The Surplus Model, and Continuous Improvement

The excellent Learningspy blog has written about the surplus model of school improvement. I’ve put the link below. I found it thought-provoking and agree with much of it. However, it did nudge me to comment on a concept about which I feel a little conflicted: the culture of “continuous improvement”.

http://www.learningspy.co.uk/leadership/surplus-model-school-improvement/#comment-15381

What the author terms “the deficit model” is deeply damaging, and it’s about time we dropped the Cult of the Leader stuff which starts from the premise that all SLT members are automatically more “expert” than all classroom teachers and should thus tell the latter exactly what to do. It’s a toxic culture in our education system which starts from the very top and has infected too many schools (not including my own, obviously).

What I worry about, and I fear I’ve not yet found a good way to express this, is the culture of “continuous improvement”. I think those who push it are genuine in their belief that it is positive. However, if one can continuously improve, then that does rather suggest that one is constantly failing. A culture of continuous improvement, it seems to me, is a culture in which guilt and insecurity must also be a constant. It is also, I think, a culture which enables the very deficit model rightly criticised in the above blog, because an “expert leader” will always be able to accuse any teacher, no matter how good or motivated, of being inadequate, simply by pulling out the latest fad and demanding to know why it isn’t being done.

I recognise the old-fashioned nature of this, but I tend to the view that there is actually a sharply diminishing marginal gains curve in most jobs. We improve rapidly at first as experience kicks in and methods are tried, tested, kept or discarded. But then gains become rather more marginal. More a case of doing different things, but usually getting similar results. People are, ultimately, human, and subject to such constraints as time and energy. The continuous improvement model seems to imply that there is a theoretical future in which all teachers can and should have every student in their class achieving 100% in every exam they sit, and that if this is not hit, then that means there is some activity, some gimmick or some additional blood or sweat which can be deployed to get there.

But if there isn’t any more blood, or any more activities-with-guaranteed-outcome-improvements, and if 100% achievement of 100% outcomes isn’t a realistic possibility, then all we’re really doing is demanding that teachers continually change what they’re doing in order to achieve similar outcomes to those they already get – creating significant stress, and plentiful opportunities for bullying, victimization and deficit model management. If I had a teacher whose results were good, whose students were happy and who didn’t suffer from behaviour problems, then I’m not sure I’d demand that the teacher change constantly what they do, just so that I could tick the box marked “striving for improvement”. I think I’d leave them be. But then, I don’t think I’m what the NCTL is looking for !

This is a difficult thing to write about because the very act of seeming to be anything other than enthusiastic about such phrases as “wanting to improve”, “continuous improvement”, “striving to be better” etc does rather seem to line you up for accusations of being unambitious, even opposed to improvement ! I’m not, at all. I just wonder whether the theory of endless improvement has outpaced the reality of people, and we’re demanding greater and greater efforts in search of smaller and smaller impacts. Does the often breathless pace and frenetic terminology of continuous improvement risk creating negative impacts by forcing the abandonment of “what works” in an endless search of “what might work, but might not”. ?

Just a thought.

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4 thoughts on “The Surplus Model, and Continuous Improvement

  1. Sound reasoning again and neatly demolishes something I call the Aztec theory of teaching. Keep throwing sacrifices at the problem, whatever it is deemed that day, term year, and hope for the best. The idea seems to be if you keep burning them up eventually something will be appeased. Why attack a problem rationally when you can continually improve? Excellent post as usual Sir.

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  2. I suspect it depends on the environment in which “Continuous Improvement” is happening. I’m sure that you would agree that you learn something new every day – if you can apply some of your newly gained insights to your teaching, then you are continuously improving. There is nothing wrong with making tiny, iterative improvements to your process, whatever your process is. There are grave dangers to making wholesale changes, which is what it sounds like you object to…

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