Category Archives: Leading improvement

Drive out fear!

Fear inhibits intrinsic motivation.

Dr W. Edwards Deming was adamant the people have a right to enjoy their work. They have a right to be treated with dignity and respect. Point 8 of his 14 points: Drive out fear.

Whether you are a school leader, classroom teacher, support staff member or student, you have a right to a fear free school. Easier said than done.

Systems and processes can create fear

The systems and processes in many organisation increase fear and anxiety. These include:

  • Blaming and punishing individuals for deficiencies in the system
  • Leaving people out of decision-making
  • Criticising people in front of others
  • Failing to give people access to the information or resources needed to do a job well
  • Ignoring suggestions or treating them as criticism
  • Offering critical feedback on performance without a simultaneous, genuine offer of support
  • Requiring people to undertake tasks that are unlikely to be completed successfully.

Fear has a way of creeping into organisations, even those that seek to expunge it. Vigilance and effort are required.

Our challenge

Our challenge is to create schools and classrooms where people feel safe and secure. This is not to suggest creating an environment free from responsibility or accountability, rather an environment of respect, dignity and professionalism.

You can begin by asking your staff (if you are a school leader) or your students (if you are a teacher) what causes them to feel anxious or fearful in your school / class? Then work with them to remove these barriers to joy in work and learning.


  • What systems and processes in your workplace give rise to fear?
  • How do these get in the way of your ability to do a good job?
  • What practices do you participate in that could promote fear in others?

Stop the blame game

Who to blame?

Who is to blame when things go astray?

During the first half of the last century, Joseph Juran undertook studies at Western Electric to examine production defects and nonconformities. Who was to blame for these defects and nonconformities?

He analysed the causes over a defined period of time. Each of the causes were categorised as “management-controllable” or “worker-controllable”. Worker-controllable defects and nonconformities resulted directly from the actions of the worker. Had the worker been doing his job properly these defects and nonconformities would have been prevented. Anything outside the control of the worker was categorised as management-controllable. This included factors such as inadequate training, poor machine maintenance, sub-standard materials, and equipment deficiencies. In other words, anything that is outside the control of the worker is caused by other factors within the system (or the containing systems), which is the domain of management, not the worker.

Don’t blame people; improve the system

Juran’s research led to the often quoted 85/15 rule:

Wherever there is a problem, 85% of the time it will be the system and not the fault of an individual.

In order to bring about improvement, this finding requires us to turn our attention to the system, rather than focus upon individuals.

In social systems, such as schools and classrooms, behaviour and performance are dominated by the impact of structural factors rather than the actions of individuals working within the system.

Peter Senge observed that:

When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.

Peter Senge, 1990, The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization, Crown, New York, p. 42.

Working on the system

In most schools, the distribution of student performance from one year to the next remains fairly constant. Students in any chosen year level tend to perform similarly to the students that went before them. Teachers’ mark books from year to year look remarkably similar, only the names are different. This is an excellent example of the system producing the results, not the people.

In order to improve performance, we must understand the nature of the systems in which we operate and focus our efforts on working on the system to improve it.

Exhortations, rewards, blame and punishments do nothing to improve the system. They upset people, interfere with relationships and make things worse.

A colleague of ours, Lynne Macdonald, observed:

In schools, parents blame teachers for their children not learning; teachers blame parents; students blame teachers; teachers blame students; principals blame teachers. Where does it get us? Nowhere. So we have to eliminate this blame game.

Lynne Macdonald, retired principal, Plenty Parklands Primary School, Victoria, QLA Case Study 3 DVD.

Most organisations’ problems derive from the system, not the people. Our best efforts cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system.


Who cops the blame in your school?

This post is an edited extract from Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement


A new good idea

Do you have trouble selling your ideas?

Dr Myron Tribus learned about this problem in the mid 1940s. His insights may give you courage.

Here is a story Myron told me several years ago.

Irving Langmuir (1881-1957) was awarded a Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1932. During his life he created a long string of diverse inventions in the fields of physics and chemistry.

In 1944 Myron became interested in Langmuir’s work on cloud seeding – precipitating changes in structures within clouds, with the possibility of making rain.

When Myron failed in his attempt to attract the interest of the US military in Langmuir’s work, Langmuir told Myron:

The hardest thing in the world to sell is a new good idea.
If it is new, people will not understand it.
If it is good, they will feel they must act on it.
But, if they are to act on it they will have to learn and they will have to change their ways.
And they simply don’t want to do that.

Myron went on to explain:

You present people with a new idea, and their first reaction is ‘this will change things and I am comfortable with what exists’.

I have found this to be true. My life has been spent in bringing new ideas in. In fact, I have been accused of being the kind of person who always seeks something that’s different. I won’t agree with that, but certainly when somebody comes to me with a new idea and I can sense the importance of it then I get behind it. Apparently, that’s a minority view.


Read Myron’s acclaimed paper The Germ Theory of Management.

Why Improvement Projects Matter

Improving project by project

Joseph Juran, a highly influential American quality specialist, defined the term “breakthrough” (which was very popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s) as “an improvement to unprecedented levels of performance”. He pointed out:

All breakthrough is achieved project by project, and in no other way.

Joseph Juran, 1988, Juran’s Quality Control Handbook, fourth edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, p. 22.

To achieve significant improvements in capability and performance, in line with the priorities in a school plan, improvement projects are needed.

Improvement plans need to be broken down into finite, definable projects that can be managed over the life of a plan.

A project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to meet specific goals and objectives with a defined beginning and end. 

Projects and processes

Projects contrast strongly with daily routines. Daily routines involve the ongoing enactment of an organisation’s processes.

Projects are temporary endeavours to improve an organisation’s processes, to create new products, services or processes, or to build infrastructure.

We use processes when we work in the system, we use projects to work on the system.

In short, working in the system is accomplished by process; working on the system is accomplished by project.

Project teams, not committees

This presents a challenge for schools, which are accustomed to establishing committees rather than project teams.

Committees are a common feature of schools. They usually carry responsibilities associated with management and improvement in specific areas of school endeavour but are problematic in that they have an ongoing role and can easily be distracted from improvement efforts.

Project teams are formed for specific, defined timeframes and purposes. Guided by a precise purpose and structured processes, such as the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, project teams usually realise greater success. They stay focused and can maintain the energy necessary to see through the improvement, due to a tight, defined timeframe and an effective progress reporting approach.

Our study of schools, in Australia at least, reveals that schools in general, have neither well-developed project management methodologies, nor the management structures and disciplines to execute their improvement plans in this manner. This is a significant capability gap. Until these structures and disciplines are more strongly established, school improvement efforts are likely to continue providing disappointing results. This is not a criticism of schools or those that work within them, rather it is an observation of a systemic failure, which needs to be addressed by senior administrators and policy makers.


An Improvement Project Brief can be used to agree and document the arrangements for each project team.

Collectively, the annual set of improvement projects can be documented and monitored through the annual improvement plan.


Making school leaders accountable

In this post, we consider how the concepts of accountability, responsibility and authority are being applied in the name of school improvement. We explain why a strong focus on tightening accountability is unlikely to result in improvement in schools (or any other organisations for that matter).

We defined accountability:

Accountability: the collection of outcomes that an individual is charged to produce and for which the individual can be held to account

Note that we defined and discussed accountability, responsibility and authority in detail in the previous post.

An accountability approach to school improvement

The drive to hold educators to account for improving performance has become stronger in recent years. Considerable effort has been expended clarifying the accountabilities and responsibilities of school leaders across many jurisdictions.

Sadly,  tightening accountabilities is unlikely to lead to improved performance.

Here’s why.


There is one benefit to be derived from clarifying accountabilities and responsibilities. Doing so makes clear what is agreed to be important and how performance will be measured. This focuses attention, which can be beneficial. This is particularly beneficial when the process of agreeing and accepting accountabilities is open and collaborative. For example, team members can agree to take on specific tasks between meetings; each agrees to be accountable to the team for their actions. This can be affirming and effective.

Where organisations take a more formal approach to assigning accountability, it becomes problematic.


The accountability approach to school improvement is based on many questionable assumptions.

Held to account?

What does it mean to be held to account? It can be a requirement to explain what happened, or didn’t happen. It can also mean criticism, blame and punishment. Whatever the meaning, being judged is implicit in the definition.

Routinely passing judgements upon one another is not a feature of highly trusting or collaborative relationships and can be toxic.

Sufficiently comprehensive?

Establishing the specific outcomes for which one will be held to account does focus attention, but this can be at the expense of other areas requiring attention. The approach assumes that all the important outcomes have been identified and codified into accountabilities. This is rarely achieved. The current attempts to hold educators to account for student performance based on standardised testing, for example, is leading some to focus attention on the content to be tested; this can be at the expense of other areas of learning.

It is very difficult to establish an accountability system to address all stakeholders needs.

Numerical goals and targets.

Frequently, accountabilities are expressed as numerical goals or targets, which, it is assumed, can be measured accurately. We discussed in chapter five of our book Improving Learning that numerical goals and targets can lead to distortions of the data and/or the system. Each year the newspapers report cases of teachers and schools ‘cheating’ on high-stakes tests. Unachievable numerical goals may be at the heart of the clean diesel scandal at VW.

As Dr. Deming said, “Fear invites wrong figures.”

Locus of control.

It is assumed that an individual has sufficient control over the activities and results for which they are accountable to ensure the outcomes are met. This is not always the case. A teacher, for example, can have almost no control over the home life of his or her students, which has a very significant impact on the student’s learning.

It hardly seems reasonable to be held accountable for things outside one’s control. 

Stable and capable processes?

The processes in which the individuals work are assumed to be stable and capable. In other words, it is assumed that the processes are predictable and producing desirable results, making achievement of the accountabilities possible. As we highlighted in chapter two of Improving Learning:

Many processes in school education are not capable. 


The approach is based in the assumption that individuals require extrinsic motivation. Motivation has been discussed at length in an earlier series of posts.

Extrinsic motivation factors  focus attention on obtaining the rewards and avoiding the punishments; not on the intrinsic value of the tasks themselves.


While there is, in theory, scope for negotiation of accountabilities, in practice many are established historically and imposed – top-down. It is the people doing the daily work of the system that best know what needs improving. In particular, they know the barriers to improvement, which can frequently only be addressed by individuals more senior to them.

Top-down imposition of accountabilities may address management’s priorities, but are likely to neglect root causes of waste, frustration and poor performance. 


Each individual, being held to account for specific outcomes, is based on an assumption of independent relationships within the organisation: each party acts with autonomy towards their own goals.

Relationships in organisations are far more interdependent than autonomous.

Optimisation of the whole.

A system of accountabilities across an organisation may seek to optimise the performance of the organisation as a whole; there is an  assumption that optimising each part of the system will optimise the whole. As we discussed in chapter three of Improving Learning the opposite is true.

By optimising the parts, the whole will be sub-optimised.

On balance, it would appear that focussing on systems to tighten accountabilities holds little promise for delivering improvement. Not only is it difficult to develop and sustain accountability systems within organisations, doing so is based on questionable assumptions. Furthermore, to date, it has demonstrated little systemic improvement.

An alternative

If accountability is not a viable route to improved performance, what should be done instead?

The answer is as simple as it is complex:

Equip everybody so they can work with others to improve the systems of learning for which they are responsible.

The theory and practices are described in detail in our book Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.

Accountability, Responsibility and Authority

In this post, we seek to clarify the concepts of accountability, responsibility and authority. These terms have specific meanings; the concepts are frequently confused. Lack of clarity can result in micro-management.

In the next post, we will explore challenges related to making school leaders accountable for school performance.


Let’s begin with a definition.

Accountability: the collection of outcomes that an individual is charged to produce and for which the individual can be held to account

Outcome based

Most individuals in organisations are charged with achieving certain outcomes, their accountabilities.


The outcomes for which an individual is held to account are usually determined through a process of negotiation. The head of a government agency negotiates with their respective government Minister. A chief executive negotiates with their Board. A principal negotiates with the district superintendent, or equivalent.

Outcomes are monitored and reported

Once agreed, progress towards the agreed outcomes is monitored and reported. The most senior people in organisations are held to account for the outcomes achieved by their organisation. This does not mean they are expected to achieve these outcomes on their own; they must work with others in the organisation to achieve their accountabilities.

Cannot be delegated

In a corporate context, a chief executive can negotiate with the chief financial officer, for example, the range of outcomes for which the chief financial officer agrees to be held to account. This is likely to include an accountability that the financial accounts are kept in accordance with relevant laws and accounting standards. The chief executive officer is not absolved from her accountability to ensure that the organisation complies with all relevant laws. The most senior executives remain accountable for the organisation’s performance. This is true even when failure to meet agreed outcomes is the result of someone further down the organisation failing to meet their accountabilities.

In a school context, principals are frequently held to account for student learning outcomes. This accountability is negotiated with their line manager and cannot be delegated. The principal must work with teaching staff to achieve this accountability.

In practice, the negotiation of accountabilities is frequently lost to the history of an organisation. The accountabilities associated with particular roles in the organisation were negotiated long ago and are now accepted as part of that job description. Under these circumstances, there is no fresh negotiation with a new incumbent for a position, rather, the accountabilities are accepted with the job.

Can be accepted

Achievement of outcomes, and thus achievement of accountabilities, is contingent upon the quality of the organisation’s systems and process, as was described in detail in chapter three of our book Improving Learning. The senior executive of the organisation is thus accountable for the performance of all the organisation’s key systems and processes. To manage this accountability in a practical manner, she negotiates for others to accept accountability for specific organisational processes. For example, a principal may negotiate with a deputy for the deputy to accept accountability for the student discipline and welfare processes. Similarly, the school leaders negotiate with classroom teachers the outcomes for which the teachers will be held accountable.

Accountability defines who is to be held to account for the achievement of outcomes.


Accountabilities are achieved through meeting responsibilities.

Responsibility: the work activities and outputs an individual is charged to complete.

Process based

The outcomes for which an organisation strives are achieved through enacting processes. Individuals within the organisation complete their work activities, which, in turn, link together as the organisation’s processes. These processes may be documented as deployment flowcharts that make explicit the responsibilities of those charged with enacting the process steps.

Can be delegated

Responsibilities can be delegated. The principal may, for example, ask the deputy principal to run a staff meeting. A teacher may ask an aide to prepare learning materials. The office manager may delegate responsibility for stationery supplies to an assistant.

When a responsibility is delegated, the accountability for the outcome is not.

Distinct from accountability

At senior levels of an organisation, accountabilities and responsibilities may be significantly different. Senior executives remain accountable for many things upon which they take no action on a day-to-day basis. A school principal remains accountable for the safety and wellbeing of all students in the school, yet has little day-to-day responsibility for sickbay, for example.

At more junior levels, the division between accountabilities and responsibilities becomes less distinct. A classroom teacher is typically responsible for the learning and teaching programs of her classes; the teacher is also accountable for the outcomes of those programs.

Responsibility defines who will undertake specific processes and actions.

Documenting Accountability and Responsibility

A Process Accountability Matrix may be used to document agreements regarding accountabilities and responsibilities. Key processes are listed in the rows of the matrix and roles identified in the columns. Within each cell of the matrix, the role may be listed as:

  • Accountable for outcomes of the process.
  • Responsible for performing actions within the process.
  • Consulted or informed during execution of the process.

A Process Accountability Matrix can be used to ensure there are no gaps or overlaps in accountability, i.e. each process has one and only one role Accountable for the process. The matrix can also identify roles that have little or too much responsibility and accountability.

Process Accountability Matrix example
Figure 1. Process Accountability Matrix example


Any discussion of accountability and responsibility is incomplete if it does not also discuss authority.

Authority: the delegated right to make decisions

Decision based

It is important to be clear who is accountable for outcomes and who is responsible for actions. It is equally important to ensure that appropriate authority is delegated; who is authorised to make decisions?

Governments define the structures by which decisions will be made and disputes settled. These delegations are detailed in legislation and regulations. Law enforcement agencies, such as the police, are established to enforce the determinations. Courts are also established to adjudicate disputes.


Governments also delegate specific rights to manage and regulate public institutions, including schools. These rights can be delegated to government agencies, and they can also be delegated to non-government agencies such as religious authorities. These agencies and authorities, in turn, delegate specific rights to officials, including school leaders. Through this process of delegation, school leaders have rights to make defined determinations for the school. The specific rights delegated to school leaders vary by jurisdiction. In some cases, school leaders have the right to hire and fire; some have the authority to manage the whole-of-school budget. In other cases, the school principal has significantly less authority.

Authority can be delegated.

Supports responsibility and accountability

Responsibility must be accompanied by authority to make decisions and take action. The school principal can authorise the bursar or business manager to keep financial records and to pay accounts, which is consistent with the bursar’s responsibilities. The office manager may have the responsibility and authority to enrol students. Teachers have the authority and responsibility to report on students’ progress.

Similarly, the negotiation and acceptance of accountability needs to be accompanied by the agreement to delegate the necessary authority to meet those accountabilities. For example, if a deputy principal accepts the accountability of ensuring that school programs comply with the requirements of a national curriculum, they will also need the authority to establish school policies and procedures to ensure this accountability is met.

Avoids micro-mangement

Where authority is not aligned with accountabilities and responsibilities there will be frustration and wasted effort.

Where there is a failure to clearly delegate authority, organisations can become paralysed. If an officer is unsure if they have the authority to make a decision, they will push the decision ‘up the line’. This results in delays and frustration. It also frequently results in more senior leaders’ time being taken up with decisions that could and should have been made at more appropriate levels in the organisation.

Micro-management is a failure to effectively delegate authority.

As is the case with accountabilities and responsibilities, the establishment of delegated authorities is also frequently lost to the history of the organisation, and simply accepted as inherent in the job description.

Authority defines who has the right to make decisions.


See an example of a school Process Accountability Matrix.

Learn more about managing processes, and process accountability, from our Learning and Improvement Guide: Process Mapping.


Note: this post draws heavily upon the teachings of Homer Sarasohn. The full text of “The Fundamentals of Industrial Management” (1949) by Sarasohn and Protozoan.

I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Norbert Vogel, for his helpful comments on an early draft of this post.

How to gauge consensus – use a Consensogram

Quality learning provides administrators, educators, and students with the thinking and practical quality improvement tools necessary to continually improve schools, classrooms and learning. The Consensogram is one of these powerful and easy-to-use quality improvement tools.

Image of a consensogram
A consensogram

The Consensogram facilitates collaboration to support planning and decision making through the collection and display of data. It can be used to gain important insights into the perceptions of stakeholders (most often relating to their level of commitment, effort, or understanding).

The quick-to-construct chart reveals the frequency and distribution of responses. Although anonymous, it allows individuals to view their response in relation to the others in the group.

The Consensogram gives voice to the silent majority and perspective to the vocal minority.

At QLA, we use frequently use the Consensogram: applying it to diverse situations for the purpose of obtaining important data to better inform ‘where to next’.

How to

  1. Predetermine the question relating to the data to be collected.  Make sure the question is seeking a personalised response – it contains an “I” or “my” or “me”. We want people to give their view. E.g. “To what degree am I committed to…” or “To what degree do I understand…”  It can help to begin the question with ‘To what degree…’
  2. Predetermine the scale you wish to use. The scale may be zero to 10 or a percentage scale between zero and 100 percent.
  3. Issue each person with one sticky note. Make sure the sticky notes are all the same size. Colour is not important.
  4. Explain that you want people to write a number on their sticky note in response to the question posed.
    • No negative numbers.
    • If using the zero to 10 scale: the number should be a whole number (not a fraction e.g. 3¾ or 3.75, 55%), and a six or nine should be underlined so they can be distinguished.
    • If using the zero to 100% scale, the numbers should be multiples of ten percent, i.e. 0%, 10%, 20%, and so on.
    • Names are not required on the sticky notes.
  5. Ask people to write down their response. This shouldn’t take long!
  6. Collect the sticky notes and construct the Consensogram, usually on flip chart paper. Label the consensogram with the question and a vertical axis showing the scale.
  7. Interpret the Consensogram with the group and use it to inform what to do next.
  8. Capture a record of your Consensogram by taking a photograph or saving the data on a spreadsheet. You can use a Consensogram template.

Some examples

Students feeling prepared for high school

Consensogram: students feeling prepared for high school
Consensogram: students feeling prepared for high school

This first example was prepared by a classroom teacher to determine how confident Year 6 students were feeling about their transitioning to high school.

So what do the data reveal?

  • There is significant variation; the students believe they are prepared to different degrees for their move to high school (scores range from 10 to 4).
  • There is one outlier (special cause) – that is; one student who is  having a very different experience to others in the class (giving a rating of one). They report that they feel unprepared for the transition.

So where to next?

  • There is opportunity to improve student confidence by working with the whole class to identify and work together to eliminate or minimise the biggest barriers to their feeling prepared.
  • There is opportunity to invite the student who is feeling unprepared to work with the teacher one-on-one (case manage) to address their specific needs for transiting. This student should not be singled out in front of the class, but an invitation issued to the whole class for that individual to have a quiet word with the teacher at a convenient time. The ensuing discussion may also inform the transitioning process for the rest of the class.


Student engagement

This example was created during a QLA professional development

Consensogram: how engaged are students in my classroom?
Consensogram: how engaged are students in my classroom?

workshop with a small group of 11 teachers.

The question was: “To what degree are my students fully engaged: taking responsibility for their learning, setting their own goals and tracking their progress?”

So what do the data reveal?

  • There is variation; the teachers believe their students are at different levels of engagement in their classroom.
  • The data appears normally distributed data (a bell curve); there are no outliers (special causes) – that is; none of the teachers are having a very different experience to others in the group.

So where to next?

  • There is opportunity to improve student engagement; all of the data points are below 5 on the scale.
  • This data can help the group to understand the agreed current state and can motivate people to engage with improvement. It can also provide baseline data to monitor the impact of improvement efforts in the future.

Commitment to school purpose

This example was created during school strategic planning with key stakeholders of a small school (parents, staff and students). A draft

Consensogram: how committed am I to our school purpose?
Consensogram: how committed am I to our school purpose?

purpose statement was developed using stakeholder input (using a P3T Tool). The Consensogram was then used to measure the level of commitment to the draft statement. The question was: “How committed am I personally to the purpose of the school?”

The use of the Consensogram averted the need for long, frequently unproductive dialogue. It revealed the following:

  • There is variation; the stakeholders exhibit different levels of commitment to the school purpose.
  • Most are stakeholders are highly committed (the majority indicating a commitment level of 8-10).
  • A group of five stakeholders are less committed (a commitment level of 4-6). Their experience may be different to others in the group.

So where to next?

  • This presents an opportunity to invite the stakeholders with a different experience to share. It is very likely something can be learned to improve the purpose statement for everyone.

Learn more…

Watch a video example of a Consensogram being used for school planning (Hargraves System Mapping) on YouTube.

Investigate the key quality  improvement tools and concepts underpinning the use of the Consensogram, plus more examples in Improving Learning: A how to guide for school improvement.

Purchase a Using data to improve guide.

Download a Consensogram MS Excel template.

A recipe for building an expert teaching team

Do you need a step-by-step guide to targeting professional learning to develop your expert teaching team? Then follow these simple instructions to establish an evidence-based, structured process to plan,  monitor and evaluate the professional development of staff in your school:

Warwick Fraser and his digital portfolio
Warwick Fraser explains how he uses his Capacity Matrix and Digital Portfolio
  1. Download a capacity matrix template. You can use the matrix in either hardcopy or digital format.
  2. Agree with staff what they need to know, understand and be able to do to be effective in their school roles. Identify the specific skills and capacities as they relate to key concepts and methods. Insert them into the matrix template. Draw on preferred models and professional standards like the AITSL Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Be sure to also include the capacities unique to your school system (e.g. do you have a school-based data software people need to know how to use, a behaviour management policy, a role call process?). 
    Also consult your Strategic and Annual Plans for new developmental needs and these capacities to the matrix. In this way the matrix is a dynamic (ever evolving) document subject to ongoing review and improvement.
  3. Have each staff member undertake a regular self-assessment using the matrix. This self-assessment can be made an integral part of your school staff performance management/development process.
  4. Staff (like younger learners) are required to provide evidence of their learning. Evidence is recorded in the evidence column of the matrix. Staff can use a portfolio to store their evidence (in the same way as students do). This can take many forms; video footage or podcasts of teachers demonstrating good teaching practice, photos, students articulating their learning. This evidence is an effective measure of the extent to which professional learning is ultimately applied in the classroom.
  5. Use the capacity matrix to identify individual learning goals and monitor progress towards achieving them.
  6. Use the matrix as a basis for the induction of new staff.
  7. Use the matrix to plan ongoing professional development. Identify those areas where a majority of staff require professional development and plan the most cost-effective way for this to be facilitated. For example, those staff who have reached mastery (or are at the wisdom level) in specific capacities can teach, coach or mentor those at lower levels of learning.

National Teacher Stds Capacity Matrix Ver1 03Jul12

Here are some we prepared earlier!

Want to know more…?

Human Motivation 4. From Rewards to Collaboration for Improvement

This is the final of a series of four posts to explore human motivation, and how we can encourage learners’ intrinsic motivation and engagement. These posts are edited extracts from our forthcoming book: Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.

In the previous posts we introduced the concepts of motivation, rewards, punishment, compliance and engagement. We explored a framework of factors to enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement, namely: Purpose, Choice, Mastery and Belonging.

Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement: Purpose, Choice, Mastery and Belonging
Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement: Purpose, Choice, Mastery and Belonging

In this post we conclude with an examination of the use of rewards in classrooms and how these can be substituted for working with students to identify and remove barriers to motivation and engagement.

Rewards in schools

The use of extrinsic rewards in schools and school systems is very deeply ingrained.

Many classroom teachers offer extrinsic rewards regularly as part of their behaviour management approach. From a very early age, students learn to please the teacher in order to be rewarded. Gold stars, lolly jars, student of the week, bonus points and free choice activities are offered as incentives. Teachers have been taught to do this; rewards are common practice. This diminishes the important intrinsic reward that comes from learning. Learning soon becomes more about work to please the teacher than personal growth and achievement.

When teachers are asked why they use extrinsic rewards, such as stickers, lollies, bonus points, or classroom parties, the answer is always the same. ‘The kids like them and they work!’

Questionable assumptions

There are several assumptions that can be questioned here, assumptions about efficacy and motivation.

  1.  ‘The kids like rewards!’ Just because someone likes something does not mean it is good for them, or that it helps them to learn. The more important question is whether rewards aid learning, and whether they offer a superior approach when compared to alternatives.
  2. Which kids like rewards? Obviously, the kids getting the rewards like it. There are very few people who don’t enjoy recognition, acknowledgement and being treated as a bit special. But what of those students who miss out? What of those students who are just as deserving but are not rewarded? How do they feel? Teachers are very busy watching the faces of the rewarded students and rarely notice the faces of the disappointed. Being disappointed repeatedly can be very demotivating.
  3. When teachers say the kids like rewards, one could ask ‘compared to what?’ Certainly, they could be expected to like getting rewards when compared to the option of not getting rewards. Who wouldn’t? But what about the option of getting rewards when compared to the option of discovering and experiencing the true joy of learning? Do the students have that reference point for comparison?
  4. What does it mean to say that the ‘rewards work’? Does this mean that student learning is enhanced by rewards? Or, does it mean that rewards encourage compliance? Most importantly, how do rewards improve learning compared to other approaches? As John Hattie is at pains to point out, nearly everything works in education; the real question is how well particular approaches enhance learning when compared to their alternatives.
  5. Rewards create energy for … more rewards. In an environment where rewards are common, so is the question ‘What do we get for doing this?’ In some cases, rewards can actually lower achievement, as students who are motivated by extrinsic rewards will do enough to get a reward, but no more, thereby artificially limiting their potential and motivation to achieve.
  6. Why are rewards necessary anyway? Do we really need to bribe people to do the right thing? Do people deliberately withhold best efforts and better methods waiting for the offer of a reward? Do students or teacher not try because they are hanging out for the reward to be offered? The answer to each of these questions is: ‘of course not!’
  7. An implicit assumption behind the offer of rewards is that people need rewards because they won’t do their best without them.

Myron Tribus makes explicit reference to the damage done by extrinsic motivators in his paper When Quality Goes to School.

Quality is what makes learning a pleasure and a joy.

You can increase some measures of performance by using strong external motivators, such as grades, prizes, threats and punishments, but the attachment to learning will be unhealthy.

It takes a joyful experience with learning to attach a student to education for life. Where there is joy in learning, the effort required does not seem like work.

Myron Tribus, When Quality Goes to School.


Intrinsic motivation in the classroom

Traditional didactic approaches to teaching do not promote intrinsic motivation. Some teachers churn through endless programs of plan-teach-assess in the hope that students will learn. If educators truly take to heart the need and moral obligation to unlock intrinsic motivation in learners, then a different approach is required. A more collaborative approach is needed.

Every learner is different, which adds enormously to both the joy and the complexity of teaching. The breadth and depth of prior knowledge varies, interests vary from student to student, as does the sense of belonging within a class or school. The home environment varies enormously too. Some families support and strongly encourage learning; others are less committed. How are teachers supposed to manage this variation? It can be extremely difficult to teach a class where the variation in knowledge and skills is measured in years of development.

The factors discussed in the previous two posts on motivation may be seen as requiring teachers to do even more than they do currently. How can teachers be expected to assess each factor on the model for each student for each learning activity and then respond to the findings? They cannot, it is too much to ask, even with small class sizes. This is not what we are advocating.

However, if teachers equip students to take responsibility for their learning and if teachers work with the students to adapt classroom processes, motivation and engagement can be continually improved.

Collaborating to remove barriers

Teachers and students can learn to work together in a more interdependent manner than the traditional student-teacher dependent relationship. This has been shown not to be additional work for teachers, just a different way of approaching their role. The key is to work with the students, which requires different relationships and the use of tools to support the collaboration.

As we pointed out in an earlier blog post, What the school improvement gurus are not yet talking about, students have an enormous contribution to make to school improvement.

This begins in the classroom, where students can work with the teacher to identify and remove barriers to motivation, engagement and learning. Students and teacher together explore the factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement, and the degree to which they are evident in the school’s systems of learning. Together they develop and trial new tools and methods, make changes and observe the impact. In this way, they collaborate to study and improve the systems of learning that so profoundly affect them.

A Capacity Matrix is an example of a very useful tool. It helps learners understand what is to be learned and allows them to set goals and track progress.

Working with students to improve the system of learning opens new possibilities. Learning plans are routinely developed for students exhibiting special needs, but more recently there have been calls for all students to have individualised learning plans. Requiring teachers to develop the traditional individual learning plan for each of their students and then managing each plan is a practical impossibility. In the current system, teachers simply do not have the time to do this well for large numbers of students. But, there is nothing stopping students from learning how to develop and monitor their own individual learning plans.

Capacity Matrices can be used as the basis for individual learning plans for all students. Not only do the matrices make explicit what the students are expected to know, understand and be able to do, they significantly enhance intrinsic motivation.  By design, their use is consistent with the factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and improvement. Capacity matrices make the aim or Purpose clear, students are given Choice in how they go about their learning, the matrices are explicitly designed to develop and demonstrate Mastery, and students’ sense of Belonging in enhanced through collaboration, feedback and support.

Our website includes several Capacity Matrix templates and many Capacity Matrix examples.



Human Motivation 3: Mastery and Belonging

This is the third of four blog posts to explore human motivation, and how we can encourage learners’ intrinsic motivation and engagement. These posts are edited extracts from our forthcoming book: Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.

Over the past decade we have drawn upon a wide range of research as well as our own experience to develop the following framework of factors that can enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement.

In the previous post, we explored this framework with a focus on the first two key factors: purpose and choice. In this post we discuss the other two key factors, namely mastery and belonging.

Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement: Purpose, Choice, Mastery, Belonging
Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement: Purpose, Choice, Mastery, Belonging

Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement



Advancing my interests and passions. Making a positive difference to me or others


Pertinent to me, my situation and my future


Accepting what is to be accomplished and uncovering the potential of what could be achieved



Committing to the task. Experiencing a sense of authority. Being relied upon by others


Selecting methods and resources, defining quality standards and determining time-lines and milestones


Exploring and expressing thoughts, skills, imagination and individuality



Finding the task interesting, compelling and achievable


Monitoring one’s own progress and performance. Celebrating learning and success


Trying things, making mistakes, developing new skills and finding different ways of thinking



Enjoying interdependence, working towards shared goals and experiencing authentic teamwork


Giving and receiving constructive feedback and encouragement


Recognising skills and abilities in one’s self and others. Sharing, helping, learning together. Being free of fear

Factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement


The factors identified in this framework are generic in that they apply, to varying degrees, to everyone. It is a model of common causes. By building these into our systems, we tap into intrinsic motivation.

Let’s look more closely at the last two groups of factors…

Promote mastery

Mastery is about building capacity, capability and competence. In order to develop mastery an individual needs to: be challenged (just the right amount, not too much, not too little), monitor and celebrate their achievements, and learn as they go.


For an activity to pose any challenge, it must be interesting to those doing it. Without interest there can be no challenge. (Note that interest is different to relevance and meaning).

Activities that place too much demand on the skills and abilities of an individual can lead to a loss of interest because the activities are deemed to be too difficult and the outcome unachievable. Activities that place insufficient demand are deemed boring.

Getting the level of challenge just right can make a task compelling: unlocking high levels of intrinsic motivation. (Vygotsky referred to this as the zone of proximal development).

The right degree of challenge, with interest, can be a motivator. Too much challenge or too little challenge can be a de-motivator.


Monitoring one’s own performance, and celebrating growth and accomplishments along the way, is what achievement is all about. Seeing progress can be highly motivating; to fail to see progress can be de-motivating.


Everyone is born with a passion for learning. Learning is as natural as breathing. Humans find great joy in trying new things, developing new skills, building on existing capabilities and exploring new ways of thinking. Learning contributes greatly to one’s sense of mastery and can be a powerful intrinsic motivator.

Foster a sense of belonging

The factors that comprise belonging are different in nature to the three previous groups: purpose, choice and mastery. They all relate in some way to the relationship between the individual and the activity: can the individual see purpose in the activity, are they afforded choice as they approach the activity and does the activity build mastery?

This set of factors recognises that humans are social beings and that a good deal of learning goes on in a social context: in a social system. Also, we have a deeply felt need to belong and to feel connected to others. There are factors within social systems that can enhance motivation and others that can suppress motivation. These factors relate to a sense of belonging.


The joy that comes from working closely and effectively with others towards a shared goal can be highly motivating. It takes time, skill and effort to learn to work with others in a truly cooperative manner. When this is achieved, the results can be spectacular and the experience highly memorable. There is little doubt that much more can be achieved working in collaboration with others than can be achieved working alone.


Feedback is an essential feature of every self-regulating system. Knowing where we are, where we would prefer to be, and immediately using the comparison of these two pieces of information to decide what to do next is critical to our sense of wellbeing.

In a social system, individuals give each other signals (feedback) that can be used to adapt behaviour and performance. Where this is done in a caring, constructive and encouraging manner, it can fan the flame of intrinsic motivation. Where feedback is given in a critical, malicious or spiteful way, it can be dispiriting and deeply de-motivating.

Learning can be accelerated with feedback. When a teacher works with a student to help them reflect upon the task, their learning processes and their metacognitive approaches, this feedback can significantly improve learning. Similarly, when students provide constructive feedback to a teacher about how their teaching is affecting their learning, this feedback can be of enormous value to the teacher. Such feedback enhances an individual’s capacity to manage their learning, which is highly motivating.


Recognising the contribution, progress and abilities of others is a first step in offering support to them. Offering to share, help and learn together can significantly boost the motivation of an individual.


In the next post in this series, we examination of the use of rewards in classrooms. We also discuss how these can be substituted for working with students to identify and remove barriers to motivation and engagement.

We encourage you to discuss these ideas with your colleagues. If you are a teacher, you may wish to explore these concepts with your students. If you are really game, you may like to ask your students (and colleagues) the degree to which these factors are evident within your systems of learning. Furthermore, you could seek suggestions regarding improvements to the systems of learning to enhance motivation and engagement.