Is it possible to apply lean thinking and lean methodology to adult education and teaching?


I’m not sure if this works or not, but I’m interested in the idea of applying the principles of Lean Thinking and Lean Manufacturing to adult teaching, and to adult literacy and numeracy education in particular which is my field.

I’m not an expert on Lean, but I have read and listened to bits and pieces on the subject including Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup which applies the principles to entrepreneurship and business development.

The Lean Startup

I like Ries’ model as it’s simple enough to get my head around. What I’m going to do below is probably guilty of wrenching it out of context, but I want to see if I can make it apply to my own teaching context. So, the framework is from The Lean Startup, but the content is from my own work doing professional development in the field of adult literacy and numeracy education.

Here’s the result below. I’m paraphrasing Ries in places and copying his words directly in others. Tell me what you think in the comments.

  1. Entrepreneurs are everywhere/Innovative teachers are everywhere.
    • Here’s my take on Principle 1: Teachers, trainers, and tutors are entrepreneurial in the sense that they are often innovative and creative in their jobs for education providers. And you don’t have to work in a school or traditional education or training provider to be “in education”. Perhaps I could cannibalise Reis’ definition for a startup and transfer it into education… It might go something like this: “An education provider is any human institution designed to facilitate learning and teaching often under conditions of extreme uncertainty. That means that innovative teachers and trainers are everywhere including inside companies as well as more traditional training providers, and that this approach can work in any size organisation, in any sector or industry.
    • Application to adult literacy and numeracy education: trades trainers and vocational tutors often work with difficult learners. The same is true of industry trainers working in company settings. This forces them to be innovative. By focusing on the underpinning literacy and numeracy skills as well as the key content areas, educators increase the likelihood of learning taking place.
  2. Entrepreneurship is management/Education innovation is management
    • Here’s my take on Principle 2: An education provider is an institution, not just a product, and so it requires a specific kind of management. Education is undergoing a transformation and so is our society. These changes are social and technological, but they mean that education management should be geared to contexts of extreme uncertainty with regards to everything from knowledge, to methods and approaches, to attitudes, to ways of engaging learners, to funding. The term “Educational Entrepreneur” should be part of someone’s job title in any education provider, especially as the organisation will depend on innovation for their future growth in the education market.
    • Application to adult literacy and numeracy education: Owners and managers of training organisations and companies that rely on education to sell their products need to create conditions for teachers, trainers, tutors, and others to experiment with new ways of doing things. For this to happen there must be an investment of time and awareness that some approaches will not work. There should also be an awareness that even in sectors where knowledge and skills are rapidly shifting and evolving there are basic underpinning and foundational skills around reading, writing, listening, speaking, numeracy, and critical thinking that are teachable and transferable, and that should be embedded into the content delivery.
  3. Validated learning.
    • Here’s my take on Principle 3: Education providers exist not just to produce graduates, disseminate knowledge about industries, products or other stuff, make money, or even serve their students. They exist to learn how to learn, teach and communicate their niche skills and knowledge areas more effectively, more efficiently, and in a way that helps them build sustainable education businesses. This learning can be validated scientifically by running frequent experiments with teaching and learning approaches that allow innovative teachers and educators to test specific elements of particular approaches, strategies, or learning activities.
    • Application to adult literacy and numeracy education: Education has had some version of this for awhile. We call it action research. What we need to do is link it to evolving new business models as well as extending expertise in our chosen fields. In terms of adult literacy and numeracy professional development we recognised early on that traditional lecture-based delivery was not going to cut it for trades and vocational tutors, so we rapidly switched to workshop delivery. Now that we need to get much of the training online we’re faced with a new dilemma: Our target clientele pretty much hate the idea of online learning. So how can we do this work online in a way that still resonates with our target learners?
  4. Innovation accounting.
    • Here’s my take on Principle 4: Education is now a performance managed industry. Measurement of every kind is everywhere and we’re not talking particularly about funding here. To improve educational outcomes and hold innovative educators and trainers accountable, we need to focus on the boring stuff: how to measure progress, how to set up educational milestones, how to help educators prioritise work. This requires a new kind of accounting designed for education providers – and the people who hold them accountable.
    • Application to adult literacy and numeracy education: Again, none of this is new to education. We have business goals set by our funding agency, the TEC. One of these is to deliver around 100 NCALNE (Voc) qualifications. However, what’s the best way to do this moving forward? We need smaller, more focused experiments that help us stay informed about how our most recent learners like to learn. Also, we teach that tutors need to use learning plans with their learners to focus teaching and learning on specific negotiated goals. We also have diagnostic and formative assessment tools to measure learner progress. But what’s the best way to stitch this together in a comprehensive framework for educators?
  5. Build-Measure-Learn.
    • Here’s my take on Principle 5: The fundamental activity of an education provider is to facilitate learning around particular niche knowledge and skills, measure how learners respond to training or interventions, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere. All successful processes within the education provider should be geared to accelerate that feedback loop. Sometimes in education we see this as follows: Test-Teach-Test.
    • Application to adult literacy and numeracy education: The great thing about working with trades tutors and vocational trainers is that they don’t care about all the academic BS. They often don’t have preconceived ideas about how to do certain things, such as teach essential literacy and numeracy skills. What this means is that once they are aware of what the issues are, and we’ve given them some tools to use to analyse their courses and training materials they often think of quite innovative ways of bridging the gaps between where their learners are and where they need to be. The trouble is that this process is not usually explicit, and it’s often invisible inside and organisation. It’s our job to make this process explicit, put some structure around it, and help those educators help themselves, their learners, and their organisations.

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