Learning by doing

For the past year I have been doing a national “landscape review” to better understand trends in school ‘district improvement.’ Here’s what I learned:

  • Improvement Science has been given a big boost by the Carnegie Foundation. The basic idea is: Do it, Try it, Fix it. At Seattle Public Schools we used Learning to Improve (by Anthony Bryk and others) to keep getting better. We met every two weeks to share our improvement plans, check them for equity, and learn from our results.
  • Learning Networks make us more accountable for making our practice public. They are the leadership equivalent of classroom observations or walk-throughs. Colleagues share with each other (often even scarier than reporting to their bosses): goals, strategies, action plans, and results. Then they visit classrooms to look at evidence of progress and give each other feedback. Seattle implemented PLCs for teachers and PLNs (Principal Learning Networks) for principals. Recently, the Gates Foundation has begun funding district networks committed to working together on specific topics like improved graduation rates.
  • Positive Outliers. This idea comes from global health initiatives. In villages with contaminated water, for example, some mothers find ways to create positive outcomes even in adverse conditions. Learning from one person’s positive outliers can in turn improve outcomes for others, especially when the lessons learned are shared by the villagers themselves. We all listen better to those with roles like ours.
  • District Improvement. Over the last forty years we have seen research on effective teaching, then effective schools, and then effective districts. The effective district research (Marzano) has been much more difficult to compile and assess because districts are bigger, more complex, and harder to measure. Michael Fullan and others have been working to apply district improvement concepts interactively in district networks. He calls this process “practice informing theory.” Districts start from the research but then add large doses of data, engagement, and improvement.

What can we learn from these efforts? No magic solutions. But there are promising practices: start with research, start small, plan carefully, learn from those doing the implementation, work the bugs out, get better results, and then go to scale.

  • Start with Research: John Hattie’s mega-study research on what works best is a great starting point. In addition, study positive outliers for “evidence proofs” in your own backyard.
  • Start Small: Try out new ideas, test strategies, collect data. Show what works. When we are ready to go big, we now have a cadre of front line implementers who can testify to the efficacy of the new ideas.
  • Planned Inquiry: Be rigorous about aligning goals, strategies, and outcomes; then iterate. Stick with promising practices. Tweak them. Work the bugs out. Get better.
  • Engage the Doers: None of us like to have things “done to us.” We want to be valuable partners in the work. Our front-line staff have years of experience to contribute. When they see things that work for colleagues in situations like theirs, they are all ears. As Tom Vander Ark says in his new book by the same title, we are Better Together.

Learning Together from Practice

At bottom all these strategies are about learning. Historically, education has been about knowing. We have now hit the wall. No amount of new knowing will make us significantly better. The only way to get better is one step at a time—by learning from data, from practice, and from colleagues.

Hattie’s newest work summarizes this idea under the concept of collective efficacy. When groups of teachers work together, make interventions, and use data to improve learning (their own as well as their students), they build competence and confidence.

Henry Ford stated it well: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right!” By working together, getting better, and seeing improvements, we come to believe that we, as well as our students, can improve.

This is the new frontier in education: Learning by doing. And learning together from practice.


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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com