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Hello readers,

Following on from the Lean Higher Education Conference 2019 blog and excellent guest contribution from Chris Shannon we published last month, we were suitably impressed to get Chris in again to write another blog on more conference details and specifically from the Author’s session there. What can we say, the conference was a Lean treasure trove and Chris surpasses himself with his skills as a metaphorical metal detectorist of Lean.

So, here’s Chris and his contribution on the book he mentioned in his previous contribution, Lean in the Classroom authored by Vincent Wiegel, which, we should say, is conspicuous by its absence from our bookshelf – time to rectify that I think. Link to the publisher’s page here.

Lean in the Classroom, Vincent Wiegel, 2019

Lean in the Classroom is the new book by Vincent Wiegel, Professor at HAN University of Applied Science, and co-founder of the New Engineers School. It is a bold and ambitious work which sets out an alternative way to deliver education, drawing on the experience of establishing the New Engineers School. Wiegel describes lean education as “an organization wide strategy that aims at generating value for students and supports schools” chosen pedagogical philosophy through:

  1. Alignment of the whole organisation, its processes and technology to create an effective learning environment
  2. Short, cyclic continuous improvement and innovation of the learning environment and the elimination of waste”

As Wiegel writes in his introduction, “Lean Education does not introduce a new pedagogy. What is needed is an approach that increases the effectiveness of all the energy that is spent on education. It builds on all the research and insights that have been generated over the past decades on effective teaching and learning. It combines these with proven, practical organizational insights to form a workable framework that offers schools a concrete way forward, a unified approach to address the overwhelming amount of change”.

The book details use of educational technology, pedagogy, individualised learning, assessment, agility, and appropriate support services, culminating in a case study of New Engineers School as an example of lean education in practice. It states very clearly that schools need to use lean for teaching (literally in the classroom) and not just for back office processes. Most universities have only attempted to apply lean to non-academic work and declared academics to be off limits. It does not make sense for universities to use lean on everything but the processes that relate to the core business of teaching, where value is created for the student. Wiegel writes, “Lean Education thinking starts with the student. From the concept of value for the student, we organize the processes of learning and teaching. These processes in turn define what they need and pull what they need and when they need the required support from professional services. From the needs of both the primary processes of learning and teaching, and the secondary processes of professional services, the staffing is organized.”

Wiegel provides detailed examples which enrich the book and reinforce the concepts he describes. He pays attention to both the educational benefits of this approach, and the application of the lean tools to education processes. A highlight for me was Chapter 5 – Lean in the Classroom: Goals and Progress, which gives excellent examples of using lean tools to support student learning. Wiegel describes using A3 thinking, the continuous improvement kata, and visual progress boards to help plan and track a student’s progress. This requires a different use of the educator’s time in working with students and a different set of expectations on the student to achieve their goals. It is a much more active form of learning than the traditional approach, with students as co-creators of their experience.

Even if you think this approach would not work in your own institution due to size, complexity and maturity (read rusted-on practices and behaviours), this book offers a fascinating insight to a different approach to education, and provides ideas and examples to borrow from. There is enough in the book which will be familiar to educators (for example the use of Eric Mazur’s flipped classroom approach) and to lean practicians to provide a recognisable and sensible launching point, before demonstrating how to push far beyond most contemporary practice.  Wiegel asks highly pertinent lean questions about waste of academic staff time and energy, of administrator time and energy and most importantly of student time and energy. He also questions value, challenging the notion of value being a school telling students what is good for them. Lean education creates value for students through individualised learning. The book builds the case for a student focused model grounded in pedagogy and enhanced by lean thinking.

The book concludes with a case study of New Engineers School, a small, privately run, post-graduate engineering school which has industry accreditation. Its mission is to grow enterprising engineers with a creative mindset. The school has “no fixed premises nor any teachers”. Depending on the student cohort for each year, they work out what is required and hire venues, invite subject matter experts and coaches, and work with industry partners to provide the learning experience.  Curriculum is designed using a learning arch approach which drives value for the student as it is a co-created learning experience. This is a more intensive way of teaching throughout the semester as it requires you to design the program and assessment to meet the student’s need. You cannot do this until you have met the student and found out their goals, their current knowledge, skills and abilities, and therefore what they need to learn. It also requires an agility and flexibility around curriculum that most universities do not possess. The model is of course very different to the typical approach of determining the learning objectives at course level, developing standard assessment items with rubrics based on the learning objectives, and expecting all students to progress through the course material together.

There may well be limitations to the lean education approach used in New Engineers School with regards to scalability, acceptability of employment models, and acquiring and maintaining accreditation of programs. Or at least, there are limitations when considered against the current model of higher education and the structures built around it. However, lean education and the New Engineers School were born out of frustration with the limitations of the current model. Higher education is notoriously bureaucratic, slow to respond to change, hampered by entrenched practices and behaviours, and laden with waste. Lean education is disruptive to the established education model and can foster change in the same way disruptive business models have changed other industries. As with lean generally, it is not a matter of copying and pasting from one organisation to another, it is a matter of looking at the principles that inform the behaviours, which then drive the actions, and seeing how best to make them work in your own organisation. Wiegel recognises this and has provided the underlying principles and ideas in this thoughtful and thought-provoking book.

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