Orientation to improve

Never be afraid to fail. Failure is only a stepping stone to improvement.

Never be overconfident because that will block your improvement.

 – Tony Jaa


Interested in how your school is doing with possessing an orientation to improve? Use one of the self-assessments in the linked document below.

What do we mean by orientation to improve?

What orientation to improve looks like: Teachers are encouraged by administrators to test innovations in curriculum, pedagogical delivery, and assessment with each other and track the relative success of those changes. Teams of teachers and administrators meet to regularly check progress based on observable evidence to reflect, make course corrections, and determine what is most beneficial to students.

When we say improvement, we sometimes default to thinking about how we can implement known best practices better or with greater fidelity. As a result, improvement efforts traditionally focus on training people in particular skills or monitoring to be sure everyone is following particular practices or protocols. For instance, if we know a particular strategy for teaching early literacy skills is most effective, we might start by offering professional development sessions to teachers to be sure everyone knows how to use that strategy and follow up with observations to check that everyone applies it.

That approach works when there is a clear problem with a clear and well-known technical solution like an obvious knowledge and skill gap. But many of the problems and challenges we face with students and in schools and school systems are more complex, requiring us to change mindsets and long-standing habits. We say that these are adaptive challenges, which involve changing our assumptions not only about solutions but also about the nature of the problems and needs we face. 

At some point, most change efforts require adaptive change to be successful. For example, imagine that we find that not every teacher who received professional development implemented the new strategy — a pretty common result in a training effort. We could become frustrated and threaten disciplinary action to mandate implementation. But based on prior experience, we can also predict that some teachers will still not respond. Perhaps they don’t understand the strategy well enough yet, don’t have enough time or support to implement it consistently, haven’t been shown evidence about how this will help them and their students, have evidence that their students need another approach, or simply feel resistant to change. Getting curious about why the challenge exists and taking small risks to address those root causes are more effective ways to be sure that the changes are implemented.

Risk-taking should always be informed by reflection — both on the root causes of the challenge or problem to which you’re responding and on evidence that helps you better define potential solutions. The reward for risk-taking is not necessarily achieving immediate breakthrough success. The reward is learning how we can get closer to success for the long term and modeling for students the messy but important process of improvement. Therefore, schools with a strong orientation toward improvement tolerate risk because it is necessary for learning. Through this orientation, a productive struggle will lead to impactful innovation.

“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”

– Mark Twain

Why is an orientation to improve important?

There are always ways in which we can improve, both personally and professionally. Having a mindset that embraces that notion is one way to ensure that your team has an orientation to improve. That is not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate our successes. On the contrary, celebrating successes is one way to acknowledge and close one goal in order to prepare and set another. And learners, whether students or teachers, need to recognize when they have achieved something, then consider how they can improve from there. This process is crucial to the continuous improvement cycle, and when the orientation to improve is lacking, it is not surprising that no change occurs.


Is your team ready to dive into the work of strengthening the orientation to improve for collective leadership? Complete the form below to get access to all of the conditions strategy guides.


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