Building and Supporting Improvers

In the Carnegie Commons blog, authors Jennifer Russell and Maggie Hannan explore how Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) can build educators’ capacity to use improvement science to learn from practice.

Improvement science offers methods to guide disciplined inquiries that generate knowledge to improve practice. Improvement research—the inquiry processes that lie at its core—provides a set of tools for educators to use to learn from the changes they make in their practice, whether successful or not. When carried out through a networked improvement community, improvement science includes mechanisms for capturing, spreading, and using the on-the-ground learning that takes place in individual schools and classrooms every day.

But these same opportunities also pose challenges. Disciplined inquiry grounded in data systematically gathered about practice is not a routine part of many educators’ work. Educators, unlike health care professionals who have used improvement science successfully for nearly 30 years, do not receive training in the scientific method in the routine course of professional preparation.  Moreover, documenting small tests of changes in work practices can be difficult to integrate into the already busy lives of practitioners. Additionally, using the improvement science approach calls practitioners to take up different roles, responsibilities, and dispositions. In improvement science, practitioners are at the center of testing, revising, and implementing changes; their knowledge of the system is central to understanding problems of practice and developing the needed know-how to improve. Therefore, teams trying to launch a NIC must develop a plan for building network members’ capacity to use the disciplined inquiry of improvement research to yield significant practical learning.

In one example, districts designated an improvement facilitator that had dedicated time and responsibility for supporting improvement research in participating schools. Additionally, schools designated a lead improvement facilitator that provided coordination of school-based improvement work.

The Network Hub then designed intensive learning experiences for these facilitators as they would become critical nodes of improvement science expertise throughout the network. Summer institutes were organized to train improvement facilitators through simulations and other hands-on experiences. For example, participants planned and enacted personal improvement projects—such as introducing small changes in their routines to more efficiently manage their email inboxes. This allowed them to learn this approach to disciplined inquiry by doing it. Other learning experiences focused on the dispositions necessary to support improvement science, the identification and testing of change ideas using Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycles (PDSAs), and the importance of practical measures to test whether changes lead to improvements.

In addition to formal training experiences during network meetings, coaching was used as a capacity-building strategy. District facilitators held weekly meetings to coach teams through their PDSA cycles. At the same time, improvement specialists from the Hub met regularly with district facilitators to coach them on how to work with school-based teams.

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