Waters Foundation Research Findings

Based on five years of Waters Foundation teachers’ action research studies, there is evidence to support the following compelling trends:

Making Things Visual

Students use systems thinking tools to clarify and visually represent their understanding of complexMarket Tools systems.


  • Students use behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs) to depict their understanding of patterns and trends.
  • BOTGs are visual tools that help students describe orally and in writing what and how they are thinking.
  • Connection circles and causal loop diagrams help students describe their understanding of the connections and interdependencies of complex systems including historical systems, scientific systems, economic systems, cultural systems, political systems, and literary systems, both fiction and nonfiction.
  • Students for whom English is a second language have demonstrated marked improvements communicating their thinking both orally and in writing as a result of using behavior-over-time graphs, causal loop diagrams, and the other systems tools.
  • When students make their thinking visible through the use of systems tools, teachers can immediately identify misconceptions that students may have about curricular content.
Making Connections

Systems thinking tools help students make connections between curricular areas and relevant life experiences.Fixes

  • When students use systems thinking concepts and tools, teachers have noted an increased number of incidences of transfer from classroom lessons to students’ real-life experiences.
  • An understanding of system structures enables students to see the similarities between seemingly different systems.  For example, the understanding of how a contagious disease infects a population helps students understand how a rumor spreads or a fashion trend grows.
Solving Problems

Students of all ages learn and independently use systems thinking problem-solving strategies.K-Inquiry-BOTG-PDX

  • Students experienced in recognizing and using systems thinking concepts and tools seek out new and varied perspectives when solving problems.
  • Students use systems thinking vocabulary and concepts to question and challenge seemingly obvious solutions to complex problems.  For instance, students use systems thinking archetypes like Fixes that Fail and Shifting the Burden to identify and analyze both short and long-term effects of actions.
  • Systems thinking concepts and tools help students understand their own beliefs/mental models and behaviors.  Students use BOTGs for self-assessing how behaviors and emotions change over time; ladder of inference for understanding the development of inferences; and causal loop archetypes for retelling the dynamics of particular situations.
Developing Readers & Writers

Systems thinking concepts and tools help students develop as readers and writers.5th Grade LA BOTG Care AZ

  • When students use the concepts and tools of systems thinking, they are better able to
    • retell and summarize a piece of writing;
    • analyze character, plot, setting and theme and the relationships among these literary components;
    • identify point of view and the author’s/characters’ mental models;
    • describe cause and effect relationships;
  • express themselves descriptively.
Increasing Engagement

When using systems thinking concepts and tools, many students show increased motivation, engagement, and self-esteem.5th Grade Butter-Battle PDX5

  • When using systems thinking tools as a prewriting strategy, students who had been producing below-average writing wrote more (quantity) and developed more thoughtful, insightful content (quality) than they had previously.
  • When asked to “tell the story of a line” (BOTGs), “tell the story of a loop” (causal loop diagrams), or “describe a stock-flow map,” many usually reluctant students were more willing to participate in front of others, using visual diagrams as they described ideas or theories.
  • Students in special education classes voiced satisfaction at being able to understand challenging concepts typically presented to their non-special education peers but not to them.
Tool-Specific – Behavior-Over-Time Graph (BOTG)
  • Behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs) helped students increase their skills with the mechanics of coordinate graphing.
  • In math, when students were given a story describing linear growth or decay, BOTGs helped them graph accurately, interpret the graph as a function, and interpret the relationship between rate and slope.
  • BOTGs helped students accurately compare and contrast two different linear functions and to compare a linear function with an exponential function.
  • BOTGs helped students visually describe change over time that was occurring in a system (a story, an historical period of time, a math word problem) which also helped them effectively write about their interpretation of the patterns and trends within a given system.
Tool-Specific – Causal Loop Diagram
  • Causal loop diagrams and causal loop archetypes helped students apply their understanding of generic system structures and real-world situations.
  • Causal loop diagrams helped to increase student awareness of various factors that contribute to cause and effect relationships (e.g. the environmental and social causes and effects that characterized the Dust Bowl).
Tool-Specific – Stock-Flow Mapping
  • Stock-flow mapping helped students express their ideas both orally and in writing.   For example, in language arts students drew stock-flow maps to identify important accumulations (stocks) and other influencing structures when reading and analyzing literature.  In social studies students demonstrated understanding of the developmental process of an invention.
  • In social studies, stock-flow mapping, as a pre-writing exercise, helped students enhance the quality of their written explanation of underlying reasons for events occurring in various historical periods.
Tool-Specific – Dynamic Computer Modeling
  • Dynamic modeling provided students a greater ability to analyze graphs (the output of a computer model) and to look for the parts and interactions that make up a system.
  • Dynamic modeling positively influenced the level of student discussion as students communicated insights and perceptions that represented higher level thinking.
  • When using dynamic computer simulations, traditionally under-performing students nearly equaled the performance of their classmates.
  • Dynamic modeling helped students differentiate among the various structures that contribute to linear growth, linear decay, and nonlinear patterns of change (e.g. exponential growth).
  • Dynamic modeling provided students with opportunities to make predictions about how a system might change given certain conditions, and then test their predictions by running the model.
Other Visual Tools
  • The use of visual systems thinking tools such as the ladder of inference and the iceberg were helpful as students engaged in classroom discussions.  The tools served as organizing thinking maps that enabled students to construct and communicate their understanding of subject matter.
  • In social studies, the iceberg helped students understand detail, explain cause and effect, see patterns, and grasp the value and impact of historical events.