The “Messy Middle” of an Improvement Process

It seems simple enough to identify something specific about student learning that you want to improve and then to do the work of improving that thing, right?

It turns out it’s not so simple.

Here’s a scenario: You teach an online course and you’ve got a theory of action: If I can grow the amount of student initiated communication with me, then student outcomes will improve. This seems like a rationale theory you could connect dots between…if only I didn’t have to be the one reaching out and prompting students, and instead they were actively seeking me out for support, then we’d see evidence of students doing better because they are diving in as agents of their own learning. Makes sense to me!

But then you start looking at your data, and students who initiate communication are actually not really doing any better than anyone else in class. What’s going on here, and what the heck do you do next?

It turns out this is the actual story of a colleague I’m working with in a virtual PLC effort this year. In fact, he’s the person who initiated the PLC itself. He deeply desires to grow his knowledge and skill around action research, around improvement. So it makes sense he’s frustrated. This improvement science thing is not a clear path. Identifying a viable improvement aim is tough, and testable change ideas can feel ambiguous or like a crap shoot. But here’s the deal: He identified an aim, and he’s tried out the first of a couple change ideas:

Aim: To increase the frequency of student-initiated communication.

Change Ideas:

  • Increase teacher presence/personality in the course through the announcements and discussion board (Prediction: This will make students more comfortable reaching out to the instructor.)
  • The one he’s implemented: Make the teacher’s contact information more prominently displayed throughout the course. (Prediction: This will remind the students that reaching out to the instructor is a viable & valuable option.)

If he hadn’t done this, he wouldn’t be where he is now, asking himself what he can do next. I think this is a perfect example of the importance of just picking something to work on as a vehicle to deliberately learning how to improve. It’s also a concrete example of the fact that that vehicle is messy.

middle messy magic Brene Brown Irene Latham

So here’s my question for you – a choose your own adventure, if you will: What should my colleague do next?

Path 1: He should consider the various purposes for why a student might initiate communication and examine how the purpose for communication might correlate to impact on overall student outcomes in the course. Parsing purpose out might influence different or clearer strategies for catalyzing the specific types of communication he thinks might be most likely to positively influence a student’s performance.

Path 2: He should go back to the drawing board and look more specifically at what seems to be negatively influencing student outcomes, and he should re-evaluate change ideas that he can test. It’s possible his first crack at an aim is not an aim at all (he’s actually mentioned this himself…).

Path 3: He should give himself more credit and time! Try the other change idea, and see if the combination of the two elicits a measurable impact. Or double down on the first change idea and measure whether changes occur.

Path 4: Something else entirely, and I will comment at the end of this blog to share my wisdom!

A few True PLC posts ago, I expressed that I wasn’t sure whether we should have committed to one improvement aim as a PLC or whether it was just as meaningful to allow each individual PLC member to identify the aim most relevant to them, and for our PLC to serve as a regular holding space to analyze the fruits of each member’s labor. This story above might be an acknowledgement of the inherent challenges that ensue when you can’t give each individual the thought partnership they may need to refine an aim and to enact change ideas that line up with it. If we were to focus on one collective aim, we might have more time to make sense of the complexities my colleague is facing…

Let me know what you think!



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