and suggested that one way to combine systems thinking and student success in testing is to focus on fewer things. “Focus on fewer things and do them more deeply.”
And, he said, redesign tests to better measure learning.
Whicker left the conference excited about returning to her school and working with students and teachers. “I walked away with more confidence about using the tools myself and being able to help other teachers in my school use the tools,” she said.
Interested in using systems thinking tools in the classroom and seeing lesson plans designed to reach Common Core goals? Visit the Waters Foundation website at www.watersfoundation.org and the Achieve the Core website at www.achievethecore.org.