Systems Thinking Institute

The Waters Foundation has been working with teachers and administration at MPS to leverage systems thinking tools.  The Systems Thinking Institute returns to Milwaukee in March, and we are delighted to again be partner in that effort.

As part of the Institute we’ll lead a two-day workshop on crafting and scaling a solution once the factors that influence current practice are understood. Our focus for this effort comes out of our Middle School Math project with Milwaukee Succeeds– we’ll review and refine our system model of factors that drive performance, use systems thinking tools to understand what blocks wider adoption of these practices, and chart a path forward.  We’ll have an excellent partner in the room for this workshop, Danielle Robinson, from Brown Street Academy, a math interventionist who is well versed in both effective practices and systems thinking.

Details and registration info are here:

Collab Lab 7 Recap and Notes

Using Systems Thinking tools to explore driving engagement

Iceberg diagram
Adapted by Systems Thinking in Schools, Waters Foundation from Innovation Associates, Inc.

As a prelude to the Systems Thinking Institute coming up in March, Sheri Marlin from the Waters Foundation and Ellen Grasely and Betsy Markwardt from Humboldt Park K8 School helped facilitate and captured notes from our breakout groups in iceberg diagrams. The key idea behind systems thinking and this tool in particular, is that:

  1. outcomes are driven by behavior
  2. behavior is driven by the structure of the system within which individuals operate
  3. that structure, in turn, is driven by our mental model of how things should work.

To drive a systemic change in outcomes then, one needs to change the mental model we operate from.

In our discussions, we walked through each of these layers from the perspective of both how the current system works and what we’d like to see it move to.  We wrapped up each discussion with the question “How will you move forward?”

Group 1

Current Situation

Desired Results

How will you move forward?

Long term

  • Start your own school
  • Redo licensure
  • Only hire pros (interesting people), pay them $$$, train them to teach

Medium Term

  • Invest in professional learning: Articulate, spend time $, 3 years of focus
  • Develop testing
  • Common planning time

Group 2

Current Situation

Desired Results

How will you move forward?

  • Reflect on how you react to an engaged classroom vs an unengaged classroom
  • Pay attention to school culture – everyone
  • Ask kids what would make this fun for you, excite you
  • Build personal relationships
  • Help to change your mental model, parents’ mental model, kids’ mental model of “school”
  • Teachers learn to reflect and take the time to restore (remove yourself)
  • Autonomy, purpose, mastery

Group 3

Current Situation

Desired Results

How will you move forward?

  • Rubric Scoring
  • Stories
  • Find allies — kids in particular
  • Build from grass roots
  • Relationships are key
  • Ask for solutions as part of homework
  • Root solutions in research
  • Training for parents — table talk questions so parents– promotes to meaningful discussions of what their kids are actually working on

Collab Lab 7: Systems Thinking/Driving Engagement

A discussion focused on driving engagement facilitated with the use of some Systems Thinking tools

In the simplest terms, systems thinking is a way of seeing the world in motion, recognizing that the big picture is rarely static but almost always a web of factors that interact to create patterns and change over time. It’s a catalyst for learning and leadership in the classroom, the boardroom or around the kitchen table. The true value of systems thinking, however, lies not just in deeper understanding but also in what we can do with that clarity. During February’s Collab Lab we will use some of the visual tools of systems thinking as we engage in a discussion around driving engagement in school. We will surface our assumptions, consider patterns and trends, and attempt to find leverage in the structures of the system.

We’re thrilled to have Sheri Marlin, Chief Learning Officer for the Waters Foundation join us to facilitate the workshop portion of the evening. Sheri and the Waters Foundation have been working with teachers and administration at MPS to introduce systems thinking to both staff and students. At the end of March, The Waters Foundation will host a three day Systems Thinking Institute in Milwaukee.


5:30 – 6:00 Grab something to eat and drink, say hello
6:00 – 8:30 Let’s learn from each other
Food and beverage will be provided. There is no charge for participation but space is limited!

The Collab Lab will be held in the innovation space at Ward 4. Space provided courtesy of The Commons.

Featured Participants

Sheri Marlin – Chief Learning Officer, Waters Foundation
Sheri Marlin writes, speaks and collaborates with others to apply systems thinking in real-world contexts. She has taught preschool through graduate school and has worked as a building principal and district curriculum specialist. Sheri finds tremendous satisfaction in facilitating teams of people as they develop shared vision and achieve desired results. By providing resources and sparking curiosity, Sheri keeps learning at the center of everything she does. She believes that when people understand and apply the tools and habits of systems thinking, they are more likely to engage in meaningful, life-long learning and innovation. Sheri is co-author of the Habit-forming Guide to Becoming a Systems Thinker.

Beth Fetterley Heller – Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning, Urban Ecology Center

Beth has dedicated the past 17 of her 24 years in education to the growth of urban environmental education programs in Milwaukee. She directs education and activities of the Urban Ecology Center’s 3 branches and 2 state-of-the-art green buildings that provide more that 150,000 learning opportunities for people of all ages each year.  Programs include the Neighborhood Environmental Education Project for 63 urban schools, a job training program for high school students, and an inter-generational research program where adults and children participate undergraduate and graduate field research projects led by over 20 colleges, universities and institutions.  Beth has her undergraduate degree in biology and education, an MBA from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and is a fellow of the Academy for Systems Change.

Betsy Markwardt – Middle School Teacher, Humboldt Park K-8 School

After 20 years as an accountant, Betsy Markwardt shifted gears. For the past 17 years she has been a middle school teacher, and loving it, with Milwaukee Public Schools. Betsy has a Masters in Curriculum design and finds that Systems Thinking has made learning and teaching more of an inquiry of the subject at hand. She is gratified to see middle school students truly grappling over an issue as Systems Thinking guides her students to look deeper.

Ellen Grasley – 1st Grade Teacher, Humboldt Park K-8 School

Ellen Grasley is an early childhood educator with 30+ years at Milwaukee Public Schools.  She has her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from UW Milwaukee and has used Systems Thinking tools with her students for the past several years.

Marissa Jablonski – Associate Researcher & Lecturer for UWM’s Masters of Sustainable Peacebuilding; Mentor & Advisor Engineers Without Borders
Dr. Marissa Jablonski is a development engineer and educator who works with communities wrestling with complex concerns. She strives to help people gain access to education to meet their needs. Marissa collaborates and cooperates with transdisciplinary groups worldwide and excels in communicating across boundaries.

Marissa is a mentor to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, advising on the design and implementation of water distribution projects in Guatemala. She also serves as International Coordinator of a Guatemalan-led and run NGO that builds infrastructure to meet indigenous communities’ needs.

Marissa is a faculty member of the Master’s of Sustainable Peacebuilding program at UWM, where she develops and institutes courses focused on community engagement in international development. Marissa is an advocate for minorities and women in STEM fields, and served as program coordinator for UWM’s NSF FORTE program from 2009-2015. During that time, she designed an internationally recognized project that continues to engage with informal dye industries in rural India to affordably clean their wastewater. This work earned her a PhD in Civil/Environmental Engineering from UWM in 2015. Marissa is rooted in the urban Milwaukee community and serves as a natural sciences instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College.