Fall 2009

Systems Thinking

Process and Tools Support Learning at all Levels

Process and Tools Support Learning at all Levels

As Douglas Reeves asserted in the spring 2009 issue of AdvancED Source, focusing on outcomes without examining the “how” of those outcomes is like addressing teen obesity by putting a scale in every school. The goal of reducing rates of obesity may be reached, but without any understanding of whether the outcome derives from good nutritional practices or from illnesses such as eating disorders. With no guidance about how to reduce patterns of obesity, anything goes, in a kind of end-justifies-means approach.

As Douglas Reeves asserted in the spring 2009 issue of AdvancED Source, focusing on outcomes without examining the “how” of those outcomes is like addressing teen obesity by putting a scale in every school. The goal of reducing rates of obesity may be reached, but without any understanding of whether the outcome derives from good nutritional practices or from illnesses such as eating disorders. With no guidance about how to reduce patterns of obesity, anything goes, in a kind of end-justifies-means approach.

Though high-stakes testing may seem to support this same approach (“Do anything to do well on this test”), in fact, it seems that teachers are examining the ways in which their classroom environments and strategies contribute to performance. Increasingly, teachers and administrators are indeed focusing on the “how’s” of learning performance, examining strategies that not only will improve performance on specific assessment instruments but will also contribute to the thinking and learning skills that underlie that performance. With this focus comes an understanding of learning as a system, rather than as only a snapshot revealed in a test. Of course, teachers have always been good at reflecting on the ways that they can help their students learn, so seeing these efforts as part of a larger pattern of learning — a system made up of learning processes — gives support to specific classroom strategies and validates them in the larger approach to learning.

What is known as the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) system, popularized by organizational management expert W. Edwards Deming, represents a way to see the learning process and to understand that learning is really about continuous improvement — a term that was popularized in the manufacturing industry but is increasingly applied to not only educational environments, but to healthcare and other service environments as well.

Simply put, the PDSA system involves the following steps:

  • Plan: Define the system to be improved and plan for that improvement. This involves thinking of ways that a problem or limitation can be addressed, or considering ways that success can become part of standard performance. It also includes collecting data on the current way of doing things, so that improvements can be measured and success demonstrated.
  • Do: Try out a theory of improvement. If a child believes that making flashcards will help to improve his or her performance on weekly spelling tests (after ruefully admitting that he or she has never earned more than a C on these tests), the theory should be tried out.
  • Study: Data collected after the new theory has been implemented can be compared or contrasted with the “before” data to indicate whether it is really working. A variety of charts and diagrams render this comparison visually accessible.
  • Act: This step involves not only putting a successful theory into practice, but thinking further about ways to improve the process. Again, this includes collecting data and studying its meaning.

For each of these steps, specific learning strategies or tools will advance that step. These tools not only bring improvements to a process (such as spelling performance), but also serve to help a student take responsibility for his or her own learning, evaluate progress, and reflect on outcomes. Many of these tools can be used not only in the PDSA cycle, but as standalone approaches to learning.

It is also fair to say that the tools that will be described here support a variety of learning styles and multiple intelligences. When a child must go to the front of the classroom to post an idea on a sticky note and share it with classmates, that process alone builds on the kinesthetic and social intelligences described by Howard Gardner, as well as helping the student focus on or create an idea that will be shared.

Among these tools are strategies derived from mind-mapping traditions as well as engineering practices and other outside-the-classroom sources. Let’s look at a few of them and notice the ways in which they support the larger system of learning to which we are all committed, as well as how they contribute to stronger performance on standards-based tests.


that old standby for generating ideas — takes on a new life when it addresses ways to examine a problem or improve a process. In response to a topic or a question — “How can we improve our class’ understanding of long division?” — students can offer suggestions, one at a time, without judgment or evaluation by others. The process encourages creativity, teamwork, and reflection, and if the responses are given serious consideration, it encourages students to be concerned about each other’s learning as well as their own.

Affinity diagrams

have a natural tie to the brainstorming process, since they offer opportunities for students to write down their ideas — again, one at a time, but this time on sticky notes — about a given topic. When they are finished writing, they are invited to bring their ideas to the front of the classroom and post them. As students put ideas up, they are also asked to group them with others’ suggestions that are related (have an affinity to) theirs. To respond to a question about what we need to know about Ohio, students may write ideas related to geography, products, population, natural resources, rivers and lakes, and countless other areas for future exploration. Looking at their own ideas posted for everyone to see gives a sense of empowerment, since every idea is considered. In classroom discussions or Q-&-A sessions, this may not be the case, since those with the loudest voices or quickest responses are often the ones whose ideas are accepted.

Flow charts

offer a way of visually organizing steps in a process. Each step in the flow chart is part of a process, contributing to a system. A flow chart — derived as it is from the world of engineering and process control — has specific symbols to indicate start and finish for a process, for example, or to designate points at which decisions must be made. Creating flow charts involves breaking down a process to its constituent parts, an activity that stimulates analytical thinking. If one were to create a flow chart of the process of long division, the “start” might begin with “Look at left-most number in dividend,” followed by a question to designate a decision point: “Can it be divided by divisor?”, progressing to dividing divisor into number, writing the number above the number that has been divided, etc. If a student is too young to be reading, or has challenges with the reading process, as a learning difference might imply, the parts of the flowchart could be communicated with pictures, rather than words.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1018","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 700px; height: 610px;","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]

Check sheets

help to keep track of data related to a process. For any student, but perhaps especially one with learning differences, this might make the critical difference between remembering a task or forgetting about it entirely. A check sheet is simply a short list of items that one wants to keep track of. It may be tasks to be completed (“Feed the goldfish,” “Brush my teeth,” etc.), or performance on specific skills (a list of math errors, for example, by concept: (“Fractions,” “Story problems,” etc.). Check sheets are infinitely useful in gathering data that will be used in the improvement process, or in disaggregating data to clarify it. In the PDSA cycle, check sheets help to define the system as it is, so that improvements can be made. If a student is facing challenges on writing tasks, it will be useful to break down the problems that his or her writing manifests, and then to address them one at a time rather than simply attacking the entire concept of “writing.”

Pareto analysis

can go hand-in-hand with check sheets to support the learning process. Using the writing example, a student’s check sheet of specific challenges (e.g., spelling, sentence structure, word choice, punctuation) can be transferred to a Pareto chart. This chart is a variation of the bar chart, where the items are arranged from the most frequently occurring to the least. If Sarah knows that most of her problems are related to punctuation, the Understanding will help her to address an area that is responsible for most of her errors, and thereby to correct the biggest challenge she seems to have.

Other problem-solving tools — scatter diagrams, lotus diagrams, force field analysis, and others — contribute to learning improvement for all students. But because the tools translate sometimes-abstract ideas about performance into graphic information about that performance, they are uniquely suited to the student with learning differences or one on an IEP as well.

If, as John Quincy Adams asserted in establishing the Smithsonian, “To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is…the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind,” then providing these tools to the individual learner once more reminds us of the lofty and critical role that a teacher plays in students’ education.


Adams, John Quincy. (1846) Report on the Establishment of the Smithsonian Institution.

Cleary, Barbara A. and Sally Duncan. (1997) Tools and Techniques to Inspire Classroom Learning. Milwaukee: ASQ Quality Press, p. 3.

Gardner, Howard. (1993) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (10th edition). New York: Basic Books, pp. 3-11.

Neave, Henry R. (1990) The Deming Dimension. Knoxville, TN: SPC Press, pp. 139 ff.

Reeves, Douglas, Ph.D. (Spring 2009) “Principles and Policies for a New Era.” AdvancED Source, p. 3.

Barbara A. Cleary is an English teacher at Miami Valley School where she has been teaching for more than 30 years. She has co-authored several books related to improvement strategies for classroom learning. These include Orchestrating Learning with Quality with David P. Langford (Milwaukee: ASQ Quality Press, 1995); Tools and Techniques to Improve Classroom Learning with Sally J. Duncan (ASQ Quality Press 1997); and Thinking Tools for Kids. She has recently published a children’s book about problem-solving and learning tools, Claire Anne and the Talking Hat (ASQ Quality Press, 2008).

Related Articles