Thursday, 17 March 2011 21:50

Discovering W. Edwards Deming

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Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that a statistician who was trained in mathematics, physics, and engineering and who did his most important work overseas approximately a half century ago has had more impact on my development as an elementary educator than anybody else.

But that’s exactly what happened.

After reading William Glasser’s The Quality School early in my second year of teaching, I was hungry to learn more about the educational approach he described (and that I described in my previous blog post).  So, I headed straight to W. Edwards Deming, the man whose work heavily influenced Glasser’s.

Deming first received notoriety pioneering the use of sampling techniques in the gathering of data while working as a statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau in the 1930’s,   Under Deming’s leadership, the bureau won recognition for its ability to provide accurate information on a broad range of areas at a cost that no other organization, public or private, could match.  Deming’s successes earned him an invitation to Japan in the summer of 1950 to meet with top business leaders who were determined to revitalize their nation after World War II.

At a time when American manufacturers emphasized quantity, Deming advised Japanese business leaders to focus on quality and insisted that producing high quality goods was the key to the nation’s future.  According to Deming, focusing on quality leads to greater productivity and enables companies to capture the market, employ more people, and elevate society’s entire standard of living.  In such a scenario, everybody wins.

Deming contended that if business leaders followed his teachings, Japanese products would become the envy of the world.  His declaration that Japanese industry could shed its poor manufacturing reputation and achieve economic prosperity within five years shocked his audiences.  Though the leaders dared not to believe such rapid progress was possible, they were receptive to Deming’s hopeful message.  They listened intently, spending the next few years learning and implementing his theory.  Ultimately, though, Deming’s prediction proved to be inaccurate.  It didn’t take five years for the Japanese to turn out top quality goods.  It took four.        

Deming’s teachings would later become known as the Fourteen Points of Quality, a set of integrated principles that provide a comprehensive framework for reform.  The Fourteen Points constitute a broad prescription for quality improvement, not a rigid series of steps or prepackaged recipe for success.

Though Deming wrote his books for an audience of business leaders and managers, I felt that he was talking directly to me.  

Immediately, I believed that teachers everywhere would benefit from his principles, and I knew deep down in my bones that the ideal type of manager-worker relationship he described was the type of teacher-student relationship I was determined to create.  

When he spoke of factory employees working hard, working together, experiencing joy, feeling pride, understanding the purpose of their work, taking ownership of the process because they knew management valued their effort and ideas, communicating openly and respectfully, and producing quality work, he might as well have been writing about students working hard in the type of classroom I wanted to set foot into every day.

The employees Deming described may have been manufacturing auto parts, and my students may have been working on addition, but in both settings the goals were similar: to produce quality work in a motivating, cohesive, need-satisfying environment.

I spent that entire year reading books by and about Deming and trying to apply his teachings to my first grade classroom.  His work informed everything I did, such as how I spoke to my students, how I designed my lessons, and how I decorated the room.  Soon after, I learned that there were others like me attempting to translate Deming’s 14 points of quality to the world of education, most notably Superintendent and author Lee Jenkins, whose Improving Student Learning also impacted me greatly.  After feeling largely alone in my early attempts to create a more progressive approach to leading and managing students in a classroom, discovering like-minded individuals buoyed my spirits and gave me great hope for the future.

A year later I had taken Deming’s 14 points of quality and turned them into my “8 Keys to Classroom Quality.”  I was so pleased and inspired by the early results I was getting that I contacted the education department at UCLA Extension to see if they would let me teach a course to educators, in which I could share my applications and extensions (no pun intended) of Deming’s work.  I am proud to say that the course is about to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary.

I desperately wanted my book Eight Essentials for Teaching and Learning, K-8, which came out in 2008, to share this title, but it wasn’t meant to be.  The book, however, remains a tribute to Deming, his work, and his profound impact on my teaching.

From Glasser and Deming I was beginning to find the answers I was seeking.  Quality, I learned, must be the focus.  When quality is the goal, all the habits, attitudes, and priorities I wanted to promote could be furthered through its pursuit.

Things were beginning to take shape.

In my next blog post I will describe how my philosophy of education continued to develop.

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