Learning to Teach Anew

I have had that rare epiphany: I am not alone in the wilderness. There are many others who have had the same thoughts, and, what is even better, they are ahead of me by far in their thinking. I am thrilled to join them and happy to follow. These are the opinion leaders in applying improvement science to education. I have been talking about structural problems in higher education and the priority of process to make good on our ideals; it turns out I am no more than a novice.

I am not embarrassed to admit I am giddy about ideas. At the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education, I was introduced to a set of concepts that are not new -- except to educators. Not since I met the woman who became my wife at a professional conference have I looked forward to such gatherings. The series of presentations I saw this week in San Francisco, however, were transformative: I am determined to test the principles at the level of post-baccalaureate professional training.

The leader of this intensely practical movement is Anthony S. Bryk. The president of the Carnegie Foundation, he was part of the team that brought about progress in the Chicago public schools. With each tangible gain, he has noted, aspirations increased. The project is never finished. The group just published a new book presenting plans that they hope will be copied.

Bryk promotes "six core principles." They are as follows. (I encourage everyone reading this blog to follow up. This is a mere summary.)

  1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.

  • Variation in performance is the core problem to address.
  • See the system that produces the current outcomes.
  • We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.
  • Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.
  • Accelerate improvements through networked communities.
  • Speaker after speaker provided empirical data, enhanced by personal anecdotes, to prove their point. Their case studies showed how much could be done when information is compiled for improvement instead of compliance; when the goal is to be positive and forward looking rather than assign blame to a single wrongdoer; and when social networks are leveraged to bring about social change. Over a thousand registrants represented the range from primary, secondary, to postsecondary institutions.

    The techniques, which have been deployed in the health care field, are the next iteration of Malcolm Baldridge's "criteria" and W. Edwards Deming's guidelines for management. They are related to "choice architecture" that relies on "nudges" rather than regulation to influence behavior. Teachers draw mindmaps (also called "fishbone diagrams") to illustrate cause, effect, and path dependence. They want to stimulate creativity. Children are being taught the PDSA cycle: plan, do, study, act. They wrap up an assignment with a "plus-delta" assessment: what worked well this time and what might be done differently next time.

    The deliberate teaching of teachers has ensured the engaged learning of students. I doubt there is any possibility of un-engaged learning.

    It is easy to mock enthusiasm for educational trends. There have been no end of reform proposals that have failed to meet extravagant expectations. When I was elementary school, for example, there was a fad of building open schools without walls, literally without any barrier dividing spaces into rooms. It didn't work. Turns out that students need to be able to hear teachers, and, because sound travels, partitions are beneficial.

    The attendees at the conference are aware of the risks. They remember how they were sold on the prior claims.

    The improvement science folks have anticipated suspicion. They are explicit. There is no "magic bullet." They are dynamic, willing to adapt, embracing failure, taking into account all feedback. If anything, their theory is anti-theoretical. "Definitely incomplete and possibly wrong," one presenter said she puts at the top of her analysis.

    The greatest objection from academics usually has been that we are not manufacturing widgets. Professors are self-selected by their attraction to the intellectual and aversion to the corporate. They have subject matter expertise, in content. Teaching is not an afterthought, but it is not the basis for tenure decisions. Other than in business schools, business consultants marketing their proprietary lexicon of jargon about "quality" are not welcomed.

    Until I had the responsibility for the results, the student learning outcomes, job placement, and multitude of measurements purporting to constitute performance, I too was incredulous. As I return the classroom, I care even more about our effectiveness. What motivated me toward administration was the realization that so much of our challenge is systemic. The issues we face require cooperation.

    The conference is still happening around me. I could not be more eager. I am learning to teach -- anew.