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Camp Snowball—A Systemic Approach to Educational Improvement

Reos Partners
March, 2011


Snow Ball Reos Partners is pleased to be working with the Systems Thinking in Schools Project, the Creative Learning Exchange, the SoL Education Partnership, and the Cloud Institute on two initiatives: Partnerships for the Future and the launch event, Camp Snowball. This coalition seeks to enable all students to become responsible “systems citizens” who can think deeply and critically, achieve academically and professionally, and, as members of a global community, have the informed capacity to make a positive difference in the world.

To achieve this objective, the coalition is convening Partnerships for the Future, a focused, multi-year effort to shift K-12 education around the world toward a greater emphasis on critical thinking skills, sustainability education, and systemic approaches in classrooms and across communities. The Systems Thinking in Schools Project has more than 20 years of experience in developing and delivering school curricula that incorporate systems thinking, system dynamics, and sustainability education. The group has found that, as measured by traditional assessments, these tools facilitate learning and build the applied skills that today’s students need.

This multi-stakeholder, cross-sectoral effort is focused on finding ways to take systemic initiatives to scale. Systems Thinking in Schools has a proven track record of success in specific areas, and the Partnerships for the Future initiative seeks to take these approaches to school systems everywhere. It is often said that children are natural systems thinkers, but current educational strategies fail to reinforce and build on these innate abilities. This project strives to change that trend.

Camp Snowball is a summer program that will bring together students, parents, educators, and business and community leaders to build everyone’s capacity for learning and leading in the 21st century. Teams and individuals from school systems and communities around the world will develop a broad range of systems thinking skills and learn how to teach those skills to others. At the same time, by engaging a highly diverse group of participants (in terms of age, race, ethnicity, urban, rural, local, national, international, business, government, community), the organizers want to discover how to influence the education that our students are getting so they are better prepared for their future, wherever they come from.

What Will Camp Snowball Do?
• Officially launch the Partnerships for the Future initiative that will take systems thinking in education to scale in the US and international school communities
• Develop educators’ capacity for teaching systems thinking and sustainability
• Build support for this effort by engaging students, parents, community members, and business and governmental leaders
• Develop local teams that are working to implement these tools and perspectives in their own school systems, businesses, and lives
• Foster relationships and deep connections among various stakeholders who will support this effort for the long term
• Leverage the positive outcomes and impact that systems thinking and sustainability education in schools creates locally, nationally, and internationally

Why Systems Thinking, System Dynamics, and Sustainability Education?
Research shows that systems thinking and system dynamics provide effective strategies for helping students achieve success on various measures of academic achievement, such as the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) standards, the Common Core State Standards, and 21st Century Learning Skills. Systems thinking and system dynamics provide a framework and set of tools that facilitates understanding of a given system by focusing on the interrelationships between its different parts, rather than the parts themselves. These tools also give students a way to make explicit their personal view of what’s happening within a system. By creating behavior over time diagrams, causal maps, or even computer simulations, kids can communicate their own perspectives to others and “play out” scenarios for decision-making and action.

Students also learn to consider essential questions such as:

• What is changing over what timeframe?
• How and why is change occurring?
• What is the significance of the behavior within the system?
• How does our own behavior affect the system we are studying?

This process provides students with a structured way to understand and manage the complexities of the systems in which they live. The additional focus on sustainability education—developing new knowledge and ways of thinking that allow us to achieve economic prosperity while we restore the health of the living systems upon which our lives depend—puts learning into a real-world context filled with both meaning and purpose. Systems thinking, system dynamics, and sustainability education encourage the development of the following skills:

• Thinking critically
• Seeking and recognizing patterns and structures
• Communicating and collaborating
• Understanding complexity
• Creating computer models and simulations
• Thinking quantitatively
• Testing assumptions
• Focusing on real-world issues
• Seeing the big picture
• Exploring across disciplines

As a result, students become literate, active systems citizens and prepare to enter tomorrow’s workforce.

The Snowball Effect
Camp Snowball got its name from our desire to build momentum around this effort through a set of reinforcing processes all focused on successfully developing our students into systems citizens. The contributing factors include:

• A foundation of research-based practices, success stories from demonstration school sites, and shared tools and resources
• A multi-year project design, not a quick fix
• A focus on entire communities, not just school systems. Change is hard. We need committed teams with different perspectives and networks to provide resilience and rigor to this effort.
• Business involvement. Students are the workforce of the future. Business needs employees who can deal with the complexity that the future holds. The private sector must join with schools for long-term success.
• Relationships across sectors, school systems, and communities. When diverse teams from different parts of the world come together, businesses can connect with other businesses; community members can connect with other community members; educators and students can join with other educators and students, thus reinforcing the learning that is seeded at Camp Snowball. Cross-sectoral relationships that highlight diverse needs and perspectives are also critical for building creative tension and thus driving these activities to scale.
• Emphasis on system dynamics, systems thinking, and education for sustainability. These powerful learning tools reinforce instructional strategies and increase student engagement in learning, regardless of the subject being studied.
• A structured set of follow-up activities. After Camp Snowball is over, teams will benefit from ongoing coaching and support as they work to implement personal and systemic changes.

Camp Snowball will take place from 21-25 July in Tucson, AZ. If you would like to be part of this effort, please visit or email LeAnne Grillo for more information.

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