Using Continuous Improvement Strategies in the Classroom to Help Students Take a Proactive Learning Approach

Pat Greco

Every school district has room for improvement from the district office down to the classroom. Embracing this fact and adopting a continuous improvement mindset can sometimes be a challenge. The School District of Menomonee Falls (SDMF) in Wisconsin is consistently working to tackle this challenge starting right in the classroom. Across the district, teachers are applying improvement science in their classrooms by using PDSA cycles to help students take a proactive learning approach.

Cycles of improvement in the classroom

“In its simplest form, teams work together to test ideas to solve defined problems that stand between students and their learning goals,” explains Superintendent Corey Golla in a School Administrator article.

The Wisconsin school district has a vision of personalized learning that includes student voice in the learning and improvement process. When teachers join SDMF, they are trained to use an eight-step process that embeds the principles of continuous improvement in their classroom:

  1. Learning standards posted in student language.
  2. Goals for shared learning taught and posted.
  3. Strategy bank posted and taught to share a common language.
  4. Classroom mission co-designed by students and teachers to guide respect and behavior.
  5. Plan the next learning cycle together.
  6. Do the plan by deploying the learning strategies with high impact.
  7. Study by reflecting on individual and class results compared to the goal.
  8. Act by codesigning the next 10- to 15-day learning cycle.

This classroom improvement framework guides the progress of students and staff. The last four steps in this process are called the PDSA cycle, plan-do-study-act. This problem-solving process helps each system within an organization function as effectively as possible.

PDSA (plan, do, study, act) cycle

Each classroom PDSA cycle takes only 15 days to complete and benefits the students and the teachers. Using this framework, students and teachers clearly state what will be done to achieve the goals in the classroom. “We expect teachers to collaborate with students in the plan-do-study-act phases. The short learning cycles generate shared understanding of the learning targets around the most important outcomes, a clear method of monitoring progress and a partnership identifying the strategies that work best for students in the next learning cycle,” says Golla.

How the PDSA cycle works

PDSA is designed to run in cycles, which compliments the pressure for continuous change. In each PDSA cycle, teacher and students study results together to make plans for the next round of action. PDSA provides the opportunity to test the viability of improvement ideas before implementing them across the classroom or organization.

PLAN: Identify the problem and plan the next learning cycle

  • What needs to be accomplished?
  • How will you know if the change is an improvement?

DO: Implement the action plan by deploying the learning strategies with high impact.

  • Test the change on a small scale to discover and mediate any movement in the “wrong” direction quickly.
  • During subsequent cycles of PDSA, test the change on a larger scale across multiple levels to determine its effectiveness system-wide.

STUDY: Analyze the information by reflecting on individual and class results compared to the goal

  • Determine if the change is an improvement or if it creates additional problems.
  • Document what has been learned from the test and decide if the change should be adapted, adopted or abandoned.

ACT: What changes should be made?

  • Can the solution tested be implemented across a larger group for testing?
  • Should the plan be modified and tested again?

Applying improvement learning cycles, like PDSA, in the classroom routine allows students and teachers to reflect and identify what works well in the current processes and what they can improve on in the next cycle. Students at SDMF can clearly articulate the learning strategies used in the classroom that work most effectively for them and are most applicable to the task at hand. Students can set goals and understand the value of frequent reflection as they guide their own progress. Students engage in learning cycles designed specifically to accommodate the age, content and style of the skilled educators in the district, from students in early primary schools through graduation. This results in a learning relationship that not only bonds teachers and students, but also improves results.

Jeff Stollenwerk, an 8th-grade social studies teacher in Menomonee Falls, told School Administrator that this improvement process has transformed his classes. “I am more aware of my students’ learning styles and needs and how they change throughout the school year, and my students are more aware of their own learning styles and how to create action steps to manage their own learning,” he says.

At the School District of Menomonee Falls, the PDSA cycle is mirrored in all improvement work district wide. Improvement coaches work continuously with individuals and teams within the district to keep the PDSA cycles alive and relevant. This provides clarity as to where opportunities for improvement are and give the SDMF team a shared commitment to excellence, one student at a time. As a result, the district is removing barriers to learning for all.

Creating a school district of master problem solvers doesn’t happen overnight. Success depends on engaging everyone, from students to district leaders, in the work. PDSA cycles can be adapted and applied to any system within an organization. Sustaining better results year after year requires dedication to continuous improvement cycles and using previous learnings to make a better decision on behalf of the classroom and district.

Adapting a continuous improvement mindset is key to success. Starting in the classroom ensures that students are equipped for a life of continued learning.

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Using Continuous Improvement Strategies in the Classroom to Help Students Take a Proactive Learning Approach

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