Monday, October 12, 2015

Continuously improving without constantly criticizing

Last week, two of our teachers were in my office talking about a new activity they were wrapping up in their advisories.  It was designed to check the students' progress half-way to their first Exhibition of the year, and it seemed to be working. Students were definitely more aware of where they stood, and how much they still needed to do.

I had liked the idea the week before, but I had become concerned about how long it was taking, so I spoke up: "My only question is, are we spending an inordinate amount of time on this?"

As if I really needed to nit-pik at this point.

Unfortunately, it was only the most recent example of me crossing over the line that separates actually supporting improvement and just being overly critical. It happens when I forget that continuous improvement doesn't come through knee-jerk criticism of everything I don't like, it comes through careful investigation and collaboratively taking one or two high-leverage actions at a time.

Interviewing a student
I'm grateful to my staff for being patient with me so far as I poke, prod and subject them to my "EntryPlan:" 39 one-on-one interviews with students, staff, and parents, three student surveys, three focus group questions, attendance reviews, requests for data, student work reviews and a month of engagement measurements.

It's all been a necessary part of my effort to get a good handle on where we are as a school so that we can be systematic, scientific, and intentional about improvement. But I know it's been a bit taxing, so the last thing I need to do is add unnecessary criticism on top of all that.

I can genuinely say my staff has done a phenomenal job over the past 7 years. The Depot is a place where students get more than a second chance: They find a home, a family, a school that works for them, and a place to pursue their interests, find success, build self-esteem and master the key skills they'll need for the rest of their lives.

But as in any school, there is lots of room for improvement. No matter how good we already are, as long as there are students here who haven't yet maximized their potential, we have work to do. I truly believe every single individual human has tremendous and unique potential, just waiting to explode, and I want to help make it happen for EVERY student (and staff).

This is a BIG task, and making it happen is going to take a deliberate, scientific approach, a lot of data collection, a lot of work, and a lot of courage. It's going to take us ruthlessly scrutinizing ourselves, not to judge or criticize, but to look at the data together and come up with one or two powerful ways we can improve, implement changes, and then repeat the process.

Meanwhile, remind me when I forget the difference between continuous improvement and constant criticism, and hey, let's enjoy the process together. Because improving yourself is actually lots of fun--it's challenging and fulfilling and can work right into an even bigger goal, like improving the world.

Let's be the change...


  1. As an aside, there's been criticism of the idea of continuous improvement as a concept as well. In our new information driven world, disruptive improvement often outpaces continuous improvement.
    A good question to ask every once in a while is, "Is there a different, better way to do what we're doing?" Once in a while there is.

    1. Great comment, Frank! I agree!

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    3. It's kind of like punctuated equilibrium vs. gradualism in biological evolution.

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