ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - August 2001


Issue Highlight — Moveable Chairs
- Peter Block discusses a Milwaukee religious dispute and how the protestors' passion and commitment regarding space and structure should transcend into the workplace.

 In This Issue...
Championing Change
Training The Trainee
Teaming For Tomorrow
Quality From The Ground Up

The Road To Quality

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Brief Cases

Return to NFC Index

Quality From The Ground Up
Teaching Quality Concepts to the Next Generation

Seated at his little desk in his third-grade classroom, Johnny looks out at the empty playground that minutes ago was full of kids laughing at recess and thinks to himself, “I’m so glad we are back in here learning.” Does that sound strange to you, too?

   Most elementary school students are there because they have to be. School is not seen as a fun place—especially the learning part. Why is that? Is it because they aren’t capable of understanding the importance of knowledge and intelligence or is it our fault for not giving them the chance?

   The folks at Prarie View Elementary School wanted to know, so they contacted the Quality Network. At that moment, Total Quality Education was born. The rest is a seven-year history of success. The children have gained insight and knowledge through partial control of their learning, without losing a second of fun.

   Johnny still loves the swingset, but has discovered a new hobby—education.

“Give a man a fish”, the old adage goes, “and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for life.” In a way, Total Quality Education is a way of teaching kids to fish—providing them tools with which to learn for life—rather than feeding them facts which don’t always last. With quality tools in their toolboxes, children can always learn more. And they’re usually happier to do it.

   The Quality Network, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, began working with a local school, Prairie View Elementary, seven years ago. The goal was to support a new way of teaching and of learning. A child’s education was to center on the student under the guidance—not control—of teachers. The students would be taught to assess their own performance, to work in teams and to take responsibility for their own educational experiences. They were to use quality tools in the process—a means to enhance education. Quality, in other words, is not an educational program, it’s a way of thinking.

   “It’s not a ‘thing,’” says Dr. Mick McNiel, director of the Quality Network. “It’s a philosophy. That’s the real key to it all. It’s a change of attitude, not a cookbook procedure on how to run a school.”

A New Beginning
Coming out of the 1980’s drive toward Total Quality Management, schools began to apply quality principles to education in the 1990s. “The difference between the quality movement and many ephemeral educational fads,” says McNiel, “is exactly this distinction between a rigid ‘cookbook’ approach and a more adaptable philosophical approach.” As long as the children were able in the end to see the value of their education, as long as they felt that their educational careers were under their direction and fueled by their own ambition and as long as they were aware of where they stood in relation to where they ultimately wanted to end up, the approach was working. The use of quality tools was secondary.

   “Teachers are not saying to a child, ‘You have to use these problem-solving skills,’” McNiel says. “They’re telling them, ‘Here are some additional resources for you to use in learning.’”

   Work with the College Community school district in general and Prairie View Elementary in particular started when key staff, interested in quality methods, came to the Quality Network (then-named the Woods Quality Center).

   “They came to us with the notion: How do we get more knowledgeable about total quality?” McNiel says. Teachers, administrators, foodservice workers and janitorial staff were on hand learning ways to bring total quality and continuous improvement into their schools. From there, enthusiasm generated at monthly meetings prompted some of the teachers to try out what they were learning—with their students.

Quality Tools in the Classroom
The methods they tried out were some of the same that businesses use. For brainstorming projects, children used affinity diagrams. They wrote ideas on notes and stuck them on charts. Then, as a group, they worked to cluster similar points together to help outline the major facets of an issue. Students learning a story might map it on a fishbone diagram to envision the way it fit together. Kindergarteners, arranging snapshots into a flow chart, organized their daily activities. Force field analysis was used to determine the major driving and restraining forces of a classroom problem.

   Feedback was positive from the very start.

   “They would come back and report the results, with kids sharing some responsibility for their learning and trying out quality tools that would assist them to solve problems in a team-like atmosphere,” McNiel reports. After the initial positive reactions, more quality methods were employed.

   “What it does,” McNiel says, “is move kids away from the notion that working with other children is called ‘cheating.’ It’s called ‘teamwork.’”

   The Total Quality Education approach is all about teamwork. Children learn to cooperate and collaborate—skills that are increasingly important in today’s businesses. Regular class meetings give students a voice as a member of the team. Students suggest changes to their environment and their course of study, and come to realize that they’re all in it together—both students as partners, and teachers as mentors.

   “You’re going from the traditional ‘sit in straight rows and stare forward’ to an environment where everyone is an active learner, including the teachers,” says McNiel.

Teachers are Learners, Too
In the College Community school district, teachers are learners, too. One of the pillars of total quality is customer focus. This means that rather than fitting students into a pre-conceived curriculum, the curriculum and the school attempt to fit the students and their parents. Everyone becomes a partner, with the student at the forefront. Teachers become guides, not lecturers.

   The children, to the surprise of many, proved quite capable of handling this responsibility. “They were very anxious to have opportunities to work on their own and show what they were capable of,” says Scott Nicol, instructor for the Quality Network. “This gives them a chance to do that.”

   Under Total Quality Education, students are accountable for their own educational goals. “This is the key to true motivation and the successes that follow,” says McNiel. “Kids are actively taking responsibility for their learning, instead of just leaving it up to the teachers.” Nicol agrees, “Each success acts as a reminder that kids are capable and can usually go way beyond what we expect of them.”

   They also learn self-assessment, which is generally considered vital in reaching goals. They regularly review their skills and adjust their educational approach, all with teachers acting as partners. Then, at conference time, they present their work to their parents—in sessions that they direct.

   These student-led conferences are very different from the traditional format, wherein the teacher reports to parents on the student’s progress. At Prairie View, the students—with the assistance of a teacher—guide their parents through their last quarter’s education. This allows not only a measure of personal responsibility, but also pride. Suddenly, education in the minds of the students becomes less something they are subjected to, and more something they are participating in.

   School, in other words, becomes fun.

   The students enjoy the approach. Their parents value it. Some teachers were initially resistant, not wanting to turn control of conferences over to students. School administration did not force them to do so, but, according to McNiel, everyone was voluntarily hosting the student-led conferences within a year.

   Student-led conferences seem to work. Classroom meetings, introducing students simultaneously to democracy and accountability and taking students’ concerns and comments seriously, is proving to be successful. Total quality, permeating every aspect of life at the school, has created an environment where there is less dictating and more cooperation. “Both the school system and the kids benefit from this,” says Nicol. “The ‘system’ has a tendency to isolate people. This program has the tendency to bring people together by drawing them into positive interactions.”

Growing Up Quality
It has been seven years now, and the original Prairie View Elementary students have grown up. Total Quality Education has grown with them.

   “The entire district moved towards trying out the quality movement,” says McNiel. “Some of the kids who had been in that elementary school are now seniors graduating from high school.” For these seniors, the approach that began at the elementary level has followed them through the years. Opon graduation, they are now required to present a sort of personal portfolio of what they learned throughout high school, following the format of their original student-led conferences.

   And the results? Students who enjoy their work perform better. Student evaluation is not rigid, assuring that students get what they actually need, rather than what a standard says they need. Students are not graded according to what the average student is supposed to know, but on the progress they have made from the beginning of the year until the end. It’s customized. It is, simply put, customer-focused.

   “The obvious thing is that it has helped them find solutions for problems they have really wanted to solve,” states Nicol. “They get that benefit, and more than that, it gives them confidence to continue with the processes in the future.”

   “Total quality is here to stay,” says McNiel. The Quality Network, which works with businesses and organizations in addition to school systems nationwide, is founded on this idea.

   “‘Quality,’ in the sense we believe, is a way of doing things,” says McNiel. “This way of doing things includes working in teams, self-assessing and using data—not guesswork—to make decisions. It’s really about improving your processes instead of blaming people for things not getting done.”

   And of course, it’s also about learning to fish.

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