QuickThing17: sprawl happens

São Paulo from Space,

20140406-235941.jpgCompress time, and the changes wrought by time, and you’re mind will surely be boggled. When it comes to population surges through growth and migration, a few cities truly capture this phenomenon.

Not until the last few decades has the globe moved from being largely agrarian to a majority of urban centers. And this is how it happened in Paris, São Paulo, and Los Angeles.




OneThing48: the rich get richer


Cognitive Science helps us work with students

In Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School, one chapter focuses on background knowledge as a key to learning anything. In our age of knowledge and information saturation, we still MUST KNOW SOME THINGS to learn anything new; relying on Google to remember and then teaching students only “critical thinking” does not work.

This simple model of Willingham’s idea illustrates his thinking that the more one has in “background knowledge” the more one is able to learn. And this is because the broader and deeper the background knowledge, the more readily retained is new information, because the mind wants to “chunk” the new learning. Even limited knowledge is helpful; in fact, it’s ultimately more helpful than a student’s interest in the subject.

The upshot is that there is STILL a critical need for people to know things, certain elements of our cultural context helps us learn even more. This gives some credence to E. D. Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy, a book that ignited fiery debate.

How are teachers to be strategic in WHAT is learned? Good question . . . And Willingham has some thoughts on that.>

OneThing47: model modeling

Barry Richmond on learning

Barry Richmond - creator of STELLA and systems citizen

Barry Richmond – creator of STELLA and systems citizen

The last few postings on my School Change model have generated some discussion over on the System Dynamics K-12 list-serve that focused less on the structure and more on some philosophy of education and specific pedagogies, things I am somewhat less interested in than the deep structure of change.  While there is a philosophical bent in my model – I am asserting something, after all – my intent of publishing is to focus on the structure to the extent it effectively narrates my ideas about school change.

And this brings me to Barry Richmond, the STELLA creator, who exuded a profound passion for education and learning.  He was an inspiration to me and many in the emerging community of teachers using system dynamics.

Barry's full model integrates all aspects of the learning process

Barry Richmond’s full model integrates all aspects of the learning process

And I want to reprise his Learning Model because I have leaned on it for some of my thoughts about change.  You would likely see the parallel to Barry’s “Constructing a Mental Model” section and my “Curriculum” section (OneThing45).

A few things about Barry the Model-Builder:

  • Simplicity – tell the story of your thinking as clearly and simply as one can.
  • Elegance – the iconography has a beauty in its connectedness, and the rounded links help with the mental model of feedback
  • Grammar – Barry was fond of saying that Stocks are the nouns of the system, and the Flows are the verbs.  This syntax helps the modeler compose.
  • Co-Flows exist in the world – two things happen simultaneously all the time; e.g., the act of simulating also generates decision-making
  • Coining icon titles – language is meant to bend to need and use; Barry coined new words all the time, exemplified here in the Conveyor Ramifying
  • Flows tell the story – in this, as in others of his models, the Richmond preference is to the actions within the bounded system.  There’s the story!

In my School Change model, I am using Barry’s models as a kind of style kind, as a journalist might use the Associated Press Style Guide or a writer Elements of Style.



You’re looking at the Pacific Northwest. The green diagonal slash is the Cascade Range, replete with Douglas Fir, composite volcanoes, and well-hidden marijuana farms. There’s the Oregon and Washington coastline (left), Puget Sound and the southern tip of Vancouver Island (top), and Columbia River Basin (bottom right). West of the Cascades are the cities: Eugene – Salem – Portland – Olympia – Tacoma – Seattle – Vancouver.  Approximately 10.3 million live here.  How’s that working out?  Even the best answer is . . . well . . . complicated.

Enter System Dynamics – a set of critical thinking skills developed by Jay Forrester at the MIT Sloan School of Management that helps one understand how disparate pieces work together in a system.  I first learned about System Dynamics at an NSF Summer Institute in Portland in 1993.  Whoever I was before 1993 vanished from the earth. Since that time, I’ve taught teachers and students about system dynamics, systems thinking, and the rhythms of everyday life . . . because it’s all OneThing.

In itsallonething, I turn my attention to two ideas:  sustainability and school change. Sustainability . . . because we all need to learn how to live within the natural rhythms of our watershed.  School change . . . because we’re living through the most exciting, rapidly changing times in education . . . ever!

Poke around, please . . . you’ll find cool things, quick things, and my systems thoughts about sustaining places and educating people. There’s a lot to say.  Hope you’ll find it interesting and maybe spread the word.

Thanks for reading,


Buckminster Fuller: World Man

Bucky was at the leading edge of a world view that can no longer be ignored: systems thinking helps us understand our connectedness and dependence on our local biome.


Buckminster Fuller was way ahead of his time. While he is famous for his geodesic dome, which took form in Disney’s “Spaceship Earth” Epcot Center and other buildings, as well as his innovative maps, Fuller’s deeper impact may be on our thinking. He was one of the first modern Western thinkers to connect architecture to ecology and the environment. In a fascinating new book edited by Daniel Lopez-Perez called R. Buckminster Fuller: World Man, Alejandro Zaerao-Polo writes that he was one of the first to describe “the modern world as an ecosystem to be reconciled with nature.” Back in the mid-60s, way before the sustainable design movement took root, he was talking about “energy, fossil fuels, food, and pollution.” He was one of the first systems-thinkers, serving as one of the intellectual godfathers of today’s integrated approach to sustainable design.

His geodesic dome, which was featured at…

View original post 729 more words

OneThing40: understanding is not for the faint of mind

Teaching young people to construct new models of their world

This design graces the back of my classic STELLA t-shirt

We live in a time when our problems defy ready answers.  In fact, they defy even thoughtful answers.  And I am thinking this is so because we’re generally thinking about things the way we always have . . . with a linear, static model.  Our schools are doing a poor job of preparing the next generation of problem solvers.

We’ve not taken to heart Albert Einstein’s dictum: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Longtime systems advocate Barry Richmond coined a term that describes the kind of person and thinking that we need – Systems Citizen.

Schools have to change in a big way for such hopes to be realized.  And it will take some courageous leadership to move communities who are under the weight of shrinking tax support and swelling results-oriented accountability.  It can be done.

Constructivism – the prime tenent of educational psychology for over a century, but largely ignored in the factory-model of education – compels teachers to provide tasks whereby our students must grapple with problems and, in solving them, generate new understanding.   Students, in fact, construct their new understanding through their own efforts.

Students really want to do this!

And teachers would really like doing this for them!

Enter Barry Richmond’s vision of a cadre of systems teachers leading young people to build and test their mental models. In Tracing Connections, a group of educators honor Barry’s work by laying out a blueprint for how to do this very thing – teach the next generation about systems and, thereby, foster insight and hope for change.

It will be hard, uphill work.  But it needs to be done.

QuickThing14: driving car companies crazy

Oregonians – and Americans – are car crazy no more

Here’s a surprising story . . .

Across the country, the generation coming up is driving less, owning fewer cars, and eschewing the idea of auto-mobility. Take in this graph of Oregon’s Vehicle Miles Traveled graph – it shows that present day VMT is at levels from the late 1980’s!

To be sure, some part of this results from the economic downturn starting in fall 2008. Nonetheless, this represents a dramatic turnabout in American culture.

Do you still need a hot car to score a hot date?

Almost half of 18-24 year olds would choose internet access over wheels.  I recall, now, a faint memory from about 20 summers ago:  beautiful day, a few kids out riding bicycles, running through the streets, being kids.  But there on the curb, oblivious to nature’s gift of a day and the sheer joy of play, sat two boys playing with their Gameboys.

It’s new generation!

Of course, there are a few explanations for this.  Increased density in the last 20 years has made mass transit a better deal.  Owning a car IS an expensive proposition.  Many young couples actually own a single car. My own children did not purchase a car until well into their 20’s, and only then when they had children.

The Portland Street Car routes have doubled, and are about to double again with the opening of the east side lines.

It’s taken a long time for all this feedback to take hold:  rising fuel costs, increased density in urban centers, improved mass transit, more convenient and low cost housing along those mass transit throughways, and a generation whose values differ from those previous relative to social freedom.

OneThing37: Words to live by

Let the meaning choose the word

George Orwell

At a recent Republican Presidential Candidates Debate, the host asked each candidate to describe himself in a single word, and we got consistent, cheerful, to name a few.   Back in 2000, Saturday Night Live played off this very idea with fake Al Gore declaring “Lock box” and fake George Bush proclaiming “Strategery.”  To be sure, it’s a gimmicky kind of thing, but it can also be a good exercise in synthesis.

In his “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell famously called on writers and thinkers to practice the linguistic discipline of letting “the meaning choose the word.”  We do not need to think very broadly to cite examples of sloppy or exaggerated thinking where words seem to mean anything the writer or speaker wants.  I also recall Jay Forrester once proclaiming that a hallmark of system dynamics was that it made one’s thinking plain.

It’s what caused me to ask recently what are the ten most important systems words a middle or high school student should know.  So, over the last few weeks, I’ve read dozens of words people ascribe to Systems Thinking; and, while I disagree or am confounded by some of those words, I’ll leave it to others to check either the K-12 List Serve or Systems Thinking World to make their own judgments.

I thought here I’d go to renowned system dynamicist Donella Meadows (1941-2001).  In Thinking In Systems (2008, posthumous), she lists 18 words/phrases:

  • archetypes
  • balancing feedback loop
  • bounded rationality
  • dynamic equilibrium
  • dynamics
  • feedback loop
  • flow
  • hierarchy
  • limiting factor
  • linear relationship
  • nonlinear relationship
  • reinforcing feedback loop
  • resilience
  • self-organization
  • shifting dominance
  • stock
  • suboptimization
  • system

Eighteen words and phrases.  Learn them. Teach them.  And, in a few generations, we’ll all live a different world.

QuickThing13: it’s the closed systems that may ruin you

Some cities’ drains do things we’d rather not talk about

I’m happy to acknowledge this small metal sign that my city epoxied to the curb above the street drain in front of my house.  It tells me – and everyone in our neighborhood – that anything dumped here is part of a closed system.  Water, chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, lawn care products, detergents from car wash . . . all of it drains to the watershed.

And that’s not the only thing . . .

There are some cities that do not separate sewer from storm water;  it’s called a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). Under usual conditions, runoff goes into the sewer system that flows to the treatment facilities.  This works OK when the city is small and there’s no rain, but it rains a bit in the Pacific Northwest.

Illustration of a combined sewer system

As Portland grew and when storms came calling, the runoff overwhelmed the CSO system, with the overflow running directly into the streams and the Willamette River.

Fortunately, Portland started working on this in 1991 and it’s finally done – Portland’s Big Pipe will help.  That little metal sign is all part of that grand vision from two decades ago.

I love that little sign.

QuickThing12: 40 Years since Limits to Growth

The Smithsonian and The Club of Rome commemorate the publication of Limits to Growth 40 years ago.

This book sparked a rabid debate on growth, on limits, on sustainability, and the environment.  At its heart was a system dynamics model that was the first computer model to go broadly public.  People really weren’t ready for it.

This link takes you to speeches.

Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet | Consortia | Smithsonian.

Cover of "The Limits to growth: A report ...

Get the book Limits to Growth.