Greg Pilewski | January 2015

Learning to Improve Fast and Implement Well

Have you ever heard the saying “you have to go slow to go fast”?  

That saying comes from the Martial Arts community meaning that you must be relaxed and untense to have the ability to move as quickly as you can.  Interesting!  We often use that saying in education to mean implementing a new initative takes time to gain momentum and grow.  However, time after time we tend to fall short of our intentions and the initative or reform is often replaced with another promising idea and the cycle continues.  Sound familiar?

In their new 2015 book, Learning to Improve Fast, authors Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and LeMahieu have coined a new saying “learn fast and implement well.”  They believe that educators and leaders should adopt a new approach to learning how to improve. In addition, schools and school systems are complex, interconnected organizations that encounter complex implementaton challenges.

How can you test new thinking, new ideas, and new innovations in a way to implement them well?  The authors use the process of disciplined inquiry, borrowed from the field of improvement science, through the use of network communities to tackle complex implementation problems.  Additionally, their ideas are based on six core principles of improvement that are outlined below and can also be found at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The Six Core Principles of Improvement 

1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered. 

It starts with a single question: “What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?” It enlivens a co-development orientation: engage key participants early and often.

2. Variation in performance is the core problem to address. 

The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works for whom, and under what set of conditions. Also, aim to advance efficacy reliably at scale.

3. See the system that produces the current outcomes. 

It is hard to improve fast what you do not fully understand. Go and see how local conditions shape work processes. Then, make your hypotheses for change public and clear.

4. We cannot improve fast at scale what w cannot measure. 

Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track if change is an improvement. We intervene in complex organizations. Anticipate unintended consequences and measure these too.

5. Anchor practice improvement in discipline inquiry. 

Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve fast and quickly. That failures that may occur are not the problem; that we fail to learn from them is.

6. Accelerate improvements through networked communities.  

Embrace the wisdom of crowds. We can accomplish more together than even the best of us can accomplish alone.

As leaders begin to transition to the second half of the academic year, take some time to reflect with your team on the one or two specific STEAM implementation problems that you are trying to solve.  Then, use the six improvement principles above as a process to engage those that you lead.  

Here are a few questions to get you started.

  • What specifically is the problem you are trying to solve?
  • What major challenges are you facing with implementation that requires new thinking?
  • What barriers to STEAM implementation are hard to remove?
  • Why are there variations in teacher performance with implementing the STEAM approach?
  • What leadership behaviors might be contributing to the problem?
  • How can we leverage the knowledge and wisdom of others to dig more deeply into the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What reflections or “aha” moments did you have about your STEAM implemention as you went through this process?
  •  What leadership behaviors do you and your team need to change as you transition to the second part of the academic year?


About the Author

Greg is a former Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction and has nearly twenty years of classroom, school-based and district-level leadership experience in five different public school systems. He has a passion for teaching and learning and a commitment to supporting school-level and system-level leaders with integrated and innovative resources. Not only is Greg an accomplished leader and speaker, he’s also an avid tinkerer in his workshop where he enjoys making projects around his historic home for his lovely wife and two Labrador retrievers. You can catch Greg’s insights right here each and every Thursday and contact him directly at: