Improvement Science as a way to build resilience—Dr. Paul Walley, The Open University

The Covid-19 crisis has given all educators worldwide a whole series of problems to solve.  Given the real-time nature of the issues solutions have needed to be found quickly, so that continuity of education is maintained (where possible) and where pupils do not lose too much of their educational opportunities.  In some cases the evidence base about what solutions work best and the vital resources needed have both been in short supply.  This is where Improvement Science is an approach to problem-solving that can be of use. 

Improvement Science originated in healthcare, based around the work of W Edwards Deming.  It provides an evidence-informed approach to continuous improvement where problem-solving is structured to provide rapid-cycle change coupled with evidence generation.  Since its development Improvement Science has been widely applied in other sectors including education.  As an example, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching widely uses improvement science to develop and revise processes, work roles and relationships1.  

Improvement science differs from more conventional approaches to problem-solving in that it focuses far more on the aims of improvement, involving those directly affected by the issues.   It can achieve small-scale change quickly, establishing an evidence base of what improvement ideas work best.  The evidence base is established through the problem solving cycle of Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA), which offers practitioners a structured approach to diagnosing problems and testing solutions.  The PDSA approach rapidly builds local knowledge of effective solutions that can be shared with others.

I am part of the team working on two projects that started in April 2020, on TPD and school leadership.  Seven months on we can already see how Improvement science is focusing minds on the aims of what local teams are trying to achieve to help teachers deliver education remotely in challenging environments.  There is also lots of enthusiasm from those involved as they see this as a tremendous opportunity to solve the problems presented by Covid and other local circumstances.  Strategies for solutions are being put into place now, and the first PDSA cycles will be starting soon.  However, I am hoping there is a longer term legacy from the work being undertaken.  Where teams are able to repeat PDSA cycles of improvement over time, the approach can become a standard way of working where all changes have a focused aim and ideas are rapidly tested.  This in turn builds an improvement capability amongst each workforce where their newly acquired problem-solving skills can be applied to a much wider range of topics.  If an organisation has a capability to rapidly diagnose problems and test out solutions then it becomes more resilient, able to tackle new problems and crises as they occur.  The value of this organisational capability should not be underestimated.

1 Our Ideas | Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

by Dr. Paul Walley

Dr. Paul Walley is a Senior Lecturer within the Faculty of Business and Law at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK.  His work focuses on continuous improvement methodologies in public and not-for-profit organisations, in sectors including healthcare, education and policing.