By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries from March 2012
Posts 1 - 10 of 10

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Avoiding waste in education

One of the best ways to improve what you do is to avoid waste. But what constitutes waste in education?

Wasted degrees. When my wife graduated from college with her teaching degree in 1971, there was a glut of teachers in the market. It had to do in part with demographics. Baby Boomers were coming out of college in large Baby Boomer numbers but there were now fewer students in the K12 schools. Could the school districts and education schools see this demographic change coming? Of course. Did the ed schools warn students against becoming teachers? Nope. Was there waste? You bet! The majority of newly graduating teachers had to find employment somewhere other than education.

Wasted courses. I once took a graduate course that was of no value to me or anyone else in the class: abstract algebra. Abstract  algebra may be of value to mathematicians, I don't know. But it was a required course for grad students in computer science where I did my master's work. So here was an entire classroom full of us studying a course that had absolutely nothing to do with computing, programming, algorithms or anything else relevant to us. It was a waste of a lot of time for a lot of people. Years later I was invited back to that school to give a lecture. While I was with the head of the department I asked him why we were required to take abstract algebra. He said he didn't know. It made no sense to him.

Failed courses. When a student spends time in a course for a semester or a year and fails it, it is a dreadful waste of the student's time and the teacher's time too. How can this waste be avoided? The best approach is early diagnosis of a problem and intervention.

Poorly learned units. A common mode of teaching is to cover a unit of material then give a test at the end and move on to the next unit. But what if a student didn't learn it? Well, he gets a bad grade. He should have worked harder. That's a waste of time. There are few things more productive than giving formative assessments along the way and modifying the teaching based on their results. It makes little sense to plow forward if the students aren't getting it.

Reinventing lessons. There is a lot of repetition in teaching year to year. If you taught algebra one last year and are going to teach it this year, those two courses obviously are very similar. One of the most startling things to me when I work with schools who use our lesson planning product is that many teachers resist making lesson plans! What a waste of time reinventing a set of lesson year after year.

Repeating mistakes. One of the benefits of a set of well organized lesson plans is the opportunity to make improvements daily. Teach a class, then at the end of the day reflect on what went well and what needs work in the lesson plan. Fix it immediately while the memory is fresh in mind. Don't repeat your mistakes!

Working in isolation. Teachers sometimes feel isolated and alone in their classrooms. That's ridiculous! There are teachers throughout the country teaching exactly what you are teaching. There may be many teachers in your own school teaching exactly what you are teaching. Why not work together? And it goes beyond content. Whether you're being frustrated by problems of classroom management or getting through to a particular student, the same problems have been addressed countless times by other teachers. Don't go it alone.

Small scale inefficiencies. When you first saw the title Avoiding waste in education, you may have thought of such things as ways to save paper, ways to avoid having misbehaving students sitting in the office or ways to save some time through a particularly efficient method of passing out papers. These are examples of small-scale waste. They are very important because they rob students of time-on-task. It is worthwhile to identify them and root them out! Just don't miss the big picture.

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Keywords: continuous improvement, waste


Monday, March 26, 2012

Edison on improvement

Although the notion of continuous improvement wasn't to become popular until decades after his work, Thomas A. Edison showed that he lived by the basic concepts. Here are some of his quotes.

There is a better way -- find it.

Waste is worse than loss. The time is coming when every person who lays claim to ability will keep the question of waste before him constantly. The scope of thrift is limitless.

Restlessness is discontent and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.

To have a great idea, have a lot of them.

Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged.

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work.

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Keywords: continuous improvement, Edison


Friday, March 23, 2012

Sticking with it

Improvement means change and change can be hard. We resolve to change but often fall back into our old ways. Okay, so then what happens? Most commonly, we give up. Don't do it!

I have a goal of getting over my habit of drinking Diet Coke all the time. But after a couple of weeks of abstenance, I have just finished one. Sure I am disappointed, but it is not reason to give up! It is evidence that my plan was imperfect. To the extent that my plan relied on iron will, it was doomed to fail. I don't possess an iron will so I need a plan that doesn't require it.

Edison went through a thousand experiments without success when looking for a light bulb filament that would last. He said that he wasn't discouraged because he now knew a thousand things that wouldn't work.

The same goes for my Diet Coke habit. I now know another plan that doesn't work. I'll try something else.

And the same goes for any improvement. They aren't all going to work. Adopt the attitude that every failure is another step forward...if you're willing to learn from it.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sixteen steps to overcoming laziness

I recently saw an article titled Sixteen steps to overcoming laziness. Now, there is an author who doesn't understand his audience! The title alone forced me to take a nap.

I figured I would read the article to put myself to sleep. It actually turned out to be pretty good...but only because it was written as sixteen tips to overcoming laziness. The great thing about tips is you don't have to do them. They are just tips, take them or leave them. And maybe you'll find something inspiring in there. After all, there are sixteen of them. But sixteen steps? I'd need to do them all! And probably in order! Without missing any!

Three steps is the standard for an "easy" process. You might get away with five but three is better. I don't think that two steps is any better than three. If your process is only two steps long, add a third step like, "now stretch out on the couch and congratulate yourself on a job well done," which is just what I intend to do.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

The daily tweak

Can you improve something every day? Try it. I'm not talking about a revolutionary change, but just a tweak...but a persistent tweak, an improvement that you'll keep.

As I look over my desk, I see lots of opportunity for improvement. Papers scattered, Post-Its around, pens and USB drives scattered about.

Something else is a bit of a mess: time. I don't do a very good job of spreading long-term tasks over time. I would do better to make bits of progress along the way. David Allen's Getting Things Done is an approach that has a lot of appeal.

So, I've actually made a few tweaks today. I have a daily process list that pops up first thing every morning which I use to plan my day.

  • Adjusted my daily process to include a step similar to the 43Folders in Getting Things Done. But instead of using folders, I just make entries on my online calendar (folders? paper? are you kidding?)
  • Adjusted my daily process to include a daily tweak
  • Realized that I wasn't actually doing the weekly review I have scheduled on my calendar every week, so I wrote a review process.


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Keywords: continuous improvement, tweak


Friday, March 16, 2012

Great expectations

In order to improve, we need to find the knowledge gaps. Knowledge gaps show themselves as surprises. When we're surprised, it is because we were expecting something else.

A surprise is a violated expectation. I expected X, I got Y, surprise! If we want to accelerate learning, make expectations more explicit.

A nice type of expectation is a measurement of outcome. For example, you teach your class to add single digit numbers and you expect that they will be able to pass a test adding single digit numbers. If they can't, surprise! The lesson needs improvement.

But what about less well-defined activities? What if you're going into a meeting to discuss a certain topic. Eventually the meeting will be over. Was it a success? The only way to know is to set your expectations before the meeting. What would a successful outcome look like? If you've set your expectations, there is a way to judge success or failure. If there is, there is some way to determine whether you understand what you're doing.

If your expectations are consistently off, you don't understand what you're doing. You have an opportunity to learn. And that's great because you have a specific opportunity to improve. Great expectations!

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Keywords: continuous improvement, surprises


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How quickly do you learn?

Many of us keep making the same mistakes over and over. We often make a habit of making the same mistakes. We date the wrong people, we're habitually late for appointments, we put off projects for too long, we reach too far for a ladle of gravy and it drips on the tablecloth...these are a few among many common habitual mistakes. When we make mistakes habitually, we are failing to learn from our experience.

In an organization, each mistake represents a gap in knowledge or execution. The process is imperfect. But the mistake has provided an opportunity: to span the knowledge gap or to perfect the execution. Every mistake gives us the opportunity to learn.

Embrace mistakes! Seek out the imperfections! They are our friends! They are our path to improvement. Given a mistake or imperfection, we now have a specific problem to solve, a specific answer to find or a specific experiment to run. We can improve!

Once the answer has been found or the experiment has been run, put the new knowledge to work. How? Make plans and processes explicit. Then improve the processes as more is learned.

Who else needs to know about this discovery? Share the learning. And if you don't know who in particular needs to know the new answer you've found, share it to a wiki or a database or even just a knowledge base of articles in a shared folder that others can search.

Then do it all again. Learn more quickly than anyone else. It's the one true defensible advantage.

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Keywords: continuous improvement, habits


Monday, March 12, 2012

Changing habits

Continuous improvement in an organization is very similar to an individual changing habits. An organization has processes, an individual has habitual routines. An organization process is initiated by a certain set of circumstances, an habitual routine is triggered by a cue. An organization process serves a goal of some kind, an habitual routine is followed by a reward.

The psychologist William James appreciated the power of habits well before he became a psychologist. He wrote in his diary at age 28 that he was considering suicide:

"Today I about touched bottom, and perceive plainly that I must face the choice with open eyes. Shall I frankly throw the moral business overboard, as one unsuited to my innate aptitudes?"

But shortly after he made a decision. Before committing suicide he would conduct an experiment. He would spend a year believing that he had control over himself and his destiny, that he could become better, that he had the free will to change. He had no proof that he could change, nor any proof to the contrary, so he chose to believe that he had the free will to change and his "first act of free will shall be to believe in free will."

In the following year he improved his life for the better in many ways and wrote that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief was habits. If you believe in change and make change a habit you can make real changes. And the key is, that one's habits are what he chooses them to be, then the habits propel one to become the person he wants to be.

So it is with continuous improvement. An organization must first believe that it can become better. It must believe it can change. And that the key to that change lies in improving its processes. If the processes are improved, the performance of the organization will improve as a consequence.

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Keywords: continuous improvement, habits


Friday, March 9, 2012

Learning through experimentation

Do an experiment every day.

-- Edwin Land

I've long admired Edwin Land. He was the inventor of many things but most widely known for in-camera self-developing film, co-founding Polaroid Corporation and for low-cost polarizing lenses that are now common in sun glasses. But what I like most about him is his goal to do an experiment every day.

If you're not an inventor, trying to do an experiment every day is a tough thing to do. But even if you don't do an experiment every day, if you're looking to do an experiment every day, you're learning.

Looking for an experiment to do every day means you're looking for surprises, abnormalities or violated expectations. In other words, you're looking for things you don't understand. And that's the first step to learning.

But in addition to looking for experiments to do, it has also gotten easier to do certain types of experiments, thanks to the net.

  • Google's Website Optimizer. It's a free service that allows you to compare two versions of a web page for their effectiveness in getting site visitors to take an action, such as clicking a Buy button. If you have a website with lots of traffic, you can gather data very quickly. What if you don't have a website with lots of traffic? In that case, experiments may take a long time before you collect enough exposures for meaningful results. Then, use someone else's traffic. Use Google Adwords.
  • Google Adwords. Adwords allows you to create ads to be displayed on Google search results pages and among the Google ads embedded in other people's pages. You pay nothing to create and display ads but pay a cost-per-click fee when someone clicks on your ad. Create multiple versions of an ad and Google will randomly expose one of the multiple versions to users. You can then check the click-through statistics to learn which version of the ad produced the most click-throughs.

With tools like these, it's easy to have experiments running every day, and maybe even easy enough to conduct an experiment every day.

Keep learning!

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Keywords: continuous improvement, experiments


Monday, March 5, 2012

Your Education Engine

An engine is the instrument of a particular process. The engine is the thing that makes the process go. A quick Google search yielded many examples. Here are a few:

  • "failure is the engine of success"
  • "imagination is the engine of ideas"
  • "productivity is the the engine of growth"
  • "economic development is the engine of prosperity"
  • "entrepreneurship is the engine of economic prosperity"
  • "science is the engine of prosperity"
  • "working memory is the engine of learning"
  • "digestive health is the engine of immunity"

The engine produces the result, whether it's success, ideas, growth, prosperity, learning or immunity.

The Education Engine in your school is the instrument of your process that produces the result: student achievement.

Of course, a school or district is unlike a mechanical engine in at least one crucial way: the education engine is a process performed by people. In general, for all schools, your staff is the engine of student achievement. Improving your Education Engine requires that you support the development, creativity, cooperation and collaboration of your staff.

The phrases above are in the form "x is the engine of y". In other words, x is the most important element for creating y. We take it as given that in general, your staff is the engine of student achievement. Any improvement that you achieve will be done through your staff. Improvement in the Education Engine will always come down to working with the people of your school.

Beyond the general, at your school, what specific x fits in "x is the engine of student achievement"? The specific x will change from school to school and from time to time. X may be reading, time on task, classroom management, alignment, tradition, high expectations, great teachers, project-based learning, parental involvement or any number of factors. The important thing is that you as the administrator know what is most important for your school now.

Understanding your education engine allows you to focus on improving it, to rev it up so it runs at peak performance. Improving your education engine is the surest path to improving student achievement.

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Keywords: continuous improvement

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