Boxes, Deming, and the upcoming AAR

Would you put your students in a particular box and than evaluate them for things beyond the box?  Not consciously, but the late W. Edwards Deming suggested we do it all too often.

Deming is the father of modern Total Quality Managment.  Not the silly poster nonsense with the exhortations to “work smarter”, rather the field of statistical process control and the difference between normal variance and special cause.

By “a box” we mean an isolated part of a system.  Our box is our seminar.  Our standard is the (among other things) is to to read well, practice key critical thinking strategies, and communicate effectively.

Our “box” is part of a system, and too often we forget that.  We make our students compete in our box ignoring the fact that other parts of the system are asking them to do the same, sometimes in opposition.

Example?  Write an exceptional 1,500 word paper forgetting that to write an exceptional paper takes well over seven hours*.

Seven hours doesn’t seem like much until you add it to their time in all five classes (15 hours weekly), the work for each of these five classes (imagine three papers due in one week – that’s a 21 hour work week alone!), any extracurricular activities, and for many a job.

We force them to prioritize one over the other and we don’t reward them on how well they navigate the whole system…only our small box.  It could be that the mediocre work they turn in demonstrates an exceptional balance of resources, yet find them wanting and punish them accordingly!  What does this tell our student?

I’d say a little empathy and fewer slogans (It’s about time management!) go a long way to understanding what we might mislabel  as inattentiveness.

Too often we give them an impossible task and then tell them they’ve failed when they don’t get it done.  Who has failed?  I’d argue we have because we didn’t see the entire system – we forced our students to trade away what’s best for their education to meet what’s best for our box.

We need to see the entire system and to think long term.  For every task we should ask, “how does this task help forge the educated person we’d like to see upon graduation?”

Sadly, we’re in our own box.  It’s hard for us to help our students see the whole system when we’re isolated too.  We teach FYS.  Few of us teach in other departments, majors, schools, and colleges.  We’re in silos of excellence, but silos nonetheless.

My point?

When our students do something we find objectionable and we ascribe it to some special cause we are making a mistake.  Their ups and downs are part of the system we’ve created for them, and based on my experience they’re operating in a largely stable system.  None of these “events” rises above the normal ebb and flow of student-life; they’re normal variance.

Our job should be fix the system so they don’t have to play one part of the system against another.  Until we do our part, we should not blame the hapless student.

Consider this as you look back at the semester (while it’s fresh in your mind) and ponder what we might do differently next year.

We’ll hold an After-Action Review (AAR) at the end of this semester, and again early next semester.



*With research, outlining, drafting, and revising, I’ve seen estimates that suggest 90 minutes for every 300 words.


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