A Culture of Continuous Improvement
by Darren Spyksma, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
Inertia is the tendency to remain unchanged1 in your direction. In education, the yearly cycle of the school calendar helps build inertia. Inertia creates patterns. Patterns create ruts. Like ruts in the mud that bake hard in the hot summer sun, educational ruts formed by yearly repetition can become so comfortable that teachers and schools might forget that travelling in those ruts is a choice.
Learning to design learning using a curriculum flexible enough to be open to improvement is the new reality.
Learning to design learning using a curriculum adaptable to student needs and interests is the new provincial context.
Learning to design learning that changes significantly each year based on the group of students’ Core Competency needs should be the goal of every educator in the province.
The days of static, shrink-wrapped curriculum are finished. Educators need to understand that being a professional means approaching each school year knowing that change is expected and encouraged, that the ruts of the educational status quo need to be pushed against in order to make meaningful change in the lives of students.
The world is changing. The work force is changing. The number of robots completing manufacturing tasks around the world is projected to be 2.6 million by 2019.2 Most likely, for any job that can be automated, someone in the world is developing a robot to do just that. There is every chance that this year’s Kindergarten students, if they end up living in an urban centre, will never need to learn to drive. We all feel the shift. The world is changing before our very eyes.
It follows that education needs to continue to change. Classrooms across British Columbia are implementing a modernized curriculum. This implementation is an ongoing process that involves a multi-year commitment to adjust the learning and teaching paradigm, a shift designed to better equip students for flourishing in our rapidly changing world. Paradigm shifts are significant, take substantial effort and time, and involve climbing out of educational ruts. Anyone who has ricocheted along a rutted dirt road knows how rough and sometimes exhausting getting out of ruts can be. Intellectual and emotional paradigm shifts are more difficult to navigate than any rutted road.
To ensure a school-wide paradigm shift, administrators must emphasize the development of a culture of continuous improvement. Cultural development takes discipline, courage, persistence, and common sense oriented around processes that remind all participants of what is important.3 Cultural development involves collective responsibility and common objectives. It is up to a school’s leadership to ensure that all staff understand their role in fulfilling the common objectives that will lead to improved learning, which will give students the opportunity to experience a life of awareness of who they are in Christ and how they are to respond to this awareness.
A school leader supports cultural formation in many ways. Two of these ways are through the modeling of habits, and through the development of a system that supports continuous improvement.
For some school leaders, the modeling of habits is best done through the development of a Little Things list. By examining professional habits in relation to some guiding questions, leaders can connect their habits to the growth of a culture of continuous improvement. The little habits of a leader have a significant impact on the school community and culture of the school. By answering the Little Things questions, leaders can intentionally develop a list of habits that will support a culture of continuous improvement.
To develop a system that supports a culture of continuous improvement, school leaders must be willing to part with any system, structure, routine, or event that does not intentionally support or improve learning. Any time schools choose a system or structure with the purpose of benefitting teachers, and assume it will improve learning, they are mistaken. Without a level of accountability, this misguided decision may make teaching easier but will not necessarily result in more meaningful learning. Educators must understand that once a team or staff know a better way to support students in their learning, they are morally responsible to act. Not next year, not next semester, not even next month. If we know a better way, we need to act now. We owe action to the students walking the halls this year. The long term goal is for action-oriented planning to be part of a staff’s way of being during discussions in a staff meeting, in the halls, or anytime educators are wrestling with a problem or reflecting on any aspect of their practice.
In order to make this a reality, each spring school leaders need to spend time asking staff three questions: What do we need to keep? What do we need to toss? What do we need to tweak?4 A staff member who is clear about why they are there and what they are trying to achieve will improve learning through this process. More importantly, repeating this routine each spring will assist the school in developing a culture of continuous improvement.
This activity is not always easy. Sometimes it will feel unnatural and rough, similar to turning your wheels while driving in a rut. Early on, some of the changes that are attempted may not work, giving some teachers an excuse to keep travelling in their educational rut. For educators who enjoy the status quo or who did well as a student within a similar system, this process is nerve-wracking. In these moments when educators long for the status quo, they need to remember that school is not about teaching and what teachers want, it is about learning and what students need. If this is the goal, schools should be adjusting their practices and systems each year to better suit the group of students entering the grade level or division.
For schools that embrace this way of thinking, continuous improvement becomes the norm. They have years where a division has both co-ed and all boy’s classes. They have years where chapel emphasizes community development and others when it focuses on spiritual disciplines. They teach some units based on interest rather than age or classroom assignment while dividing students based on ability in other units. Once schools truly embrace a culture of continuous improvement, each year is an adventure in improving learning for the specific group of students present in the school.
- P. Lencioni, (2012). The Advantage.
- Thanks Bill De Jager for first challenging me with this idea ten years ago.