Lean EducationOctober 16th, 2009 at 6:40
History confirms that our conventional instructional public schools were developed on an industrial model invented in the 19th Century, which seems pretty obvious to me when you think about all the structure in those schools of periods, bells, uniform classrooms, desks in rank and file, standardized curriculum, etc. At the end of the 19th Century, universal public K-12 education with no tuition, paid for by the taxpayer, had become such an expensive proposition that school district executives and school boards went to great lengths to attempt to employ the latest best practices from the business world to justify that all that money was being “efficiently” spent. It may in fact be worth considering if some of the business methodologies developed toward the end of the 20th Century might appropriately be applied to today’s conventional schools.
Public school administrators in the last decades of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th made great efforts to employ the business efficiency methodology of Samuel Taylor. Taylor and his disciples analyzed the “efficiency” of teachers in the classroom and other school procedures, and trained school administrators to think in these terms as well. Those administrators did all they could to demonstrate at least the appearance of “efficiency” to continue to justify the expense of universal public school to local populations that were at time ambivalent to this educational vision. Some of the residue of this effort can still be seen in contemporary times in school bureaucracy that at times can seem Byzantine with triplicate forms and such.
Making a living now as a business analyst, I am trying to buff up my “skill set” by learning about some of the more contemporary “best practices” towards making business processes more efficient, which nowadays means focusing on creating more value for the customer at a lesser cost. As I was researching some of these contemporary business methodologies – like Lean, Six Sigma, TPS, and others – on the Internet the other day, it occurred to me that some of these ideas could be applied to the process of education, particularly as it is practiced in our conventional instructional schools.
That said, I want to first put in a disclaimer that what I call the “conventional instructional school” is only one of many educational paths, some involving brick-and-mortar schools and some (like homeschooling) not. Further, among brick-and-mortar schools, there are other types that are not predominantly instructional, like many holistic schools (like Waldorf and Montessori) and democratic/free schools (like Sudbury Valley) that thrive on very different methodologies that already take into account a lot of these ideas.
One of the methodologies I’ve been reading about that seems to have the most application to improving educational processes is “Lean Manufacturing” also known simply as “Lean”. It has an interesting pedigree, beginning with the efficiency ideas of Samuel Taylor and later the mass production guru Henry Ford, then crossing the Pacific to Japan to be further evolved by the Toyota Motor Corporation into what’s known as TPS (Toyota Production System) which has been genericized into the Lean methodology.
The Wikipedia article on “Lean Manufacturing” defines it as…
…a production practice that considers the expenditure of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful, and thus a target for elimination. Working from the perspective of the customer who consumes a product or service, “value” is defined as any action or process that a customer would be willing to pay for.
As I read this and think about its application to education improvement, first and foremost it begs the question, who is the “end customer” of public education? Certainly in independent/private K-12 schools the customer is generally defined as the parents who are paying the tuition.
But in public schools arguments can be made for a number of different “customers”, including…
• Parents – who generally select the education path for their kids
• The State Government – that (like parents in independent/private schools) are directly paying for each student’s attendance in school
• Taxpayers – that ultimately pay for student public school attendance through their taxes
• Business – that more and more seem to be the “consumers” of the “product” (students ready for employment, if you frame things in this way as many educrats and opinion-leaders seem to do these days)
• Students – that are the recipients of the service provided by schools
To that last bullet, what a concept it would be to consider students as the “customer” of education, rather than as the “product” they are generally considered now.
Critical to the Lean methodology is the removal of “waste” from the process, that which the customer (however defined) would not be willing to pay for. Think about your own experience in public schools or that of your kids (if any in either case). How much of what went/goes on would meet this broad definition of “waste”? How much does not contribute to the development of the student, the product or perhaps customer of education (depending on how you look at it)?
It would take a much longer piece to explore some of the answers to these questions so I will move on to some other aspects of Lean.
Another key aspect of this methodology is the idea of “pull” (“Kanban” in Japanese) or “just in time”, where you build to the customer order, rather than “push” to a target level of production. So from the Wikipedia article…
Ford’s mass production system failed to incorporate the notion of “pull production” and thus often suffered from over-production.
So it seems in this regard our public school systems are treating business as the customer, “pulling” for more scientists and technicians to employ in increasingly technical business activities. But there appears to be great waste in this approach because school systems are so bureaucratically centralized that by the time you change the curriculum and get the student through 13 years of it, the business needs have changed completely, and you have produced a bunch of student Edsels or Hummers.
But if you look at the parents or (radically) even the student as the customer, then “pull” or “just in time” methodology would call for a much less standardized more tailored curriculum to the individual student and the development of their unique strengths. If you were improving your education process to add value with this view of the customer, then you would maybe look at decentralizing your school operations and putting more authority with the school staff (the teacher) closest to the customer rather than the farther removed administrators, particularly those at the state level who have no interaction and get little or no feedback from those customers.
Well food for thought and just the tip of the iceberg, but as long as we look at education as a major public institution it seems that that institution and its stakeholders (all the various potential customers) would be served by leveraging all the current “best practices” out there and not toil wastefully using outmoded 19th Century methodologies.
Also I as a parent and my kids as students would have all been happier being treated more as the customer of education than having our kids treated more as the product, with the state and business as the customer. I was certainly not happy that virtually all the school choices available to me and my kids were structured this way, and it was a blessing we had the resources and supportive state laws to have the choice (we took) to eventually switch our kids from public school to homeschooling.
Maybe if the schools our kids did attend (with poor result) had been set up with parents and students as the customer things could have been quite different, focused on removing “waste” that added no value to this customer and tailored to meet this customer’s needs.