Quality Learning Tools

Tools to improve the quality of learning

Educators can get very excited by Quality Learning tools. In this post we explore these tools and how to use them most effectively.

Students from Hallett Cove R-12 School in South Australia complete an Inter-relationship Digraph
Students from Hallett Cove R-12 School in South Australia complete an Inter-relationship Digraph.

What is a Quality Learning tool?

Let’s start with a definition of any tool.

A tool is a physical or procedural instrument.

A hammer is a tool, a physical instrument for driving nails. A to-do list is a tool, a procedural instrument for helping us remember what we have to get done. The internet is a tool that requires both a physical instrument (computer or smart phone) and procedures to follow to connect and gain access to information.

A Quality Learning tool is a physical or procedural instrument used to improve the quality of learning.

The Quality Learning tools have their origins in quality improvement tools, first introduced in Japan in the 1960s. These early tools, such as the check sheet, fishbone diagram and Pareto chart, were used to gather and display data with a view to improving the quality of products and services. Management tools, such as the affinity diagram, interrelationship digraph and prioritisation matrix, were developed from the 1970s.

Over the past fifty years, additional tools have been developed in the fields of management, planning, statistical analysis, design, inter-personal collaboration, creativity and thinking.

Quality Learning tools are drawn from all of these areas.

A junior primary student from Plenty Parklands Primary School describes the writing process
A junior primary student from Plenty Parklands Primary School steps through a flowchart of the class writing process.

Tools and new thinking

Tools are created to solve problems.

New tools usually emerge after thinking about a problem from a new or different perspective.

Consider brainstorming, for example. It is a simple tool. Everyone gets to suggest ideas that are recorded for everybody to see. Traditional brainstorming, however, has a number of weaknesses, including potential domination of the group by outspoken individuals and inconsistent levels of participation by group members. These factors frequently impact negatively on the quality of ideas generated.

To address these weaknesses, structured brainstorming was developed. Key differences between structured and traditional brainstorming are:

  1. All individuals are given time to think about the issue quietly and make a list of ideas they could contribute.
  2. Ideas are gathered progressively from each member of the group: one idea per person per turn, with the option to ‘pass’ on any turn.

Structured brainstorming was developed to solve the problems of traditional brainstorming.

The thinking that preceded the creation of the new tool or the new technique was inadequate; otherwise the tool would not have been needed. If the old thinking could have solved the problem, there would have been no need to develop a new tool to help understand the problem better or analyse it better. So the creation of the tool is usually a consequence of a shift in thinking.

Jim Duffy, 2015, Knowing & Applying: Breathing new life into service organisations, Deming Learning Network, Aberdeen, Scotland, p66

The Quality Learning tools are rooted in the thinking that underpins Quality Learning, namely what Deming called a system of profound knowledge. This philosophy can be summarised as the Principles of Quality Learning.

Tools can encourage everybody to have their say, usually in a structured manner. Everyone comes to understand the perspective of the group as a whole. In this way, they give voice to the silent majority while giving perspective to the vocal minority. 

A student from Theodore Primary School in the ACT explains a class Correlation Chart
A student from Theodore Primary School in the ACT explains a class Correlation Chart.

Examples of Quality Learning tools

The following table lists many of the most common Quality Learning tools. They are grouped by the key concepts of Systems, Knowledge, Data and variation, and Psychology and motivation. (Remembering, of course, that these concepts are more strongly interrelated than the following linear list of tools suggests.)

Systems thinking

  • Deployment Flowchart
  • Fishbone Diagram
  • Five Whys
  • Force-field Analysis
  • Imagineering
  • Interrelationship Digraph
  • Paper Passing Purpose Tool (P3T)
  • Parking Lot
  • Perception Analysis
  • Process Accountability Matrix
  • Purpose, Outcomes, Process, Evaluation (POPE)
  • SIPOC Modelling
  • Standard Flowchart
  • System Map
  • System’s Progress
  • Top-down Flowchart

Knowledge and theory

  • Bone Diagram
  • Gantt Chart
  • Hot Dot
  • Lotus Diagram
  • Operational Definition
  • Potential Improvement Matrix
  • Problem Statement

Data and variation

  • Affinity Diagram
  • Box and Whisker Plots
  • Control Chart
  • Dot Plot
  • Histogram
  • Measures Selection Matrix
  • Pareto Chart
  • Radar Chart
  • Run Chart
  • Structured Brainstorming

Psychology and motivation

  • Action and Agreement Record
  • Capacity Matrix
  • Code of Cooperation
  • Consensogram
  • Loss Function
  • Plus Delta

There is no definitive list of Quality Learning tools. New ones are being developed daily; old ones are being adapted to new situations. The list above provides a starting point; it may suggest tools you would like to go back to, or new ones you may wish to explore.

A student from Seaford 6-12 School in South Australia describes the use of a Gantt Chart to plan and track progress of an assignment
A student from Seaford 6-12 School in South Australia describes the use of a Gantt Chart to plan and track progress of an assignment.

Using the tools

As we work with schools and other organisations, one of the most common questions we are asked is: How do I know which tool to use, and when to use it?

The only way to predict whether a tool will be helpful in any given situation is to have tried the tool and learned from its application.

As you use a tool regularly, you come to know the situations in which it is most helpful and those in which it is not.

Learning about the Quality Learning philosophy can also help you apply the tools effectively, as it can deepen your understanding of the thinking behind the tools.



Read more about Quality Learning.

Study the Quality Learning philosophy, as described in our book Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.

Purchase Tool Time for Education or Tool Time for Business, comprehensive guides to the Quality Learning tools.

Watch a brief video about the use of Capacity Matrices in Primary School or High School.

Watch a brief video about the use of Flowcharts in High School or Primary School.

Watch a brief video about the use of a Gantt Chart in High School.

Working in and on the system

In 1993, Myron Tribus proclaimed: The job of the manager has changed.

People work in a system. The job of a manager is to work on the system, to improve it, continuously, with their help.
Myron Tribus, 1993, “Quality Management in Education”, Journal for Quality and Participation, Jan–Feb, p. 5. Available at http://www.qla.com.au/Papers/5.

People work in a system

What did Tribus mean?


Firstly, we need to understand what he meant by system. Dr Deming defined a system to be:

A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system.
Edwards Deming, 1994, The New Economics: For industry, government and education, MIT, Massachusetts, p. 50.

Because Tribus is referring to managers, we understand him to be speaking of organisations. Organisations are systems comprising interdependent components working together towards some aim. A school is a system. A classroom is a system. A school district or region is a system.

A way of thinking about systems, in this context, is to think about how all the elements work together, as a whole, to get things done. How do school policies, procedures, facilities, committees, teams, classrooms, parents, leaders, teachers and students, for example, all work together to achieve the purpose and vision for the school?


Secondly, we need to understand whom Tribus is referring to in saying the job of the manager has changed.

Management is the ability to organise resources and coordinate the execution of tasks necessary to reach a goal in a timely and cost effective manner.
Kovacs and King, 2015, Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement, QLA, Canberra, p387

Managers therefore are those seeking to reach goals, by working with tasks, resources, systems and processes. Under this definition, it’s hard to identify individuals who are not managers. Everybody in a school is organising resources and coordinating tasks to achieve goals, even students! For this conversation, however, let us limit our discussion to adults. Principals, teachers and support staff are all working with their colleagues and students to achieve the goals of the school and classroom.

Working in and on

Thirdly, Tribus makes the distinction between working in the system and working on the system.

Working in the system is doing the daily work of the system.

For a teacher, this usually means managing the daily routines of learning and teaching in the classroom: planning, programming, instruction, assessment, reporting and so on. For school leaders this includes: meeting with parents, providing support to school staff, attending meetings, managing the budget, responding to emails and phone calls, and so on. This is all the daily work – working in the system.

Working on the system is improvement work.

Working on the system comprises two types of activities: improvement projects and innovation projects. Both involve making changes to the existing system.

Improvement projects focus on making the existing system more efficient and/or effective.

This is achieved by improving how the elements of the system work together, usually by making changes to the processes and methods by which the work is done. Refining the enrolment or reporting process in a school would be examples of improvement projects. Improvement projects build on existing approaches to make the existing system work better.

Innovation projects are about creation of new systems, processes, products and services by the organisation.

In a school context, innovation projects are about new technologies, new programs and system reforms. Replacing parent-teacher interviews with student-led conferences would be an example of an innovation project. Innovation projects are about new approaches that prepare or position the organisation for the future.

Given this, Tribus is telling us that all mangers within an organisation have an obligation to contribute to improvement efforts. But there is a subtle twist in the last three words of his proclamation: with their help.

…with their help

Finally, Tribus is explicit that managers should not unilaterally impose changes upon those working in the system. All managers need to be involved in projects that work on the system, but these projects need to engage those working within the system. After all, it is those doing the daily work of the system that know most about how it is done and could be improved.

Teachers work in a system

Students know best the barriers to their learning; teachers know best what gets in the way of their teaching.

Students learn in a system

Within a school context, Tribus is saying that all adults need to be engaged working on the system to bring about improvement. They need to be participating in improvement and innovation projects, as project leaders in their own areas or team members with others’ projects. Students also need play an active role, contributing to improving their school and classroom.


Read more about school improvement in Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.

Watch a video of high school students in South Australia working on the system.

Watch a video of a year 2 class from Victoria working together to improve the classroom system.