Can we use the same problem-solving tricks for classrooms that we use on the assembly line?

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 10.22.40 AMBack in the late 1950s the Japanese auto maker Toyota developed a novel approach for fixing problems on its production line:  root cause analysis. Rather than making a bandaid repair on a visible symptom, the idea was to ask a series of five “why” questions to get at the underlying root problem and fix that so that the problem doesn’t keep recurring. Here’s an example I found on another website.

Problem: The computer monitor is not working.

Why? The monitor’s light signal is not on.

Why? The monitor’s power cord is not functioning.

Why? The cord is damaged.

Why? It was placed under a heavy load.

Why? I didn’t place the cords properly when the monitor was plugged in, which caused damage.

The answer to the last why is the root cause of the initial problem of the computer monitor not working.

Critics of this approach pointed out that the answers to each why question were based on gut hunches and guesses. Different employees could ask a different series of why questions leading to completely different root cause determinations. So manufacturers started using statistical approaches to determining the answers to why questions. One of the more famous ones is embedded in a management technique called Six Sigma, developed by Motorola in the 1980s. This rigorous data analysis approach to fixing problems reduced manufacturing defects to nearly zero. 

Over time root cause analyses became so popular that other industries, from retail to health care, began adapting and adopting it in their workplaces.

Now educators are experimenting with applying this kind of data analysis to fixing problems in the classroom. This coming wednesday, April 30th, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences  is offering a webinar on how to apply root cause analysis to education. The agenda indicates that Roni Silverstein, Principal of Fallsmead Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland is already using it in his school. A second webinar is scheduled for November 5, 2014.

I’d be curious to learn what areas of education would most benefit from this kind of assembly-line data analysis. I suspect that if you started with the big problems, such as, student achievement is too low that five why questions aren’t going to get you to an root cause answer that you can act upon. And I worry that each student is so different that it’s hard to come up with a math teaching fix that will apply equally well to the students who are two-years behind grade level as to the ones who have already mastered the material and are bored. Even a simpler problem, such as too few students are submitting homework, might have a multitude of answers to the question why.


POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON April 28, 2014

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Tim Woods

This kind of data-driven approach is definitely exciting. I can see a lot of these processes going in the direction like this this: “Why? The teacher didn’t have enough time. Why? Because there are 23 other kids in the room who also need attention.” I was just having a conversation this morning about MOOC’s and how maybe in 5 years a lot of courses for younger students will also be available online (a bit like Khan Academy), freeing up teacher time to fill in all of the gaps around the central curriculum. Thanks for that article.

Jill Barshay

@Tim Woods Your comment made me laugh. Lack of time might be the root cause of all our problems. Thank you.

Martha Toth

Oh, good lord, Tim Woods. (Teachers in my district would love to have the problem of only 24 students per class, BTW.) The idea that flipped classrooms (have the kids watch instructions videos for homework and use class time to work with individuals) or largely on-line instruction are solutions flies in the face of experience.
Have you ever tried an on-line course? I have, more than once from more than one source. They were all awful, and I — an educated and motivated adult — was unable to force myself to complete any of them. They wasted time I could have spent more profitably learning from a book.
Have you ever had a video class? I have, a university biology class via B&W closed-circuit TV way back in the late 1960s. Again, just awful. It was almost impossible not to “tune out” in my head. Do you really think that today’s screen-jaded kids will be better able to focus than I was?
When I think back on the most memorable and life-changing educational experiences of my life, every single one included group discussion and/or activity, with lots of Socratic questioning, leading to sudden insight or understanding. Those opportunities for deep understanding are exactly what the “reform” status quo systematically drives out of our classrooms.

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