About a year ago I read a book called Upstream: The quest to solve problems before they happen by Dan Heath (2020), Heath is well known for some of his other books co-authored with his brother, Made to Stick and Switch. The book opens with an adaptation of a parable often credited to Irving Zola, which goes like this:
You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water – a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight…and another…and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.” (p. 1)
Downstream efforts get a lot of attention. They’re where the heroes make the news. On a day to day level, downstream efforts are the obvious things that need attention. They’re the squeaky wheels that need the oil. In school, RtI and other interventions are some of our biggest downstream efforts.
What if, in schools, we were able to move upstream and help prevent the need for interventions downstream? How would that look?
Currently we’re working to compile as much data as we can in preparation for next school year. The data we have to work with is different from what we’ve had to work with in the past but we’ve got a lot of valuable information. While we can’t do away with our downstream interventions just yet, how can we begin to look upstream using the data that we collect at the same time as we work to support those students who need interventions in the present?
Reaction is easy, it’s much less ambiguous. When we’re working downstream, we’re reacting to a problem that is presenting itself at the moment, a challenging position to be in. Upstream, however, is a different kind of challenge. It requires thinking about a problem and its antecedents. It requires diagnosing a system that is breaking down and working to prevent the resulting problems, or at the very least reducing the impact those problems have on a population.
It’s important to remember that downstream work is still important, we can’t do away with the interventions and let those kids keep just floating down the river. However, we need to make sure that we don’t get stuck in a perpetual loop of downstream work like the two life-savers from the story above found themselves in, we’ll burn out! What Heath advocates for, and I agree with, is to make sure that we aren’t so focused on downstream work that we forget about looking upstream for the root of the problems.
So, as it comes time to dig into data, think about what that data is telling us about our upstream needs and not just about the work that we need to do downstream. What do we need to do to slow the flow of kids floating down the river in the first place?