Leverage Improvement Science as a Blueprint for Change


Imagine this scenario. You walk into a field. Scattered across the ground are the contents of a toolbox: hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, etc. Nails, bolts, and screws lie heaped in a pile. You see massive stacks of lumber, tile, and bricks. A group of workers – each with a different skillset (though you do not necessarily know what those skills may be) look at you waiting for direction. A person walks up and says, “I’m glad you’re here. Now build it.”

“Build what?” you ask. “A house? A barn? An office?”

“You decide.” Says the person. “As long as it’s effective.”

Now you have a new set of challenges. First, you need to make a vision for what to build using the available materials and communicate that vision to the workers so they can begin construction. Next, you need to determine your workers’ skills, preferences, and capabilities such that you harness their talents and support their collaboration. Then, you have to decide what effective means, based on what criteria, and for whom.

Though this is admittedly a gross oversimplification, in many ways it represents the challenge that school and district leaders face every day. An external entity provides all of the materials: curriculum, standards, evaluation criteria, money, scheduling requirements, etc. Individual building leaders and teachers represent the workers with varying interests, talents, and skills. School and district leaders then have to take all of this, create an “innovative” learning environment that is effective, and then communicate this vision to everyone else in the community so that they can execute it.

An architect would begin by determining the purpose of the building and then define its measures of effectiveness. Maybe the building should be an energy-efficient house for a family of four. It needs to have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a family room, and a place to eat. One person is in a wheelchair, so the whole house should be accessible.

Effectiveness might then be based on the defined criteria for energy efficiency, accessibility, and functionality. With these measures in place, the architect then asks specific experts — electric, plumbing, carpentry, interior design — for their more specific metrics of effectiveness: safety, water flow, structural integrity, aesthetics… Finally, this team needs to make plans and communicate specific designs to each group of workers so that they know exactly what to do.

Compared to school, this sounds wonderfully simple and concrete. But what if we could give district and school leaders the same set of tools as our architect — a methodology for creating blueprints and plans so that everyone understands their role in constructing the vision of effectiveness. The more time that I spend studying Improvement Science, the more that I think it might just be what we need.

Improvement Science comes from the public health sector and takes a systems approach to implementing change. In their book Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better, Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and LeMahieu assert that three essential questions guide the process:

  1. What specific problem are we trying to solve?
  2. What change might we introduce and why?
  3. How will we know if the change led to 
improvement? In other words, how will we measure effectiveness?

The first question forces a user-centered, problem-specific approach – much like how the architect began by determining the purpose of the building. The challenge, though, lies in specificity. Our parable architect did not decide to build “an innovative house that inspires its inhabitants and prepares them for the day ahead.” She was specific about her criteria for energy efficiency and accessibility. What should learning literally look like and how would you describe it in stories or vignettes? What do your students need and what would be the best design to support their learning?

With the problem defined, what change should be introduced and why? Maybe our architect changed the design from two stories to one, made one of the bathrooms with a wheelchair accessible shower, and reinforced the structure of the roof to accommodate solar panels. As a school or district leader, are you adding technology? Why? What purpose does it serve for the learner? Is the goal access to content, accessibility, empowering students as creators, or a combination?

Maybe most important, what are your measures of effective? Too often, change gets introduced and then we ask if it “worked.” The architect used energy efficiency and accessibility as metrics. Electricity consumed, water conserved, and whether a wheelchair can navigate the hallways all serve as measures. Before adding technology, or a makerspace, or adopting personalized/blended/problem-based learning, how will you measure success?

Our architect would never have used the number of nails hammered per hour during construction or square footage of tile laid per person; however, schools often use existing standardized test scores or assessments as a metric for change. Improvement science asks for a definition of an observable measurement. What would you want to see if you walked into a classroom? What conversations would you want to hear with students? What behaviors might change, and what new beliefs might your community espouse?

I do not mean for my building analogy to detract from the monumental challenge facing education leaders. German physicist, Horst Rittel, described building as a “tame problem” that possessed a “correct” solution based on an algorithm. In the case of our analogy, materials + purpose = design. However, Rittel described city planning as a wicked problem plagued by complexities and inconsistencies. Education is a definitely a wicked problem that requires a non-linear, problem-solving approach — such as that espoused by Improvement Science — as well as a set of wicked tools to tackle the challenge.

For my dissertation, I am working to design that wicked toolkit. Right now, it is still a prototype, so I am not ready to give any details away. But imagine if you had the tools of our architect to support your next change initiative: blueprints, wiring schematics, engineering diagrams, etc. Imagine how much easier it might be to build that innovative and effective learning environment.

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