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.

OneThing43: let’s hear it for the Instructional Team!

The School Change model includes vital feedback

Feedback loop depicts how a Gap in Student Learning drives Professional Development (PD) for the Instructional Team.  In the argot of education, the gap is often called the "problem of practice."

Feedback loop depicts how a Gap in Student Learning drives Professional Development (PD) for the Instructional Team. In the argot of education, the gap is often called the “problem of practice.”

So . . . I’ve asserted a key relationship in the School Change model:  the Capacity of the Instructional Team increases  Student Learning.  But how might that actually occur?

In this model iteration, I’ve added a series of thoughts specific to that question.  Names in the parentheses are educational researchers whose work, among others, substantiates the claims.

  • The Instructional Team sets the learning target  (Robert Marzano, Mike Schmoker, et al)
  • The gap between the Target and what students actually know or can do drives the action of the team (Doug Lemov, Elizabeth City, et al)
    • Once the problem of practice is well known, the instructional team conducts research for effective practices
    • The instructional team conducts Professional Development sessions to learn those effective practices
    • The instructional team implements those new practices

This reinforcing loop establishes the key instructional feedback for any teacher:  having established what my students should know or be able to do, I research the most effective means of providing that learning and then I follow through.  There would need to be another reinforcing loop (or two) that includes teacher assessment of student progress, and administrative assessment of whole team efficacy with those new methods; but I purposely left that out for now just to underscore the primary feedback loop driving classroom instruction.

What to include and exclude in the model now starts to take on importance as my representation flowers into increasing complexity.  Even so, my core thinking about how all this works remains explicit.  What questions come to you as you consider this model for School Change?

OneThing18: Barry Richmond’s model of the learning process

What Barry Richmond can teach us about how students might become Systems Citizens

Barry Richmond - creator of STELLA and systems citizen

A few years ago, I spent two days with Barry Richmond when he and I teamed for a workshop with a handful of teachers in Norwalk – La Mirada Unified School District.  Evenings, I sat with him and listened to his work in systems, his sense of how system dynamics was working in schools, and his stories of his family.  Before that time, Barry had come out to Portland to help us with Sym♦FEST, a gathering of middle and high school students who shared models and participated in workshops.  At that time, Barry revealed to us that the work our students were doing “floods [my] heart.”

Let’s now take a look at the complete model as he mapped it.  Previously, I talked about portions of this in OneThing15 and OneThing17.

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

First, note the symmetry and rondure of his map.  It is easy to read, open, and clear.

Second, he mapped a continuous, closed-loop process.

Third, his core assumptions are embedded in brief narratives and systems iconography.

Fourth, note the clean delineation among the elements:  constructing, simulating, and communicating. And Barry’s clear connections, both information (dashed connectors) and action (solid connectors).

Fifth, and the core assumption of this model, the student is doing the work.  The so-called “Other-Inspired Learning” (in schools, we called this “teacher instruction”) is off to the side.  Barry captured what students are actually doing as they learn.

Sixth, and last (for now, at least), the Communicating sector of this model is often the one omitted from most school’s models.  And even if it is part of a curriculum, it does not capture what Barry describes here: “making the model elements, structures and outcomes available for scrutiny.” In such a constructivist model, the learner is apprentice in a small shop (classroom) observed by a master (teacher) who counsels and critiques the apprentice’s work – in this case, not a repaired shoe or a beveled weld or plumbed toilet, but a thought about how something works.

To close, I offer this link to isee systems tribute to Barry

OneThing17: learning takes action

The Awkward and Anxious Boy Keeps Learning by Finally Taking Action – will she say “yes”?

The bottom strands tell of someone taking action

Back at OneThing15, we left a young boy awkwardly trying to ask the demure Jane – his Mental Model of the ask circling in his head:  representing elements of the ask, simulating various outcomes in his imagination, only to modify the Elements included in his Mental Model.  And so it would go again, a recursive, subversive playing and replaying that likely meant he did not sleep.

At some point, he knew he had to ask, to make a decision.  At some point in this iterative process, he had accumulated enough reasonable outcomes that he was confident enough to ask her.

In the taking action portion of this model, we can see that the taking action also drives the setting in motion flow as ramifications begin to enter the story, slowing building up over time.  The dashed, curving line returning to selecting tells us that, over time, the ramifications of this boy’s decision to ask Jane out will impact any future thinking about asking:  if it goes poorly, he will select different elements of the situation;  if it goes well, he will be able to limit his selection process since he knows what works.  Either way, he is learning how to ask out a girl.

For a boy, not many things are more important, except maybe to learn how to drive a car. Or change a diaper. But those are both a long way off for this nervous young man.

And so it comes to pass, Jane walks down the hall at school, her Pre-Cal book pulled in closely to her sweater, as if she were Lady Liberty clutching her tablet. Her curls bounce as she stops at her locker, spins the tumbler of her lock once, and feels a tap on her shoulder.

“Jane?” Our young boy, one last time, replays the sequence in his head.

Boy gets the girl, or maybe it’s girl gets boy

Jane turns to him, looks up, and blushes. With a single finger flick, she pushes a brunette curl away from her brow.  “Oh, hi . . . um . . . ”

“Uh . . . um . . . Jane?”  For a moment, the stalwart mental model in his head teeters.  Her eyes make his knees quake, but he gathers his strength.  “Will you go to the prom with me?”

Far down the hallway, half a dozen girls see that Jane has turned to talk with a boy.  “Who’s Jane talking to?”  Then, Jane hugs him.

OneThing15: learning to do something

Start with a Mental Model of Learning

Portion of Barry Richmond's model on Learning - focus here is on choices the thinker makes to SELECT, then REPRESENT, and then SIMULATE

A more complete version of Barry Richmond’s very helpful model was recently posted on the K-12 System Dynamics Discussion Group ( by Scott Guthrie (wizard teacher in Portland) as he spoke about engaging students in substantive work, and why so many students go to school begrudgingly.

As usual, Barry’s model told a full story, how learning unfolds in a context of a teacher in a classroom and students in their day-to-day experiences.  It’s worth a deeper look, I believe, so I have sliced out the Mental Modeling part – how students might learn things.

First, take in the boundary:  the stocks pertain only to the STUDENT – what’s going on inside the student’s mind. (Barry used a separate chain to represent “actions taken.”)  

Second, the blue chain focuses on a student’s first draft of an idea: of all the possible elements (place, words, what I wear, time, et al) needed for, say, asking a girl to the prom, what shall I select for how I ask her?  In the young student’s mind will be a host of related things to this ask, and he will represent a few elements in his mental model.

The incredibly awkward moment

Third, the first iteration of the ask, the wildly hopeful young boy will begin to simulate the mental model, playing over and over and over in his crazed head how asking Jane will go.  Various outcomes play in his head.  Of course, he rethinks – he selects different elements and he represents elements differently as, in his manic imagination, he asks and asks and asks Jane if she will go to the prom with him.

Fourth, and now continuously for a few weeks as the boy screws up his courage, the boy moves through this recursive process of selecting and representing and simulating images in his head. Over time, the Mental Model of asking Jane to the Prom becomes clearer and ever more perfect in his imagination.

A last note here . . . just replace “asking Jane to the Prom” with taking the bus to a new destination, writing the term paper on Huck Finn, determining the causes of the Great Depression, formulating a geometric proof with the correct theorem, and on ad infinitum.  Barry represented a universal process and made his thinking about it absolutely clear.

The big question, of course, is . . .  did Jane say, “yes”?  We’ll find out in the next Thing.

OneThing10: stock up on love

Michael Fullen says  in Six Secrets of Change that if we want to get a lot out of our employees, love them.  Of course, this is true.  The more connected I am, the more sense I have that my work is valued, that my work makes a difference – all signs of love, then my natural inclination to get better does, in fact, get better.

But what happens when people are not there yest?  When people feel inconsequential, cut off, fearful?  Good luck if your kid goes to a school whose faculty feels like that.  There would be work to do.

Fullen contends that leaders have to mobilize people’s commitment to putting their energy into actions designed to improve things. Would it look like this?

If the teacher creates quality units, then it is VERY likely that good will come, that recognition from Administration would redound to more energy and more commitment.  If the Principal’s primary task is to “mobilize commitment,” and can make that happen,  then perhaps love is the way.

In this slightly tongue-in-cheek systems model, the Principal and students are the prime movers.  To what extent might most teachers be intrinsically motivated to expend energy on the work?

It’s in somewhere in this idea that a teacher’s capacity to carry a load of work might be defined. And increased.

OneThing9: the thing that carries us

Just checked the World Population Clock.  We’re humming along at 6.8 billion and counting. And we’ve been adding a billion new souls to the planet at an alarming clip – this last time, in just 12 years.  Even though the adding-a-billion rate may be slowing, that’s a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of diapers to clean.  How much can our blue marble take?

In systems parlance, the term we’re looking for is “carrying capacity” – the number of organisms a habitat can support, to paraphrase John Sterman.  Occasionally and tragically, the growth of the organism can be fast, exhaust the resource, and then, well, trouble with a capital T.  Or capital O, as in overshoot.

Perhaps a model to start with looks like this:

Is there enough in this model for us to understand a carrying capacity?

We can trace the balancing feedback, can’t we?  We make babies; we eat and use things; less food, fewer things; death rate picks up; perhaps, also, the birth rate plummets (but that’s not in the model, of course).  There’s a balance point in there that nature tends to find, sometimes at great cost.

If we have this archetypal pattern in our heads and wonder, metaphorically, what other types of things might have carrying capacities – like organizations, for example – there’s much insight here.  Recently, I’ve been wondering about the carrying capacity of my faculty:  how much can I ask them to take on?  What resources do they need to sustain the change?  What other limits to growth and change mitigate our hopes?

I really don’t know, but I’m going to start thinking about it. A lot.

But, first things first.  Time to sleep on this for a night.


OneThing4: coffee joy

It was the morning of the fifth day.

And I really needed a drink.  And then I really needed to capture what was going on . . . and so I drew this Tim and coffee-in-hand system.

The photo comes from my phone so it’s a bit fuzzy, but you can likely make out most of it:  a two-stock system that recognizes my grogginess as the level which regulates the drinking flow (and gulp size).  You’ll note that I occasionally take a peak at the level of coffee in my cup as the primary indicator of when I need to pour some more in.

Of course, I was groggy, so I left some things out.  Wouldn’t my grogginess dissipate as I drank coffee?  Might the weight of the cup in my hand tell me I needed more coffee?  Would a stock chain that includes “coffee in my tummy” be more accurate and help me close the loop with “grogginess”?

And there are more such universalities to ponder.  But on this July 1 morning in Chicago, it was enough.

OneThing2: It’s getting crowded in Portland

Portland grows up in a century.

At the turn of the 20th century, Portland was an outpost in the still young state of Oregon.  Logging and fishing were king, and some business owners wanted to attract people to the Pacific Northwest.  They organized the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition held in 1903, and Portland was never the same.  Within a decade, population spiked, fell off a bit in the Great Depression, rose dramatically again during and shortly after World War II, and then sputtered with each boom and bust over the next 50 years.  Now, after the Bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery’s trek to the Pacific Coast, Portland finds itself at the forefront of sustainability and urban planning and green technologies.

There are 1.7 million people now living in the Greater Metropolitan Area of what is now called Portland-Vancouver. If you click on the map, it will flash through four slides depicting the change in population over time; take special note of the expansion between the 1940’s – 1980’s, before urban planning took hold of the area’s imagination.  Those four decades show a city boiling over, just as most cities in the United States had done during that time.  Different in Portland was a growing number of people set on changing the city dynamic from sprawl to density, from suburbs to neighborhoods.  Note the limited expansion from 1980 to 2000.

OK.  So what?  Another Portlander bragging on his rainy, self-important city.  Dude, like, who cares?

The deal is that people thought different thoughts, and it all changed.  This change means that we have a large number of young adults and children ripe for some formalized and eminently practical education about sustainability and systems.  At De La Salle North Catholic High School, students learned a bit about Urban Planning last spring.  About 20 students built small models that focused on population and crowding,  and the effect of crowding on population shifts.

This pretty crude model of a feedback loop helped my students understand something crucial about systems, and reminded me of something spoken by Jay Forrester’s mentor Gordon Brown: the feedback is always in the social sciences.

Take a look at this model.  One stock.  A simplified feedback loop that leaves out a lot, but which helped students grapple with a complex idea.  There’s a lot to argue about in there, but the model helped us keep our rhetoric tuned to a particular element of the problem.  It reminded me that education is much less about expanding content standards and much more about simplifying.