Making Meaningful Connections
Catalina Foothills School District, Tucson, Arizona

The story of systems thinking in Catalina Foothills School District (CFSD) reads differently depending on which Habits of a Systems Thinker you’re applying at the time. To understand a big picture of how systems thinking became an element in CFSD’s system contributing to patterns of change, a reader needs to know that CFSD has applied systems thinking in both the classroom and organization since 1989, being the first Waters Center, née Waters Foundation, project. The district has embedded systems thinking concepts as appropriate throughout its curriculum and has been a demonstration site in partnership with the Waters Center, rather than a project, since 2011. CFSD’s community chose to include systems thinking as one of the deep learning proficiencies they see as essential for all students (along with citizenship, critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, communication, and collaboration).
CFSD has chosen to implement numerous structures through the years as leverage that keep systems thinking learning alive for their staff and students:
  • internally-conducted Waters Center Systems Thinking Level 1 and Level 2 workshops during the school year that are facilitated by CFSD staff in lieu of Waters Center staff
  • systems thinking learning sessions during administrative meetings
  • systems thinking as a component of school improvement plans
  • staff-generated rubrics for the systems thinking deep learning proficiency
As powerful as Catalina Foothills’ structures supporting systems thinking and its sustained development over time are (at this writing, 31 years!), perhaps the most impactful aspect of CFSD’s systems thinking story, and its greatest contribution to the Waters Center’s work, is its embodiment of making meaningful connections within and between systems.
Picture the desirable traits of a common dandelion plant with its yellow-flowering head that turns into a tufted-ball of fruits, waiting to be blown near and far. Systems thinking in Catalina Foothills started at one of its middle schools, a single dandelion flower, and within three years the wind had blown systems thinking throughout some aspect of all the district’s schools. Eventually, the wind started carrying seeds of systems thinking via Catalina Foothills staff members. Former CFSD teachers reached out from California, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, to name a few states, sharing how systems thinking was supporting work in their new locales. Administrators transported systems thinking, too. Locally, classroom teachers who had used systems thinking as teachers became school administrators who then applied the Habits and concepts to school culture, and school administrators became district-level administrators who continued their use of systems thinking with their district colleagues. Nationally, administrators moved from CFSD to other states, continuing their systems thinking journey as they went.
Equally as fruitful as the growth of systems thinking fostered by the tufts of the dandelion blown by CFSD staff members are those blown by former CFSD students. We can’t know a fraction of the connections that Catalina Foothills alumni have made in their post-high school lives to systems thinking Habits and concepts, but we do know a number of them:
  • the young professional who has “gifted” sets of the Habits of a Systems Thinker cards to his bosses
  • the former government worker who realized that trade negotiations with representatives from a foreign country were like a systems thinking simulation that he had been part of in school
  • the young professional who is in the midst of this feedback loop, specifically regarding systems thinking, as steps in her life journey have taken her from being a CFSD graduate to now being Director of Communications and Development for Waters Center
  • the emergency medicine doctor who speaks of how medical practice would be better served if everyone involved viewed all its components, including all people, as equally essential to its functioning as an efficient system
  • the classroom teacher who returned to teach at the elementary school he attended as a child in CFSD and integrated systems thinking so skillfully that he eventually conducted workshops for the Waters Center
There are undoubtedly countless other short and long-term systems thinking connections that staff and CFSD students are making and will make. The systems thinking work in Catalina Foothills continues. The dandelions will grow and the wind will blow!
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