The core, essential ingredients of continuous improvement


Sydney Opera House/Dennis Sparks


Compulsion makes hypocrites, not converts. —Thomas Jefferson

Over the years I have heard some teachers say, “I taught it, but the students didn’t learn it.” My response was fairly simple: “The teaching isn’t over until the students have learned it.”

Over the years I’ve also heard some leaders say something similar: “I’ve told teachers why change is important. I’ve even told them exactly what I want them to do, but they resist.” My response is to offer some or all of the following thoughts.

There are at least four ways for leaders to attempt to improve teaching and learning, most of which don’t work. The first is to tell people what to do and to require compliance. While mandates may sometimes be necessary, force and fear don’t work because it is difficult for supervisors to monitor the day-to-day behavior of teachers and because mandates by their very nature provoke resistance and passive-aggressive behavior.

The second method, I explain, is to attempt to persuade people by offering a rationale and evidence for the need to change. While this approach can be useful as part of an broader strategy, facts alone are insufficient because they typically don’t touch the heart in ways that promote positive energy and long-term commitment. (LINK)

A third method, I tell leaders, is the use of financial incentives—sometimes called pay for performance—to induce educators to work harder and smarter. While an overhaul of the compensation system in education is long overdue, to date there is little evidence that incentive systems improve the quality of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

Which brings me to the fourth approach—intellectually rigorous, sustained professional learning that alters beliefs and creates deep understanding and new habits of mind and behavior. Its primary methods are dialogue-based conversations within the school community about assumptions, values, evidence, ideas, and practices; teamwork focusing on stretching goals for student achievement; and one-to-one assistance and feedback provided by instructional coaches.

I explain to leaders that whatever combination of methods are used, I believe that the core, essential ingredients of sustained improvement efforts that benefit all students are skillful leadership, a morally-compelling purpose, strong teamwork, and professional learning focused on improving student performance.

I conclude my response to leaders frustrated by resistance to change by saying that directives, persuasion, and incentives cannot work without those ingredients. And when skillful leadership, purpose, teamwork, and professional learning are present, they are sufficient in most settings to produce the kinds of schools to which we would eagerly send our own children.

1 Response to “The core, essential ingredients of continuous improvement”

  1. 1 Karen Anderson October 18, 2010 at 10:10 am

    In your typical style, you have hit the nail on the head. Telling rarely accomplishes anything and emphasizes even more the compelling reason to be a “coach leader” – one who believes in the capacity of others to do their own thinking, find their own solutions, and implement their own actions.

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