‘Kaizen’ Philosophy Closes Student Achievement Gaps
Improving Learning Is a Constant Series of Adjustments
The adoption of an at-scale philosophy and system (I- CAN…Improvement, Constant And Never-ending) proven to close student achievement gaps while also increasing enrollment, retention, and completion, has resulted in the recognition of Wallace Community College – Dothan (WCCD) as the top community college in the nation for student success in 2017 by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). This Award of Excellence by AACC was not due to implementation of a boutique program, or even a magical set of strategies which are unique to this institution, but because of an intentional growth mindset focused on the primary reason for instruction: learning.
This same mindset also fuels a philosophy practiced by Japanese businesses after WWII. The Japanese word “kaizen” simply means “change (kai) for better (zen)” and is translated in the Western world as “continuous improvement.” This data/statistical approach resulted in Japan moving its economy from last in the industrialized world after WWII to second, all within a span of ten years.
Kaizen is a daily process which focuses on small ideas and improvements which can be immediately implemented. The methodology includes making changes, monitoring results, and adjusting as needed, what is traditionally known as “scientific reasoning (critical thinking) resulting in action.” The key, however, is that improvements are made using existing employees, technologies and funds. These improvements result from daily and immediate adjustments as employees practice intentional innovation prompted by constant communication and adherence to data.
Under these conditions in the educational system, the long lag times associated with curriculum changes, finding funding resources and developing needed technologies are avoided. Instead, innovations by individual employees are heldin high esteem. These successful innovations are then shared and disseminated through collaboration, resulting in documented action plans. Because research has determined the most significant common factor among the most effective teachers is the “human factor,” it is imperative each instructor works to maximize the effects of these strategies through constant assessment within his or her content area.
This human factor also distinguishes the learning process from the manufacturing process. By combining a focus on improving positive student perceptions with implementation of proven instructional and support strategies, the synergetic effects produce results which are much greater than a sum of the parts. This combined effect through a holistic approach, coupled with accountability for action, is how WCCD was able to achieve maximum results.
The deeper learning and critical thinking which results from effective strategies are the intellectual rewards. But maximum return on investment occurs as increases in retention, satisfaction, attendance, preparation for class, and completion are realized. As with many other community colleges in the nation, WCCD did not have as much of an enrollment problem as it did a retention problem caused by a lack of at-scale implementation of more effective student-centered instructional and support strategies.
The at-scale implementation of these strategies occurs as a growth mindset realizes the question is not about whether an active learning strategy will work, but about how it can be adjusted to maximize effectiveness. Constantly adjusting specific strategies is just as crucial as students adjusting study strategies to meet the objectives of a particular subject or assessment method. This is precisely why a key to success of the kaizen (I-CAN) approach is the self-motivation generated by constantly applying a positive, can-do growth mindset.
Maximizing success of at-scale holistic approaches such as the I-CAN initiative relies on the ability to obtain participation by all faculty members. Many times this participation must precede buyin, as waiting for complete buy-in from all faculty is a major reason there has been so little progress in applying more effective learning strategies despite decades of research showing the significant value to learning. When loosely applied, the concept of academic freedom seems to give instructors the leeway to teach as they see fit within their discipline. But it was never intended to allow the continued use of ineffective strategies.
This is precisely why the AACC “Reclaiming the American Dream” report (April 2012) stated a need to “courageously end ineffective teaching strategies” The report purposely chose those words, underscoring that implementing a new strategy is not nearly as difficult as venture outside the confines of one’s comfort zone and self-perceived limitations. It’s the same courage required of students to extend themselves and try new strategies. Just as with all other skills and behaviors, it is much easier to effectively teach that which is practiced by the instructor.
Because the single greatest thing people can do today to increase opportunities for themselves and their children is the pursuit of higher education, the academic freedom afforded teachers comes with a sacred responsibility to strive for an environment of equal opportunity for success by all. Even though teachers choose their instructional and support strategies, they are usually the only ones who do not suffer the consequences of choosing and practicing ineffective strategies. The students and taxpayers, along with the college, community, state, and nation, all pay the price for a poor choice of strategies which lead to reduced enrollment, retention, completion, and economic viability.
Just as the Japanese relied on the honor and integrity of workers to promote the concept of continuous improvement (kaizen) to increase the economic strength of their nation, so does this expectation extend to institutions of higher learning. It would be a breach of academic integrity to know a problem exists with student learning and then do nothing to address it. It’s a similar breach to know strategies that work and not implement them.
By relying on the kaizen requirement of using data and statistics to identify issues and problems, action is expedited. Since the human factor plays such an important role in instruction, it is imperative feelings and emotions be minimized by making decisions based on data; otherwise, changes would be limited by whether the instructor “felt” the need or desire to change. Because implementing new active student-centered teaching strategies is hard, there would be a tendency for many to avoid change and simply continue with strategies they feel more comfortable with, regardless of the effectiveness of these strategies.
The reluctance to focus on learning results from the archaic paradigm where rigor comes from an abundance of content knowledge. Although this knowledge-transmission approach had more value a few generations ago, the overwhelming amount of knowledge available at our fingertips (I-phones) has shifted that rigor to more quality learning associated with how to critically think and use this knowledge to solve problems. Critically analyzing to solve problems based on data and evidence is the ultimate objective of education this century and is the very component of kaizen that leads to lifelong learning and constant improvement in all areas of life, while also putting a premium on learning quality over quantity.
Constantly improving is more important than maintaining an environment free of mistakes. Aggressively employing innovative strategies and solving problems at the lowest level even though mistakes may occur throughout the process is more important than making limited progress and never committing mistakes. Once a ‘mistake’ is identified, the student(s) must be given benefit of doubt while intentional strategies are implemented to ensure the mistake does not reoccur. Using mistakes as opportunities to improve is a key to lifelong learning and constant improvement and therefore crucial to student and faculty success.
Nothing short of a professional educator, someone committed to constant improvement in instructional and support strategies focused on learning, can effectively inspire and facilitate learning with a diverse and underserved population. Operating with a passion and purpose reserved for true professional educators, the faculty at WCCD have adopted the mantra that the “only wrong answer in response to any variable impeding student learning is to simply do….nothing.” In other words, we can make progress or excuses but not both at the same time! This mindset provides a crystallized understanding of what it takes to succeed in the most challenging environment in post-secondary education — the community college.
In summary, the uncommon results obtain by WCCD (and many other colleges that have adopted a learning-centered approach) relies on the presence of a growth mindset (leadership mentality) throughout the entire organization and especially with faculty. This mindset fuels innovation and creativity, while creating an environment conducive to self-motivation and taking proactive risks through welldefined boundaries and expectations. However, this mindset must start at the very top of the organization and be constantly and courageously communicated with crystal-clarity and enthusiasm at every possible opportunity.
Although the challenges are immense, this is what professional educators do. There is simply no place in the community college of today or anytime in the future for anything less than a growth mindset committed to improvement, constant and never-ending (I-CAN) in instructional and support strategies. What an incredibly honorable approach to serving our country by providing a truly equal opportunity for success through higher education.