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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Water Education: Cultivating Water Thinking

Tue, 01/26/2016 - 1:15pm -- Jeremy Solin

Water was threatening to spill over the top of my hip boots. In early May, the opening of trout fishing season, the water of the Wolf River was cold. We were on our way to a spring pond where we began trout season every year. Long before I ever came along, my family had begun many trout fishing seasons in this reliable producer of brook trout.

For many years, the anticipation of those trout kept me awake Friday evenings leading up to the opener. I began crossing the Wolf River to get to that spring pond when I was seven or eight-years-old. Trout fishing was a main source of my early, conscious and intentional interaction with water. I came to love water, particularly water cold and healthy enough to hold trout. I sought out as many streams and rivers as I could and cherished trout fishing trips with my dad. I felt as David James Duncan wrote in My Story as Told by Water: “My intuition blasted me daily with the sense that real rivers had something crucial to teach, that this something lived in fluid darks and deeps, that I needed to lay literal hands on the literal life of these deeps.”

The Wolf River in Langlade County

These early experiences with water combined with ample time exploring the forests of northern Wisconsin inspired me to pursue a career in natural resources. Based on the multi-generational stewardship of my family’s land situated on the terminal moraine in Langlade County, I knew it was possible to simultaneously live well on land and also care for the land.

Through my education and broader experiences in the world, I came to understand the significant ecological and social issues we are creating and facing as a society from our lack of a strong relationship with the land and water. From this understanding, I developed a desire to help create a more sustainable society. For the past 15 years I have worked in the environmental education field, working to build people’s connections to and care for their places.

During that time, there have been two consistent and interrelated inquiries in my work: how do we create changes in human behavior and how do we strongly connect people to their places—their human and ecological communities—such that they care for those places? I’ll focus on the first of these questions for the remainder of this post.

Education is, of course, at least part of the answer to how we influence people’s behaviors. This is true of water-related issues in Wisconsin. In fact, the Waters of Wisconsin report (Wisconsin Academy, 2003) identified education as one of four broad categories of recommendations, stating:

Over the long run, improved stewardship of water in Wisconsin depends on broad citizen awareness and on actions taken at the individual, community, and watershed levels. This in turn depends on the widespread acceptance of a shared water ethic that combines a critical understanding of water with an attitude of care and concern. Although adoption of such an ethic cannot be ensured, it can be encouraged through actions that offer opportunities for expanded public education and participation. (p. 122)

So education is an important strategy to create behaviors to address our water issues. However, the devil is in the details. What does effective education look like? That is, what are the common experiences and learning strategies that lead people to changing their behaviors, both individually and collectively, to improve the quality and quantity of water? We know that more than just information is necessary to get people to both care and take action. Effective education engages and empowers people and gets them to think critically about something. Often we mis-equate information with knowledge. Rather, knowledge is developed through thinking about information.

Families participating in a water education program

For education to be effective, thinking needs to be at the center. Like most educators, I’ve intuitively known this for a long time. But I struggled with teaching thinking. It reminds me of that often shared cartoon where a mathematician is writing an equation on the chalkboard.  Before the solution to the equation, he’s written “then a miracle occurs.” The thinking part of learning was the miracle—students were just supposed to do it.

Fortunately, there is research about that “miracle” of thinking and understanding that can help us to become better thinkers and educators. This research should inform water education.

Becoming a water thinker

Cognitive scientist Dr. Derek Cabrera’s research has led to the discovery of four universal patterns of thought. His new theory on thinking serves as a strategy to integrate thinking into water education. This theory can be considered both a metacognitive (thinking about thinking) and systems thinking theory. In fact, this theory has been called the unifying theory of systems thinking (Midgley, 2014). I’ve been fortunate to spend some time learning about and applying this theory to water education. The result of using this strategy is to become a “water thinker.”  And I believe we can all become better water thinkers with ongoing practice.

The core of becoming a water thinker is using Dr. Cabrera’s four simple rules of systems thinking—Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives (DSRP):

  • Distinctions. It is innate for humans to make distinctions—to distinguish one thing from another. In water education, we distinguish groundwater from surface water, precipitation from evaporation, and sustainable use from non-sustainable use.
  • Systems. All things are simultaneously parts and wholes. A part of one whole can also be a system with many parts. For example, a river is part of a watershed system. The river is also a system made up of many parts (water, fish, food web relationships, etc.).
  • Relationships. Relationships exist within and between the parts and wholes of systems. Relationships can be indirect, causal, linear, etc. Interestingly, we find that relationships themselves are also parts and wholes of systems. For example, the food web (a set of relationships between organisms) of a lake is an important part of that system.
  • Perspectives. All that we perceive and understand is done from a particular point of view.  And there are multiple points from which to view any idea/thing. That means that every distinction, every system, and every relationship identified is influenced by perspectives.  We can come to a better understanding of reality if we view the thing of interest from multiple angles. The ecological view of a lake is different than a social view of that same lake. Together, they better represent the reality of that lake.

The rules operate together to deepen our thinking about the world by making conscious the process of thinking. They are simple rules, but they add up and combine to produce thinking of great complexity. DSRP provides a straightforward, practical tool to approach complex situations and problems. For more on DSRP, see this article.

Water thinkers of all ages and backgrounds utilize systems, thinking tools, technology, resources, and networks to become better thinkers, consumers, and citizens. Researchers apply systems thinking to their research topics to produce higher quality, more interdisciplinary results. Educators integrate systems thinking into existing water-related content, which they enhance by creating deeper understanding and caring about water on the part of students of all ages. Extension and outreach staff apply systems thinking principles to deepen their fieldwork and outreach efforts.

Becoming a water thinker has provided an important perspective on effective water education, a path that I began many years ago on trout fishing adventures. If we can help develop a state (and nation, and world) of water thinkers through water education, we can ensure that many more generations get the experience of lying awake in anticipation of trout-filled rivers and spring ponds.


Duncan, D. J. (2002). My story as told by water: Confessions, druidic rants, reflections, bird-watchings, fish-stalkings, visions, songs and prayers refracting light, from living rivers, in the age of the industrial dark. CenterPoint.

Midgley, G. (2014). An introduction to systems thinking: Integration and implementation in the face of wicked problems. Plenary talk from the First Global Conference on Research Integration and Implementation. http://goo.gl/ZT7emg

Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. (2003). Waters of Wisconsin: The future of our aquatic ecosystems and resources.  

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Jeremy Solin is the Wisconsin ThinkWater Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. ThinkWater (www.thinkwater.us) is a national movement of educators, students, managers, stewards, scientists, and citizens who think and care deeply about water.

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