In this blog, we dive into improvement science — a dynamic approach to problem-solving that can be used to study and improve education programs and processes. Many of our research partnerships are using improvement science to collect, examine, and use data for decision-making. Below you’ll learn how our partnerships are using the tools of improvement science to address some of the most pressing problems in education.
Improvement science is a problem-solving approach centered on continuous inquiry and learning. Change ideas are tested in rapid cycles, resulting in efficient and useful feedback to inform system improvements.
A core principle of improvement science is that a system’s performance is a result of its design and operation, not simply a result of individuals’ efforts within the system. Building from this foundation, improvement science helps organizations build a shared understanding about how their systems work, where breakdowns occur, and what actions can be taken to improve overall performance.
One of the primary tools of improvement science is the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) inquiry cycle. This cycle serves as a basic learning tool through which practitioners test changes, document the results, and revise their theories about how to achieve their aim. A critical aspect of the PDSA approach is small-scale testing, which enables quick learning and nimble adjustments with minimal cost. Over time and with repeated cycles of small-scale testing along with other forms of research, an organization can identify ways to achieve positive results reliably and at scale.
Ultimately, using improvement science to address challenges can lead to an organizational culture of continuous learning and improvement.
REL West recently met with Steve Holmes, Superintendent of Sunnnyside School District in Arizona, to discuss why he and his colleagues identified improvement science as a key strategy to raise student outcomes throughout the district, and what he hopes to achieve through using the Plan-Do-Study-Act improvement cycle framework.
This month, REL West Senior Program Associate Kim Austin discussed the partnership with us and how it is embedding improvement science tools in its teacher literacy trainings in Washoe County School District.
REL West is partnering with Washoe County School District (Reno, NV), the Center for the Collaborative Classroom — a non-profit curriculum developer — and the Northwestern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program to improve writing instruction and student outcomes in writing. Our partnership is focused on implementing the Collaborative Classroom’s Being a Writer K–6 curriculum, with the goal of learning together how to use practical inquiry and data tools to shift instructional practice and support the development of students as writers.
So often our approach to challenges focuses right away on solutions: “Have you tried X? What about Y? Research says to do Z.” Improvement science encourages us first to ask, “What is the problem you are trying to address?” then, “What change ideas might we introduce and why?” and finally, “How will we know whether a change is an improvement?” We can then assess the impact of a change idea and determine additional improvements to make. This is a very different framing for working with others around a complex practice such as instruction. Our partners are curious to see how an improvement science approach can support teacher collaboration in more intentional and systematic ways.
To begin, through something we are calling a “learning huddle.” You can learn more about learning huddles in a video from one of our initial convenings.
Teachers this fall are huddling around how to support student partner talk, which is foundational to all of the Collaborative Classroom’s programs. In grade-level teams, teachers are sharing challenges and successes and planning specific things to try out in their classrooms so that they can reflect on how it went during their next huddle. This winter, they will move to more systematic data collection around how much time students write independently each day, how engaged they are in the writing process, and how they make sense of the feedback they are given.
We are just at the beginning of this learning journey! There is so much to document and share already — everything from common challenges in facilitating learning huddles, to how successful ideas can travel within and across grade levels and systems, to how partnerships develop over time. What’s most exciting is learning how to support a system as complex as a school as they tackle the challenging but important work of improving practice. We can’t wait to report on how the cycles of inquiry shape teaching and, ultimately, impact student learning.
* Continuous improvement is a broad term used to describe ongoing efforts to improve programs or processes; improvement science is a specific approach to continuously improving organizational systems.