‘Improving Improvement’ in Education: Louis Gomez, Keynote Speaker for DML2014

While so much attention is focused on improving teaching – the controversy over using text scores as “teacher accountability” measures, for example – isn’t it also important to think about how we improve our notions of improvement? We see no lack of thinking about reforming education: Shouldn’t some attention be directed to how we’re thinking about educational change – and how to improve that thinking? Fortunately, Louis M. Gomez, who is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at DML 2014, has been working on these issues for some time. Perhaps the existing digital media and learning network is an ideal community to address the challenges Gomez sets forth for education reformers.

When I learned that Gomez is interested in the implementation of “networked improvement communities in education,” I realized right away that he is a student of the late Doug Engelbart, who is known for his technological innovations and being concerned with “improving improvement” in organizations. Gomez’s interest in networked improvement communities for education is particularly important, given that he is the MacArthur Chair in Digital Media and Learning at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

When I spoke to Gomez for the video that accompanies this post, we talked about the way networked improvement communities are rooted in Engelbart’s thinking from decades ago. An improvement community, in Engelbart’s framework, is not just one that seeks to improve its performance, but one that also seeks to learn how to improve improvement methods. Engelbart made an important distinction between the day-to-day work of an organization, the effort to improve the organization’s performance, and the ongoing conversation about improving improvement:

A Activity: the organization’s day-to-day core business activity, such as product development, customer support, R&D, manufacturing, marketing, sales, accounting, legal, etc. Examples: Aerospace — producing planes; Congress — passing legislation; Medicine — researching a cure for disease; Education — teaching and mentoring students; Associations — advancing a field or discipline.

B Activity: Improving how A work is done, such as improving product cycle time and quality. Examples: improving how A Activities foster customer relations or team building, deliver quality products and services, deliver corporate IT services, manage their people and budgets. Could be an individual learning about new techniques (reading, conferences, networking), or an initiative, innovation team or improvement community engaging with A Activity and other key stakeholders to implement new/improved capability within one or more A activities.

C Activity: Improving how B work is done, such as improving improvement cycle time and quality. Examples: improving effectiveness of B Activity teams in how they foster relations with their A Activity customers, collaborate to identify needs and opportunities, research, innovate, and implement available solutions, incorporate input, feedback, and lessons learned, run pilot projects, etc. Could be a B Activity individual learning about new techniques for innovation teams (reading, conferences, networking), or an initiative, innovation team or improvement community engaging with B Activity and other key stakeholders to implement new/improved capability for one or more B activities.

These activities are ongoing in any healthy organization. However, the current means of improving how we work are not adequate for the scale and rate of change we face today. Most organizations need to acquire much more effective ways of identifying and assimilating dramatic improvements on a continuing basis. … This is all C activity work.

Systematically improving the way we think about improving education is a splendid idea, many will agree. But what, exactly, might it mean in practice? Gomez made a start at addressing this question in “Schooling as a Knowledge Profession,” an Education Week article co-authored with Jal D. Mehta and Anthony S. Bryk.

While much of U.S. policy and practice remains trapped in the bureaucratic model, there are glimmers that indicate the possibility of a better future. A number of school districts have begun to move away from a focus on compliance to see their role as creating the conditions under which a system of schools can learn and improve.

At the cutting edge is New York City, which, under former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, sought to disrupt the usual hierarchies and create “inquiry teams” within schools to investigate problems of practice. These inquiry teams, for example, identify struggling students within a school, use data to analyze why these students are struggling, and craft an intervention for them with the hope that this work can be a building block for schoolwide improvement. What’s distinctive about this model is its emphasis on seeing schools less as implementers of programs from above, and more as coherent learning and problem-solving organizations that analyze and address problems of practice.

What we do not see yet is a new model of research and development that could serve as the institutional infrastructure for the creation of this knowledge profession. In a recent essay, “Getting Ideas Into Action,” two of us—Anthony Bryk and Louis Gomez—advanced the idea that networked communities should engage in improvement research. We argue that enhancing the efficacy of our educational institutions at scale is a social-learning problem.

In “Getting Ideas into Action: Building Networked Improvement Communities in Education,” Gomez and Carnegie Foundation co-authors Anthony S. Bryk and Alicia Grunow proposed specific examples of and methods and tools for networked improvement communities in education. In our recent video conversation, Gomez and I talk about some of the ideas he plans to share in his DML 2014 keynote.

Improving Improvement in Education: Louis Gomez, Keynote Speaker for DML2014 from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.