Friday 4 November 2016

The School Research Lead and Improvement Science - What is it?

Over the last two years, I have argued that the  one of the roles of school research leads is to help teachers to improve not prove.  So with that in mind, it’s appropriate to see what we can learn from the field of improvement science.  Drawing upon Bryk, Gomez. Grunow and LeMahieu 2015 book ‘Learning to Improve : How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better’  I will illustrate how a process of disciplined inquiry can be combined with networks to scale up promising educational strategies, ’through a process of learning fast to implement well’.  With this in mind this post will:
  • Define what is meant by term Improvement Science
  • Identify six key principles associated with Improvement Science
  • Explore the implications for school leaders and school research champions.
Improvement Science : a definition

(Bryk et al., 2015) define improvement science ….as a methodology that disciplines inquiries to improve practice. Undergirding it is a distinctive methodology about what we seek to learn and how we may come to understand it well.  Particular acts of inquiry are improvement research projects.  These projects aim for quality improvement.  In the context of educations, this refers to the capacity of an organisation to produce valued outcomes reliably for different subgroups of pupils, being educated by different teachers and in varied organisational contexts.  Since improvement research is an interative process often extending over a considerable periods of time, it is also referred to as continuous improvement. (p10)

The Six Principles of Improvement Science

Learning to Improve draws heavily upon work undertaken to bring about quality improvement in health-care, and in particular how to shape systems to bring about the effective interaction of various professionals within a hospital or health-system.  In addition, Learning to Improve draws upon ideas such as: communities of practice, teacher action research, lesson study, developmental evaluation, design-based implementation.  As a result of synthesising thinking and practice within these various fields, Bryk et al (2015) have identified six improvement principles 

1.     Make the work problem-specific and user centred – Quality improvement starts with a single question: ‘What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?’ It enlivens a co-development orientation. Engage key participants as problem definers and problem solvers from the earliest phases of development through large-scale implementation.

2.     Focus on variation in performance A networked improvement community aims to advance efficacy reliably at scale. Identifying and addressing the sources of variability in outcomes is essential.  Rather than simply documenting ‘what works,’ as in estimating an on-average effect, aim to learn ‘what works for whom, and under what set of conditions.’ Develop the know-how to make innovations success for different students across varied educational contexts

3.     See the system that produces the current outcomes It is hard to improve a system if you do not fully understand how it currently works to produce its results.  Seek to understand better how local conditions shape work processes and resulting outcomes. Use this analysis to explicate a working theory of improvement that can be tested against evidence and is further developed from what is learned as you go.

4.     We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure Measure outcomes, key drivers and change ideas so you can continuously test the working theory and learn whether specific changes represent an improvement.  Constantly ask: ‘Are the intended changes actually occurring? Do they link to changes in related drivers and desired system outcomes?’ Anticipate and measure for unintended consequences too.

5.     Use disciplined inquiry to drive improvement.  Common inquiry protocols and evidentiary standards guide the diverse efforts of NICs (networked improvement communities).  Engage in systematic tests of changes to learn fast, fail fast and improve fast. Remember that failure is not a problem, not learning from failure is.   Accumulate the practical knowledge that grows out of failure, and to build on it systematically over time.

6.     Accelerate learning through network communities : NICs aim to breakdown silos of practice and research.  They enliven a belief that we can accomplish more together than even the best of use can accomplish alone.  A shared working theory, common measures, and communication mechanisms anchor collective problem-solving.  Organise as a NIC to innovate, test and spread effective practices sooner and faster.(p 172 – 173)

These principles are captured in Figure 1  The new improvement paradigm (Bryk et al p 186).  In this diagram the shaded boxes represent the new paradigm and the unshaded boxes represent where we have moved from.

Figure 1 The new improvement paradigm

What are the implications for school leaders and school research champions?

Bryk et al argue that putting what would appear to be relatively simple ideas into practice will be potentially more challenging than expected.  Bryk et al go onto highlight a number of areas where network initiation teams may struggle, and which are likely to cause very similar challenges for school research leads.

Starting well – make sure you take time to understand the school you are operating in.  What are the fundamental causes of the problems that the school  is facing.  Avoid making assumptions about what the problem is, or identifying solutions before you have diagnosed the problem.  It is also essential to spend time trying to identify the aim of what you are trying to achieve and the desired outputs and outcomes.

Starting Smaller, Learning Fast, and Aiming for Quality at Scale – make sure you start small with pilot groups (though make sure these groups are typical of both pupils and staff).  Make sure you put in place systematic processes to generate learning from the pilot scheme.  Find partners – be it within the school or outside the school – to address the challenges you face, as Bryk et al state – shared challenges may lead to faster learning.

Failure Are a Treasure: Really?  Things going wrong through mistakes being made are almost inevitable when working in a system as complex as a school.  Birkenshaw and Haas (2016) argues to that to make the most failure it is important that schools go through a three stage process; first, learning from every failure; second, share the learning from each failure; third, review the pattern of failure.  And to do this, it is necessary to put structures in place which are fast, frequent and forward looking.

And some final words

The field of Improvement Science potentially provides a different way of thinking about the role of the school research champion, with an emphasis on supporting quick tests of change, and which are subject to iterative on-going development.  Most importantly, there is an unrelenting focus on improving the day to day work of teachers in classrooms, in order to bring about improved outcomes for both pupils and colleagues  


BIRKINSHAW, J. & HAAS, M. 2016. Increase your return on failure. Harvard business review, 94, 88-93.

BRYK, A. S., GOMEZ, L. M., GRUNOW, A. & LEMAHIEU, P. G. 2015. Learning to improve: How America's schools can get better at getting better.