2 Ways Students Can Lead School Improvement

Students have a great deal to contribute to school improvement.

We made this point in a previous blog post What the school improvement Gurus are not yet talking about.

Many schools are currently promoting ‘student voice’ – a feature of many school improvement models.  However our experience shows that this rarely extends beyond a Student Representative Council where a few selected students have the responsibility to collect periodic feedback from students or engage with school fundraising activities. This is a limited view of student voice.

Quality Learning theory emphasises the importance of working together to improve and involving the ‘worker at the front line’ in improving the system. In schools this is the student.

Student contribution begins in the classroom

Students’ potential to lead improvement begins in the classroom. Every student can reflect upon what helps him or her to learn and what hinders learning. Students, with their teacher, can use Quality Learning tools to share, explore and prioritise these driving and restraining forces. A Parking Lot is a good way to collect this data on an ongoing basis. (See our previous blog post Put up a Parking Lot!)

John Hattie in his book Visible Learning (2009) discusses feedback as in the ‘top 10’ greatest influences on student learning. He emphasises the importance of of student-to-teacher feedback (not just the more commonplace teacher-to-student kind).

Based on considered student feedback, teachers and students can jointly design and trial changes to classroom processes, with the aim of improving learning. The class can evaluate the effectiveness of these changes over time. The changes can then be:

  • adopted as ongoing practice;
  • adapted, modified and trialed again;
  • or abandoned.

In this way, students engage in the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle of learning and improvement.

PDSA Cycle
Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycle, as described by Dr W Edwards Deming

Engaging students in classroom improvement like this has four key benefits.

  1. Teachers can learn a great deal from listening to their students discuss what helps and hinders their learning. This also develops student metacognition and builds capacity in ‘learning how to learn’.
  2. Engaging students in the PDSA cycle of improvement teaches them a practical ‘how to’ approach to improvement, which they can then apply to their own opportunities for improvement. These lessons have practical application beyond schooling.
  3. Engaging students in improving their own situation builds student ownership of the process and outcomes. The teacher has the active support of students in developing, trialling and evaluating a jointly developed theory for improvement.
  4. If the trial is successful, student learning will improve. If it is not successful, students have benefited from experience with the PDSA cycle. An alternative theory can be developed and trialled.

Student contribution to whole-school improvement

In addition to contributing to improving learning in the classroom, students have a significant contribution to make to whole-school improvement. In most schools, this potential remains unexplored, let alone realised.

There are many more students than adults (teachers, administrators and support staff) in most schools. While student-teacher ratios vary enormously by school type and sector, it is generally true that students outnumber adults by more than five to one in most schools. In some places, the ratio is more than ten to one.

The adult populations in schools are diverse; this is even more so for most student populations. There is a rich diversity of backgrounds, languages, cultures, experiences and skills in both the adult and student populations in all schools. This is more pronounced in some schools than others, but it is always present. (Such is the nature of variation in social systems).

Yet in most schools, school improvement is the domain of adults alone.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The enormous potential of student creativity remains untapped in most schools. Young people have not yet learned some of the constrained thinking that we tend to acquire through life. Students can ask the obvious questions that we don’t even see and have ideas for improvement we could never dream of.

Hallett Cove R-12 School
Student Improvement Teams

Students can lead and participate in improvement teams to address key issues of concern.  We have worked with student teams over many years on school, community and industry-based improvement projects. They have never failed to do a remarkable job.

Students from the Student Leadership Team at Hallett Cove R-12 School in South Australia recently participated in a rigorous process of school improvement using the PDSA cycle.

Ten teams were formed looking at issues that affected them within their school.

Student teams worked out how to make things better, not just different.  They wanted things to get better, and stay better.  They made considered recommendations for sustainable improvement.
Student Improvement Teams from Hallett Cover R-12 School, South Australia

The objectives of the process were for students to:

  • learn more about the Quality Learning approach to improvement
  • learn first-hand about managing and improving organisations
  • develop skills in teamwork, goal setting, time management and communication
  • reflect upon and share what was learned
  • make significant improvements to the school and classroom!

The process comprised three phases:

  1. Training Day
  2. Four-day PDSA School Improvement Experience
  3. An Evaluation Meeting.

The Training Day introduced the knowledge and skills needed to participate in the improvement process. This training included the Principles of Quality Learning and some of the Quality Learning tools.

Phase 2 was where the bulk of the work was done. Students analysed a school situation or process, using the PDSA cycle and Quality Learning tools, to understand the system, identify root causes, develop solutions and make recommendations. To do this the used the following process (and tools):

1 Select the team

1.1 How will team members work together? (Code of Cooperation)

1.2 How will the team keep track of ideas and issues? (Parking Lot)

2 Clarify the opportunity for improvement

2.1 Precisely what is the opportunity for improvement? (Problem Statement)

2.2 Who are the clients and what do they need? (Perception Analysis)

3 Study the current situation

3.1 What is the current process flow, policy and/or state of relationships? (Deployment Flow Chart and/or Affinity Diagram)

4 Analyse the causes

4.1 What are the possible causes of variation and poor performance? (Fishbone Diagram)

4.2 What are the root causes of variation and poor performance? (Hot Dot and Interrelationship Digraph)

4.3 What data are needed to measure performance? (Measures Selection Matrix)

4.4 What do the data say about current performance? (Check Sheets, Run Charts, Pareto Charts)

5 Develop a theory for improvement

5.1 What are the possible solutions, and which will have the greatest impact? (Potential Improvements Matrix)

5.2 What are the recommendations for action, including time lines and responsibilities? (Gantt Chart)

5.3 How will the recommendations be communicated?

On the final afternoon, teams presented their findings to the school leadership team. The other Student Teams were also present. Their findings were presented as a written report and a presentation.

The Evaluation Meeting occurred in the days following the report presentation and provided an opportunity to give feedback to the school about their experience.

The many excellent recommendations were acted upon in the weeks that followed, and have made lasting and significant improvements to the school.

In the words of Andrew Gohl, Assistant Principal:

The PDSA cycle provides a structure and a clear process that people can work through, that is inclusive of all voices: regardless of whether you are the very young, the very old, the very vociferous, the very quiet. There’s a clear process there for everyone to have a voice, for everyone to be heard. And, of course, in that inclusiveness, the outcome is one which meets everybody’s needs.

Watch the video that tells the story of the Hallett Cove R-12 School Student Teams.

Human Motivation 1. Rewards, Punishments, Compliance and Engagement

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

In this post, we introduce the concepts of motivation, rewards, punishment, compliance and engagement.

Subsequent posts introduce a framework of factors to enhance intrinsic motivation and engagement. The final post questions the use of rewards in schools and explores how teachers and students can collaborate to remove barriers to intrinsic motivation and engagement.


Let’s begin with a few operational definitions:

  • Motivation: Stimuli or drive for action.
  • Intrinsic motivation: stimuli or drive for action coming from within an individual.
  • Extrinsic motivation: stimuli or drive for action coming from sources external to the individual.

Notice that these definitions refer to the locus of control for action – the drive for action coming from within the individual, or from factors external to the individual.

intrinsic motivation stems from sources within the individual, extrinsic motivation from sources external to the individual
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation originates within an individual and stems from the inherent interest and enjoyment to be found in undertaking a task or activity. The pleasure to be derived from the activity can be sufficient motivation to do it.

Extrinsic motivation stems from something that is separate from the activity or task being undertaken. Someone goes to work at a job they dislike just to get paid; this is extrinsic motivation. Commonly the thing being sought is some form of reward, as is the case of working only for the money. People can also undertake activities in order to avoid punishment. There are very few people, for example, who find pleasure in paying their income tax bill. Most people pay taxes because they see it as an obligation and they wish to avoid additional fines and other forms of punishment!

In short, intrinsic motivation stems from sources within the individual, extrinsic motivation from sources external to the individual.

Unfortunately, in Australia and elsewhere, most attempts to improve schooling continue to focus on extrinsic motivators, most notably rewards and punishments.


Let us clarify what is meant by a reward.

  • Reward: a desired object or experience that is conferred upon an individual or group contingent upon certain criteria being met

A reward is conditional. If specific conditions are met the reward is given, if they are not met the reward is not conferred. Some refer to these as contingent rewards or ‘if-then’ rewards.

A reward may be a tangible object. Students can be rewarded with a sticker, stamp or lollipop issued by their teacher. Employees are paid for their efforts.

A reward may be a tangible experience. Parents may promise their children a trip to the movies at the weekend on the condition that they are good during the week.

A reward may also be a positive physiological or psychological experience. Pleasure can be found in the sensations that come from physical exercise. Most people experience a sense of joy from achieving challenging and meaningful goals.

Rewards can be intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic rewards derive directly from meeting the criteria associated with the task itself. The act of creating a magnificent image can be intrinsically rewarding for a photographer; the criteria relate to achieving a superb image. The pleasant sensations of physical exercise derive directly from the exercise itself. Others’ responses can have an impact on the individual, but this is separate from the intrinsic reward derived from the task itself.

Extrinsic rewards are objects and experiences that are separate to meeting the criteria associated with the task. A visit to the cinema is only related to good children’s behaviour in that it is the reward on offer. Another key feature of extrinsic rewards is that they are offered by someone external to the individual being rewarded.  Implicit here is an extension of the simple ‘if-then’ notion to one of ‘if you do this, then I will do that’. This has significant implication for relationships.

In the presence of extrinsic rewards, an individual’s focus is drawn to the reward. By definition, extrinsic rewards are offered to drive individuals to take action. The desirable nature of the reward captures the attention of the individual and elicits action. The greater the reward: the greater the focus. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of using an extrinsic reward is that the focus is not so much on the task, but rather on gaining the reward.

Extrinsic rewards divert attention from the task to the reward.


Another source of extrinsic motivation is punishment.

  • Punishment: a negative or unpleasant experience that is imposed upon an individual or group in response to behaviour that is deemed to be unacceptable

Punishments, like extrinsic rewards, are conferred upon an individual or group by other individuals or groups. Some form of authority imposes punishments, be that a court of law, a government ‘official, a parent, guardian or teacher. Like extrinsic rewards, punishment is contingent on certain criteria being met. Unacceptable behaviour is nearly always the ‘criteria to be satisfied’ in order for the punishment to be imposed.

A key feature of both punishments and rewards is that they are bestowed or imposed upon the individual by other individuals or groups. This has profound implications for the nature of the relationship between the individual being punished or rewarded and those dishing out the treatment. Offering punishments and rewards reinforces dominance in the relationship.

In the classroom, extrinsic rewards and punishments are used to the detriment of learning. They take the learners’ attention away from the inherent joy and intrinsic reward from learning, and they focus attention on either obtaining the rewards and avoiding the punishments.


Consider the logical extremes of pure extrinsic and pure intrinsic motivation. While nearly all motivation is the result of a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, conisderation of the further reaches of such a continuum provides valuable insight.

At one end of the continuum is compliance.

  • Compliance: submission to the will of others

Handing your money to an armed bandit is an act of compliance. Paying a speeding fine is an act of compliance. Submitting assignments and doing homework can be acts of compliance. The key feature of compliance is that the stimuli and drive for action come from sources external to the individual; the individual is extrinsically motivated to comply. Thus, extrinsic motivation can lead to compliance.

However, individuals can also choose not to comply. They may, for whatever reason, decide that they will not submit. For the most part, this is done after careful consideration of the consequences. In this way, extrinsic motivation can also lead to defiance.

Thus, extrinsic motivation factors lead to either compliance or defiance.


At the other end of the continuum from compliance is engagement.

  • Engagement: enthusiastic commitment of attention, effort and care

The keen gardener, who spends numerous hours each week tending to the plants and flowers, demonstrates engagement. The adult who persists with a Sudoku puzzle until it is solved demonstrates engagement. Students with a love for learning also demonstrate engagement.

Engagement: enthusiastic commitment of attention, effort and care
Engagement defined

The enthusiasm to commit to a task or activity and the choice to devote care, attention and effort can only come from within. It may be possible to force compliance to complete a task or activity; it is not possible to force engagement.

The prevailing system of management

There is a wealth of evidence from research across the globe that indicates that intrinsic motivation and engagement with learning typically decline with a child’s progress through the current schooling system. It also seems that many fail to reclaim their intrinsic motivation after it has been suppressed through schooling. A large global study of nearly 11,000 workers world-wide, undertaken by Blessing White in 2011, found that fewer than one in three employees world-wide are engaged. It would seem that the diminishing engagement that teachers observe through the school years extends into work life. The obvious question stemming from the evidence of a decline in engagement over time is ‘what is causing it’?

The answer is the prevailing system of management.

The prevailing system of management across the western world is driving a loss of engagement in organisations and communities. It pays insufficient attention to the factors that enhance intrinsic motivation and engages in practices that systematically deprive individuals of joy in work and learning.

This was constantly emphasised by Deming.

One is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, joy in learning. These attributes are high at the beginning of life, but are gradually crushed by the forces of destruction.
W. Edwards Deming, (1993) The New Economics, p125

In the following posts in this series, we examine what we can do to turn the tide on these forces of destruction and enhance learners’ motivation and engagement.

Put up a Parking Lot!

Unlike in the well-known Joni Mitchell (or for those of you who are younger, the Counting Crows) Big Yellow Taxi song, putting up a Parking Lot can be a very positive and productive experience. Especially when the Parking Lot is a Quality Learning tool!

Like the key message in the song, the Parking Lot can prevent us from taking things for granted, and missing opportunities – but in a very different way.

ParkingLotOur colleague and friend David Langford was responsible for the ‘construction’ of this Parking Lot.

The Quality Learning Parking Lot enhances communication and supports our continual improvement efforts.

The purpose of a Parking Lot is to
gather feedback from stakeholders.
It is where we ‘park’ ideas for improvement.

The Parking Lot can be used to gather group, team or individual feedback, ideas and reflections. Stakeholder feedback is usually collected anonymously. This allows people to provide honest feedback in a safe and trusting environment.

How to…

Easier to construct than a traditional parking lot, (no need for a bulldozer and tons of concrete!) – all we need is paper and a pen. The Parking Lot can be as creative and colourful as your imagination allows (and students make great Parking Lots!). Here’s how:

  1. Use poster size paper (or smaller for individual use).
  2. Draw up the Parking Lot to capture thinking in four main areas:
    • +: What is going well?
    • Δ: What can we improve?
    • ?: What are the questions?
    •  I: What are the issues or ideas?
  3. Gather the feedback using either sticky notes, or allow people to write directly onto a template. Ask users to place their feedback directly onto the quadrant it relates to.
  4. Collate the feedback (where sticky notes have been used, an Affinity Diagram can help with this).
  5. With the stakeholder/s: discuss, explore, agree priorities, and action.

A word of warning: don’t ask for feedback if you are not prepared to discuss and act upon it!

When and where…

At QLA, we use a Parking Lot to collect feedback during meetings, professional development and support sessions. That way we can improve the process during the session, rather than wait to gather feedback at the end, when it is too late to attend to the needs of the current participants.

Here are some other ideas for application:

Passionate_Educator_300 Educator

  • As a basis for classroom meetings. Ask students to place their ideas as they emerge during classroom and learning activities during the week. Students take it in turns to chair a meeting. Each idea is read out and the appropriate action determined and agreed to by students in consultation with the teacher. Actions and agreements can be recorded using an Decision and Action Record.
  • To obtain student feedback on programs, units of work, lessons, excursions, activities, homework, the effectiveness of teaching strategies.
  • To structure group or individual reflection on learning.
  • As part of a class project or Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) improvement process to capture ongoing feedback and ideas.

Innovative_School_Leader_300 School Leader

  • Posted in the school’s reception area to collect ongoing feedback from parents and families on various aspects of school life and activities.
  • During meetings to evaluate effectiveness and ‘park’ ideas and issues that emerge that the current agenda may not allow time for.
  • To gather input from staff to evaluate a program, professional development, school processes (as part of a post–process review – e.g. reporting to parents, school camp), to improve the process for next time.
  • As part of a project or Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) improvement process to capture ongoing feedback and ideas as the project progresses.

Dedicated_School_System_Leader_300School System Leader

  • During meetings to evaluate effectiveness and ‘park’ ideas and issues that emerge that the current agenda may not allow time for.
  • To gather input to evaluate, progress and/or improve a project, program, professional development, processes.
  • As part of a Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) improvement process to capture ongoing feedback and ideas as the process progresses.

Supportive_Family_Community_Leader_300Family and Community Member

  • To structure group or individual reflection on learning.
  • During meetings to evaluate effectiveness and ‘park’ ideas and issues that emerge that the agenda does not allow time for, so they are not lost.

Business_Government_Leader_300Business or Government Leader

  • During meetings to evaluate effectiveness and ‘park’ ideas and issues that emerge that the agenda does not allow time for, so they are not lost.
  • To gather input to evaluate, progress and/or improve a project, program, professional development, processes.
  • As part of a Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) improvement process to capture ongoing feedback and ideas as the process progresses.

Find out more…


We’d love to here your experiences with using the Parking Lot!

Please comment here:

School purpose and vision: how stakeholder perspectives differ

Students, teachers and families usually have different perspectives regarding the purpose and vision for their school.

Over the years, we worked with families, staff and students at dozens of schools, to identify their aspirations and agree the purpose and vision for their school. This builds a shared direction, ownership and commitment to the school. It also provides a point of reference to inform planning and decision-making into the future.

The process usually involves working with each group to identify and prioritise their views on the elements that comprise purpose and desired vision for the school.

Students prioritising the proposed school values
Students at Seaford 6-12 School, South Australia, prioritising the school values

Every school is unique. Consequently, the stated purpose and vision tend to be unique to each school. There are common themes too.

Common themes

A review of data from several Australian schools, with whom we have worked, reveals the following common themes: identified by families, students and staff. (These schools represented a mix of primary and secondary schools across four states and territories.)

  • A place of pride
  • Choice of subjects
  • Clean
  • Curriculum
  • Engaged students
  • Focus on the ‘whole child’
  • Friends
  • Fun
  • Good academic results
  • Great resources
  • Great teachers
  • Passion for learning
  • Pedagogy
  • Positive school spirit
  • Respectful and supportive
  • Safe and happy
  • Students future ready
  • Students learn how to learn
  • Technology

The majority of schools referred to each of these themes. The wording, expression or nuance may have varied from school to school, but in essence these themes were common.

Different Perspectives

Of particular interest is the degree to which each stakeholder group raises these themes. Some themes, such as Safe and happy, Respectful and supportive and Students future ready are referred to by all three stakeholder groups in roughly equal measure. Other items tend to be raised by only one group. Typically only students identify Fun and Friends as being important elements of their schooling. Similarly, only teachers tend to raise Curriculum and Pedagogy. Other themes are raised by two of the three groups. Students and parents want Great teachers, though the teachers tended not to mention this. Staff and parents want Engaged students, while students tend not to identify this.

The figure below illustrates these different perspectives. Each item is represented by a bubble, the size of which indicates the frequency with which the item is raised; the bigger the bubble the more commonly it is mentioned. The closer the bubble is to one of the three corners (Students, Staff or Parents), the stronger that stakeholder expression of that item. For example, that only students mention Fun is indicated by it being tight in the Students’ corner. Alternatively, Respectful and supportive sits in the centre of the triangle, indicating it was identified by students, staff and parents in equal proportion.

Key messages

We believe these finding illustrate two important points.

Firstly, they highlight the importance of taking the time to find out the perspectives of each stakeholder group, directly from that stakeholder group. Attempts to second-guess the perspective of another group are very likely to completely miss entire themes held dear to that group. Involving each stakeholder group in the development of a shared direction or System Map is a great way to start.

Secondly, there are many points of commonality among these stakeholders, which provide the basis for agreement. Each group mentioned most themes, at least to some degree. This commonality provides a starting point for generating and documenting a shared perspective that is agreeable to all stakeholder groups. Furthermore, once the unique perspectives of individual groups are identified these can be discussed and are frequently incorporated into the new shared perspective.


What are the common views among your stakeholders? What are the differences? How do you know? How do you manage the difference?

What the school improvement gurus are not yet talking about

Over the past 15 years the conversations about school improvement have been changing.

Key observations about school improvement, which were not discussed at the turn of the millennium, are now clearly on the agenda.

However, there are still critical elements that are not yet part of this dialogue. This post reflects upon these important conversations.

What is being talked about

Items now on the agenda include:

  • The systemic nature of school systems. There is growing awareness of the interconnectedness that exists among the component parts of these complex social systems. These components need to work together if the system is to be optimised towards its aim.
  • Students’ learning as the aim, rather than teachers’ teaching. This may seem a pedantic distinction, yet it profoundly changes the emphasis in dialogue, and thereby the focus of improvement efforts: from educational policy right through to the classroom.
  • Our systems of school education are not meeting the needs of significant proportion of students. Not only is the system failing our more disadvantaged students, dissatisfaction is widespread and evident in the perceptions of students, teachers and families. Furthermore, in Australia at least, the performance of the education system has largely flat-lined over the past decade, in spite of significantly increased resources. There are pockets of excellence and dramatic improvement, but across the system improvement progress is glacial.
  • The use of data to inform improvement. With the development of national testing in Australia, and elsewhere, there is now systemic learning data that stimulates and informs conversations and debate. Like it or not, these data are here to stay, and they continue to inform the debate about school improvement.

The organisational improvement theory, derived primarily from the work of Dr. W Edwards Deming, leads directly to each of these observations. They have been part of our conversations with friends, clients and colleagues for over a decade. We are encouraged that the significance of these issues and opportunities is now recognised.

What is yet to be talked about

Improvement theory also points to other key opportunities that are not yet common in dialogue about school improvement.

Student contribution to school improvement

Students have an enormous contribution to make to school improvement.
Students have a lot to contribute

It is only students who truly know what helps and hinders their learning.

Unless their insight is accessed, acknowledged and acted upon, attempts to improve learning are likely to be misguided. Furthermore, if all students are to benefit, this action needs to be taken regularly at the local level, in each and every classroom. Simple tools, such as the Parking Lot and Force-field Analysis, provide mechanisms that enable this from pre-school to senior high school levels.

Students can contribute significantly to improving the operation of the school.

Some schools emphasise ‘student voice’ through mechanisms such as Student Representative Councils and Student Leaders. These process, while important, are in no way sufficient. A much greater opportunity lies in having students skilled and experienced in leading and participating in improvement project teams. These teams can apply the Plan-Do-Study-Act learning cycle to directly address opportunities to improve the school. Not only does this approach build the capability of students to personally contribute to improvement (a capability that can be of great benefit to them in their future), it also builds student ownership of the school and classroom while relieving the burden on school leaders, administrators and teachers.

Too much what, not enough how

Knowing what to improve is insufficient. We must also know how to improve it.


There is far too much discussion of what excellence in schools looks like, at the expense of how schools might achieve it.

Knowing what to improve is not sufficient. We must also know how to improve it. Copying others’ examples of good practice rarely delivers sustainable improvement. Schools can learn from others’ good practice, but each school must develop and test its own theory for improvement. The Plan-Do-Study-Act improvement cycle and the associated Quality Learning tools provide the ‘how to’ for developing and testing a theory for improvement.

These two observations, which remain to be discovered by leaders of the school improvement movement, hold the most significant promise for delivering demonstrable and continual school improvement.

Note: Our thanks to Hallett Cove R-12 School, South Australia, for the images, which were taken during QLA facilitated Student Improvement Team workshops in 2014.


We would love to hear your views on this topic. What do you see missing from the dialogue about school improvement?