We’ve occasionally touched on how lean manufacturing and continuous improvement methods can be applied to higher education, and our friend Bob Emiliani has a particular affection for the concept. An article in the Philadelphia Enquirer over the weekend provided a good insight into how the principles could work in even grade school classrooms.
The sparkly smiley-face stickers and pink crayons in first-grade teacher Carly Laurent’s classroom at Mt. Lebanon’s Washington Elementary School don’t look as if they came from the world of Total Quality Management. They are being used that way, however, as part of the same "continuous improvement" management model that made Toyota the world’s top-selling automobile company and dramatically decreased injury rates at Alcoa.
For example, how about using some visual management tools?
[6 year old] Tiausa then places a smiley sticker to mark her score on a class graph of the test performance, and, after conferring with a classmate, uses a pink crayon to fill in a bar graph in her personal data binder. After all of her pupils receive their scores and chart their progress in their binders, Laurent calls the class together to compare this week’s spelling performance (all 8s, 9s and 10s) to the previous week’s (some 5s and 6s) and to discuss what worked well (spelling in their heads, practicing in the car) and what could be done differently to improve next time (checking their work, decorating the bathroom with words on Post-it notes).
Continuous improvement methods in schools is beginning to hit the mainstream.
In the business world, continuous improvement was popularized in post-World War II Japan and is known in various forms as Total Quality Management, lean manufacturing, Kaizen, the Baldrige model and Six Sigma.
The basic idea is that organizations and individuals should set goals, follow a plan to reach those goals, examine the results and come up with strategies for what they will do better the next time. Or, as it’s written on the wall of Laurent’s classroom, "Plan," "Do," "Study." "Act."
The philosophy spread to education in the 1990s, said Mr. Marino, and in 1998, educational institutions became eligible for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which recognizes businesses for excellence in performance improvement.
"What we try to do in an educational setting is apply the theory from the boardroom, the central office, down to the individual student, where even kindergartners are saying, ‘Can I be better tomorrow than I am today?’" said Mr. Marino, who is also an associate superintendent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
This is beginning, at a very early stage, to change how kids think of themselves, their world, and their part in the learning process.
For Kelly Barsotti, who has taught in Mt. Lebanon for nine years and used the continuous improvement techniques in her second grade class for two years, there’s a definite benefit. "It makes them more aware of their part in the process," she said, after conducting an exercise in which her pupils expertly analyzed a scatterplot of their reading test scores. "For the kids, they are really critically thinking about themselves as learners. If we can get them to do this now, just imagine what they’ll be able to do in the future."
"You’re having an open dialogue with the kids about their learning," [Mt. Lebanon teacher Jacqueline Zapko] said. "You’re asking, ‘What’s going to work for you, so you can learn?’ "
This focus on involving kids with the learning process itself, creating continuous improvement in methods and systems, will some day yield a population that drives life-long learning. The benefits of that mindset could extend far beyond a group of business workers and leaders that no longer need to learn how to learn.