By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries from August 2011
Posts 1 - 12 of 12

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why is continuous improvement important?

Consider this:

The best teachers are very good.

  • There is a large difference between student performance and teacher quality
  • The students of the best teachers learn 1.5 years of material in a school year
  • The students of the worst teachers learn 0.5 years of material in a school year

Teacher improvement doesn't just happen

  • Improved student performance correlates with completion of the first year or two of teacher experience
  • Student performance shows little or no improvement with teacher experience after 2 years
  • Student performance does not correlate with teacher education

How do good teachers get good?

Performance improves through deliberate practice

  • Practice with high focus and concentration
  • Practice specific to improve performance
  • Continue for long periods of time
  • Must be repeated
  • Requires continuous feedback
  • Requires goal-setting
  • Involves self-observation and self-reflection
  • Involves careful reflection after practice sessions

Continuous improvement is a set of practices for conducting deliberate practice on processes such as teaching.

Teachers don't get great just by teaching

  • Improving student performance requires better teaching
  • Improving student performance by improving teaching requires deliberate practice
  • Improvement requires sustained practice and focus on improvement

Continuous improvement of teaching must become as high priority as teaching itself.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Friday, August 26, 2011

Designing your environment for improvement

Depending on will power is the most common mistake in trying to create individual change. Don't do it. Instead, design your environment to shape your behavior for you.

  • Calendar: If you're a person who manages her life through a calendar, schedule dates and times to do the things you want to do. For example, schedule a specific time to send out invoices or to do your planning.
  • Become a calendar person: People who don't routinely use calendars often don't because they don't have the calendar habit. They don't think to look at their calendars. Beat this in two ways. First, make your calendar front and center. Have it pop up on your computer desktop first thing every morning or maintain a paper calendar where you can't miss it: posted on your bathroom mirror or on your refrigerator. Second, put fun stuff on it too. Don't just fill it with onerous tasks which make you dread looking at it, but add events that you look forward to.
  • Pop up a goals file: Want to have a constant reminder of your goals? Have a goals file automatically pop up on your computer every morning. Include an activity such as writing a few lines of ideas for how to achieve the goals. The activity gets you engaged with the goals.
  • Automatically send yourself emails: Schedule email reminders for calendar events such as birthdays and due dates. But you can also schedule email reminders to remind you of goals and resolutions.
  • Set short term goals: New Year resolutions have typically fizzled away by the second or third week in January. Bad news for the rest of the year. So, don't set goals once per year, set them once a month. That way, if the pursuit of each lasts two or three weeks, you've been working on your goals for a much greater percentage of the year.
  • Track your success: Use graphs, checklists or check off days on a calendar to indicate progress toward your goal. Keep it visible. Use it to keep an unbroken streak of successes going.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where do the new ideas for improvements come from?

There are habits that make a person more likely to come up with ideas. According to Clayton Christensen in The Innovator's DNA, the habits include

  • Questioning
  • Observing
  • Networking
  • Experimenting

We can change our likelihood of coming up with great new ideas by consciously increasing our questioning, observing, networking and experimenting. And this applies to organizations as well.

Consider the opposite: Let's say we wanted to decrease the likelihood of people coming up with new ideas. Is there anything we could do? Sure. We could discourage questioning by admonishments like "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "keep you nose to the grindstone" or "mind your own business." We could discourage observing by telling people not to bother looking at how others do things that are related to what we do. That's someone else's job. We've got our ways, end of story. We could discourage folks from asking others about their ideas or asking them to react to our ideas. And we could discourage experimentation by insisting that there be no time "wasted" on learning and that failure is not allowed. Experiments often fail and one tends to learn from them whether they fail or succeed. But if there is no time for such silliness or it's fine as long as it's on your own time, we can effectly shut down experimentation.

What might you do to encourage your own ongoing habits of questioning, observing, networking and experimenting? What might you do to encourage those habits in others in your organization?

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Monday, August 22, 2011

What are you working on?

If you subscribe to the notion of continuous improvement, you should always be able to answer the question, what are you working on? There should always be an improvement project under way.

What are you improving?

  1. The goal: it seems to me that all educators have the same two goals. First, improve student performance. Second, improve student enthusiasm for learning.
  2. Where are you now? You need to be able to measure a starting point in order to show progress.
  3. What improvement are you focused on? There are many things you could try, but you can't try them all. At least not all at once. Pick one and start measuring. If you're looking for ideas of improvements to try, check out this list, start at the top and work down.
  4. What is your next step? You need to get started right now. Big plans that you never get around to are of no value. Start small. Start now.
  5. When can we see results? Ideally, you can measure your results frequently and so visualize your progress. If your efforts are not paying off, consider a different experiment.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Friday, August 19, 2011

Consistency is critical

Continuous improvement requires that we work consistently to improve. But we all tend to have improvement fits and starts...but most commonly stops. How can we keep it going?

The key to consistency is building a habit, which is to say, making it automatic. We take a shower in the morning and brush our teeth because it has become habitual. It's simply what we do. We don't have to think about it.

That's what we want to get to for continuous improvement. We want it to be such an ingrained habit that it wouldn't feel right if we weren't working on improvement.

How do we do we make it automatic? Through consistent repetition. How do we keep the repetition going long enough to form a habit? Several ways.

  • Make small changes. Small changes are less threatening, less anxiety producing, so it's easier to make them. As making chenges becomes more habitual, it will be easier to make bigger steps.
  • Challenge yourself. What is it that needs improvement? The challenge motivates the change.
  • Remind yourself. Post your challenges and your current changes where you will see them frequently or at strategic times. Schedule reminder events on your calendar or schedule reminder emails to be sent to you. Schedule a document to pop up first thing in the morning to remind you of your goals.
  • Make your reminders active. You'll become more engaged in your reminders if they have you do something. For example, I have a goal reminder pop up on my computer every morning which includes my goals and what I'm currently working on, but also includes one or more questions to answer every morning. I keep the same questions for a week, then write a short summary at the end of the week. The repetition of questions stimulates creative answers.
  • Keep track. Whether you keep a checklist, check days on a calendar, take a measurement or list the phone calls you make, by keeping track, you're more likely to keep the effort consistent.
  • Celebrate your successes. Change isn't easy, so when you've made some progress, give yourself credit for it.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Monday, August 15, 2011

Why collect data?

Can't we tell what works just by paying attention? Do we really have to go through the bother of collecting data or even designing experiments?

The problem with conducting experiments where people are involved is that people are hopeful. They want results to come out well. And, because of this hope, they are often biased in their observations, interpretations and actions. It is not that they are malicious or deceitful or intend to corrupt the results of experiments. To the contrary, it is because they are helpful and hopeful that they often unintentionally corrupt the results of experiments.

A question asked is better than a question not asked.

An experiment run is better than an experiment not run.

An outcome measured is better than an outcome not measured.

An experiment designed to eliminate bias is better than an experiment performed casually.

There are many ways to make experiments better. The greatest error, however, is to not experiment at all, to never risk performing better.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

What has the greatest effect on student achievement?

This table is from a remarkable meta analysis by John Hattie. It attempts to quantify how much improvement various practices have been shown to yield in student achievement.

Terms used in the table:

  • An effect size of 0.5 is equivalent to a one grade leap (e.g., from C to B)
  • An effect size of 1.0 is equivalent to a two grade leap (e.g., from C to A)
  • An effect size above 0.4 is above average for educational research

The message of these effect sizes is that the ones near the top of the list can make a really significant difference in student achievement. When considering the question, What should I improve? in your continuous improvement program, consider improvements from this list, starting from the top down. One exception to that simple rule is, if an influence far down the list is easy to implement or convenient for other reasons, such as the use of calculators, go ahead and do so. Students will still get some benefit from it, just not as much benefit as from the influences with a larger effect size.

RankDomainInfluence Effect Size
1 Student Self-report grades 1.44
2 Student Piagetian programs 1.28
3 Teaching Providing formative evaluation 0.90
4 Teacher Micro teaching 0.88
5 School Acceleration 0.88
6 School Classroom behavioral 0.80
7 Teaching Comprehensive interventions for learning disabled students 0.77
8 Teacher Teacher clarity 0.75
9 Teaching Reciprocal teaching 0.74
10 Teaching Feedback 0.73
11 Teacher Teacher-student relationships 0.72
12 Teaching Spaced vs. mass practice 0.71
13 Teaching Meta-cognitive strategies 0.69
14 Student Prior achievement 0.67
15 Curricula Vocabulary programs 0.67
16 Curricula Repeated reading programs 0.67
17 Curricula Creativity programs 0.65
18 Teaching Self-verbalization/self-questioning 0.64
19 Teacher Professional development 0.62
20 Teaching Problem-solving teaching 0.61
21 Teacher Not Labeling students 0.61
22 Curricula Phonics instruction 0.60
23 Teaching Teaching strategies 0.60
24 Teaching Cooperative vs. individualistic learning 0.59
25 Teaching Study skills 0.59
26 Teaching Direct Instruction 0.59
27 Curricula Tactile stimulation programs 0.58
28 Curricula Comprehension programs 0.58
29 Teaching Mastery learning 0.58
30 Teaching Worked examples 0.57
31 Home Home environment 0.57
32 Home Socioeconomic status 0.57
33 Teaching Concept mapping 0.57
34 Teaching Goals 0.56
35 Curricula Visual-perception programs 0.55
36 Teaching Peer tutoring 0.55
37 Teaching Cooperative vs. competitive learning 0.54
38 Student Pre-term birth weight 0.54
39 School Classroom cohesion 0.53
40 Teaching Keller's PIS 0.53
41 School Peer infiuences 0.53
42 School Classroom management 0.52
43 Curricula Outdoor/adventure Programs 0.52
44 Teaching Interactive video methods 0.52
45 Home Parental involvement 0.51
46 Curricula Play programs 0.50
47 Curricula Second/third chance programs 0.50
48 School Small group learning 0.49
49 Student Concentration/persistence/engagement 0.48
50 School School effects 0.48
51 Student Motivation 0.48
52 Student Early intervention 0.47
53 Teaching Questioning 0.46
54 Curricula Mathematics 0.45
55 Student Preschool programs 0.45
56 Teacher Quality of Teaching 0.44
57 Curricula Writing Programs 0.44
58 Teacher Expectations 0.43
59 School School size 0.43
60 Student Self-concept 0.43
61 Teaching Behavioral organizers/Adjunct questions 0.41
62 Teaching Matching style of learning 0.41
63 Teaching Cooperative learning 0.41
Average Effect Size in Education for 500,000+ Influences 0.40
64 Curricula Science 0.40
65 Curricula Social skills programs 0.40
66 Student Reducing anxiety 0.40
67 Curricula Integrated Curriculum Programs 0.39
68 School Enrichment 0.39
69 Curricula Career Interventions 0.38
70 Teaching Time on Task 0.38
71 Teaching Computer assisted instruction 0.37
72 Teaching Adjunct aids 0.37
73 Curricula Bilingual programs 0.37
74 School Principals/ school leaders 0.36
75 Student Attitude to mathematics/science 0.36
76 Curricula Exposure to reading 0.36
77 Curricula Drama/Arts programs 0.35
78 Student Creativity 0.35
79 Teaching Frequent/effects of testing 0.34
80 School Decreasing disruptive behavior 0.34
81 Student Drugs 0.33
82 Teaching Simulations 0.33
83 Teaching Inductive teaching 0.33
84 Student Positive view of own ethnicity 0.32
85 Teacher Teacher effects 0.32
86 Teaching Inquiry based teaching 0.31
87 School Ability grouping for gifted Students 0.30
88 Teaching Homework 0.29
89 Home Home visiting 0.29
90 Student Exercise/relaxation 0.28
91 School Desegregation 0.28
92 School Mainstreaming 0.28
93 Curricula Use of calculators 0.27
94 Curricula Values/moral education programs 0.24
95 Teaching Programmed instruction 0.24
96 Teaching Special college programs 0.24
97 Teaching Competitive vs. individualistic learning 0.24
98 School Summer school 0.23
99 School Finances 0.23
100 Teaching Individualized instruction 0.23
101 School Religious Schools 0.23
102 Student Lack of Illness 0.23
103 Teaching Teaching test taking 0.22
104 Teaching Visual/audio-visual methods 0.22
105 Teaching Comprehensive teaching reforms 0.22
106 School Class size 0.21
107 School Charter Schools 0.20
108 Teaching Aptitude/treatment interactions 0.19
109 Student Personality 0.19
110 Teaching Learning hierarchies 0.19
111 Teaching Co-/ team teaching 0.19
112 Teaching Web-based learning 0.18
113 Home Family structure 0.17
114 Curricula Extra-curricular programs 0.17
115 Teaching Teacher immediacy 0.16
116 School Within class grouping 0.16
117 Teaching Home-school programs 0.16
118 Teaching Problem-based learning 0.15
119 Curricula Sentence combining programs 0.15
120 Teaching Mentoring 0.15
121 School Ability grouping 0.12
122 Student Gender 0.12
123 Student Diet 0.12
124 Teacher Teacher training 0.11
125 Teacher Teacher subject matter knowledge 0.09
126 Teaching Distance Education 0.09
127 School Out of school curricula experiences 0.09
128 Curricula Perceptual-Motor programs 0.08
129 Curricula Whole language 0.06
130 School College halls of residence 0.05
131 School Multi-grade/age classes 0.04
132 Teaching Student control over learning 0.04
133 School Open vs. traditional 0.01
134 School Summer vacation -0.09
135 Home Welfare policies -0.12
136 School Retention -0.16
137 Home Television -0.18
138 School Mobility -0.34

For more information and details of what these influences are, see John Hattie, Visible Learning.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What schools can change

In order to improve, schools need to change. Where are the opportunities?

Mission, Vision & Strategy: The real question is, what should be important to us as a school? School missions typically include enabling student achievement. I recommend an addition: continuous improvement of student achievement. We should always strive to do better. 

Technology: What are the opportunities that new technology offers in support of our mission? And the flip side, let's not get distracted by new technology toys unless they help us meet our most important challenges.

Human-Behavior Changes: We can change knowledge and skills of the staff to better address our mission and challenges. We must take in-service training seriously, in alignment with our challenges.

Process Design: We can change the processes for how we do things, from the way classrooms are cleaned to the way we ensure alignment with state learning objectives to the process for curriculm renewal. By changing the processes we make changes that last.

Organization Stucture: We can change how we work together to accomplish our mission. For example, while we now have teachers isolated in their classrooms, we may find that team teaching or project-based learning with cross-curriculum objectives better addresses our challenges.

Organizational Culture: Changing the school's culture comes down to changing the values and beliefs that give rise to our challenges and guide our choices and mission. In many cases, the first step is to articulate the values and beliefs that drive the school. In many schools, that's never been done.

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Keywords: continuous improvement, challenge


Monday, August 8, 2011

Challenge comes before improvement

I've been talking a lot about continuous improvement recently in this blog. But before we get improvement, we must have something else:


Challenge is what motivates improvement. It is the "why" for improvement. Here's how it fits into a program of continuous improvement.

The Five Questions

  1. What is your target condition here? (In other words, what is your current challenge?)
  2. What is the actual condition now?
  3. What obstacles are now preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step?
  5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

Challenges may come about in different ways. For example, a challenge may be taking advantage of an opportunity. Online formative tests, for example, can be checked and provide specific and immediate student feedback. We may see applying online formative tests as an opportunity to improve results on summative tests. So, the process is to acquire the ability to do online formative tests, provide the tests to the students and then review the results at the end of the unit.

More commonly, challenges arise from what we want to achieve for our students. A common challenge these days is to raise standardized test scores. Of all the possible ways we might address that challenge, we might first focus on aligning our courses with the standard learning objectives.

Challenges of opportunity are good when they align with the goals of the school and they address the highest priority changes to be made. Otherwise, challenges of opportunity may be distractions from the work that really needs to be done.

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Keywords: continuous improvement, challenge


Friday, August 5, 2011

First, apply what we know

We put a lot of faith in education, but it doesn't always "take". Just because we take a course in something does not mean that we actually apply what we learned in our daily lives. I believe this is true in all walks of life, but let's just consider the field of education itself.

Edclick built our Discipline Manager product first for use at Delay Middle School in Lewisville, Texas. That school was 80% low SES, had gangs, and only avoided being ranked Unacceptable by a last minute appeal. A new policy of discipline was instituted, kids and teachers were taught behavior expectations, discipline was consistent with diligent follow-through. Students quickly learned that misbehavior resulted in consequences and they wouldn't be able to get around the system. Discipline improved, students spent more time in class, not crowding the office after discipline referrals. Out-of-class consequences went down. Time-on-task in the classrooms improved due to a more orderly environment. Kids felt safer in school; many stayed around the school after hours because it was a safer environment than their neighborhoods. Delay went from Unacceptable to an Intel School of Distinction in three years.

What made such a big difference at Delay? We like to think our software helped, but mainly, it was applying the principles of classroom and school management that teachers and administrators are routinely exposed to in their training. I say "exposed to" rather than "learn" because the predecessors apparently didn't learn these lessons or they would have applied them.

Another example of not learning what one's exposed to is in choosing learning activities in the classroom. Lecturing is one of the least effective methods of teaching, yet is one of the most commonly used, especially in high school and college. Why? Teachers are exposed to better teaching methods in their training, but for some reason, the lessons often don't seem to "take".

So, what can be done?

  • I argue for making continuous improvement as high priority as teaching itself. If educators are constantly looking for ways to improve, there's a better chance that they'll review what they've heard before.
  • Reuse, prompting and reminders might help some by making it easier to do the right thing. That's why we designed these features into Lesson Plan Manager.
  • Requiring such things as detailed lesson plans can help but this is clearly an external motivation strategy.
  • I like the idea of advertising for positive habits which seems to have helped change habits for smoking, safe sex, seat belts and drunk driving, but not obesity
  • Charting personal progress is a good kind of "ad".
  • Improved leadership can be very effective, but that just kicks the problem up one level. If leadership is poor, what inspires the principal to become a better leader?
  • Since changing habits is dependent on persistence and consistency, it seems like computers should be helpful. That's where folks like those of us at Edclick can contribute.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

In praise of mistakes

We learn from mistakes. We learn from failures.

No, that's not quite it. We learn from variation. We learn from looking for success, and then replicating that success.

Think of how evolution works. Variation and the more successful variants are more likely to survive. There are lots and lots of mistakes. Lots of variations that are no better, and in most cases are worse, than the current best. But now and then, a variation turns out to perform better than the current best. And that's the one to build the next generation on.

So, why praise mistakes? Mistakes scare us. Mistakes are generally considered failures and failures are considered bad. But that's just short sighted. We must have variations, experiments, in order to do better. And if we're afraid of mistakes, we're afraid of variations. If we're afraid of variations, we'll be too timid to improve.

We must embrace mistakes. We must embrace failures. But that is only half the story.

Evolution wouldn't work without death. Death is a strict evaluation function that is a judgement on whether or not a variation is an improvement.

When we're experimenting, when we're creating variations, it is just playing around unless we're keeping score. We must have an evaluation function that tells us whether a variation is better or worse than the current best. We must have an evaluation function that tells us to kill one variant and replicate another.

We must measure. We must keep track. We must evaluate.

So, what do we need to improve education? We need experiments. We need to measure their effectiveness on student achievement. We need to tolerate mistakes. And we need to replicate the variants that give better results.

That's the essence of continuous improvement.

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Keywords: continuous improvement


Monday, August 1, 2011

Where will education improvement come from?

The goals of public education have been changed (improved?) in a top-down way many times over the past 170 years or so of its existance. Policymakers have used public education:

  • to prepare citizens for democracy,
  • to assimilate a flood of immigrants into American culture,
  • to eliminate racism,
  • to give equal opportunities to people with disabilities,
  • to accentuate science and math to support defense goals,
  • to support economic goals and, most recently,
  • to attempt to transition from public education to private education.

While these education policies may or may not support valuable social goals, none are specifically targeted at the core goals of education:

  • to enhance student learning and achievement and 
  • to nurture student enthusiasm so learning continues throughout life.

Who supports the core goals of education? The educators, not the policymakers.

When we consider the question of how to improve education, it is important to separate the education goals from the social goals. Policymakers will continue to use public education for their social goals but we must rely on educators to improve education. This is why educators must take responsibility for the continuous improvement of education co-equal with their responsibility for teaching their classes. Improvement of education will only come from the educators.

There are two additional benefit to relying on educators to improve education. Educators observe their students as they develop from children to adults. While it doesn't show up on lists of learning standards of the target curriculum, teachers know that they also have responsibilty:

  • to help children mature and
  • to prepare them to live their lives well.

It is fortunate that teachers realize this even when it does not appear on their job description.

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