From Flat to Round: Is Educational Transformation Possible?

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Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

“The transformation Dr. Deming is asking us to do – the mental model transformation – is more difficult than the transformation from a flat earth to a round earth. . . and that was a big deal several hundred years ago.”

-Dr. Myron Tribus

Our current system of education, born of the industrial age, was designed and perfectly aligned for what was needed at that time in our history; to prepare people to work in factories that came into existence during the industrial revolution. The mental models that were the foundation of these factories were the same mindsets that created the schools. However, 150 years later, we are no longer in the throes of an industrial revolution. Rather, we are in what some refer to as the information/digital age, which requires a different mind and skill set. Unfortunately, in many ways, education has not made the appropriate modifications to adapt to what our world and economy require or to what we now know about brain research, systems, variation, building knowledge, and psychology and their application to learning.

There have been multiple attempts at educational reform in our country, including but not limited to:

  • The National Defense Education Act (1958)
  • The Elementary and Secondary Act (1965)
  • The Educate America Act (1994)
  • No Child Left Behind (2001)
  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009)
  • Every School Succeeds Act (2015)

While this paper is not intended to dive deeply into each of these efforts, it does cause one to wonder what impact these well-intended efforts, individually and collectively, have had on transforming our educational system and improving educational outcomes for the millions of students served. We could likely have lively and lengthy conversations as to why we believe these efforts have or have not yielded the desired effects, but that is not the purpose of this particular paper.

With so many attempts and so few examples of successful educational transformation to point to, we might well wonder if such a transformation is even possible. To that end, the purpose of this writing is not to conduct an extensive look at and argument about educational reform efforts, but rather to provide a real-life case study of a successful transformation that took place at the most fundamental unit of education – the classroom – and to give hope to readers that transformation is possible at both the micro and macro levels of the system, so long as one possesses the profound knowledge, skills, tools, and a desire to do so.

First, a comment about transformation. Based on the ideas of Dr. Russell Ackoff, transformation is a creative process that does not occur through incremental steps of improvement. While continuous improvement efforts are important to the ongoing improvement of any organization, transformation is a discontinuous and creative “leapfrog” effort that “breaks the chains before it” (Ackoff, 1994). It requires, in the words of Dr. Stephen Covey, the “breaking with” old ways of thinking.  In other words, transformation requires new insights and knowledge not likely existent in one’s current system or way of thinking.

During my tenure as superintendent of the Urbandale (Iowa) Community School District, I had the good fortune to observe first-hand the successful transformation of a classroom, and its teacher; a transformation that resulted in improved student engagement, parent satisfaction and learning outcomes. It is this experience that I will share, and it is indeed a celebration!

Steve Mefford served as an eighth grade science teacher at Urbandale Middle School. I first met Steve 34 years ago when I was a volleyball coach at an area high school and he was a student assistant in the program. In 2011 when he began his transformation efforts, Steve was a veteran educator with 14 years of teaching experience. Steve describes himself, at that point in his career, as the “epitome of a traditional teacher,” someone who taught one lesson each day, taken directly from a text book. A typical lesson in his class included a teacher-led review of the previous day’s lesson, the teacher-led new lesson, worktime and questions. He believes that students would likely have described his classroom as a boring “sit and get” teacher-led experience, in which they were passive recipients of the planned lesson and given little opportunity to interact beyond the traditional question/answer portion of the lesson (S. Mefford, personal communication, September 21, 2020). Despite this, I also happen to know, based on my role in the district, that Steve’s evaluations indicated he was an effective and successful teacher. His results were typical of what we would expect in Urbandale; but then, something happened. . .

In 2010, Urbandale began its transformational journey through what we called Q/CI: Quality and Continual Improvement, informed and influenced in large part by the work of people “outside” of the K-12 educational system: Dr. W. Edwards Deming and Dr. Peter M. Senge. The initial step in our approach was to expose and educate our people to new and transformational concepts and practices, which included three consecutive years of hosting David Langford’s Four-Day Quality Learning Seminar (based on the work of Dr. Deming) in which over 250 of our teachers and administrators (about 72%) voluntarily participated. At this point, we did not force our staff to implement, but rather we “taught the masses and worked with the willing,” encouraging and supporting those who wished to operationalize their new learning. Steve was one of those early adopters, and this became the point at which his personal transformation began; for as he says, he was given the opportunity to experiment in his classroom without external pressures for how his classes needed to run. He was able to “focus on improvement with freedom and a safety net, free from fear of failure” (S. Mefford, personal communication, September 21, 2020).

With a new theory to guide his work, over the course of the spring and summer of 2011, Steve began thinking about how to improve his classroom environment in order to provide students more voice and choice relative to their learning and sketched out how this would look in his first three units of study (the “plan” phase of PDSA). He began small by providing students choices of learning opportunities relative to the content being covered and then sought their feedback regarding their levels of engagement and enjoyment in this new learning environment. As time progressed, he offered a full menu of choices and encouraged students to work collaboratively.  Over time, Steve’s role transformed from being the traditional “sage on the stage” to being a facilitator of learning by effectively designing and managing a dynamic, student-focused learning environment. He discovered that by managing his learning system in this manner, he was freed up to better meet individual student learning needs through “on-time” instruction/intervention. He also learned that student behavior was no longer an issue, for students were actively engaged in meaningful learning opportunities about which they provided ongoing feedback to continually improve the system. In short, this newly designed system of learning turned over greater control and responsibility to students for their learning.  To reference the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, rather than “feeding” students, Steve “taught them to fish,” so that they could “feed” themselves.

To accomplish this, structures and processes needed to be developed and operationalized. They included:

  • The development of student learning requirements that included what students needed to know and be able to do as a result of being in class, written in “student-friendly” terms
  • Learning goals, which described how students would meet or exceed learning requirements
  • A classroom mission statement, developed with student input to establish an agreed upon purpose
  • Posting classroom learning results (with no individual students identified), in graphical form to chart results and progress on learning goals throughout any given learning cycle

To support their newly gained autonomy as learners, each student was provided a capacity matrix; a charting tool created by David Langford that is used to break down topic areas into steps for achieving a specific result (see example below). This tool allows students to track their own learning; another method to engender ownership.

Capacity matrix utilized in Steve Mefford’s science course

Steve also taught/reinforced the use of additional learning strategies that included summarizing and note-taking, cooperative learning, homework and practice, use of manipulatives, and developing their scientific vocabulary.

As a result of this transformation, many improvements were noted:

  1. Student achievement rose dramatically. The Iowa Science Assessments showed an improvement from 77% student proficiency to 90% proficiency. On district science assessments, student proficiency rose from 81% to scores in the 90’s.
  2. Student engagement improved as well, with the percent of students with a negative experience in science class dropping from 6% to 1%.
  3. Parent satisfaction rose from 85% to 90%.


  • Late work decreased as did student behavioral issues.
  • Other teachers, observing the success of the transformation “got on board” with the new principles
  • Students formed their own study groups

A true team-player, Steve admits that administrative support was key to his success. This support included:

  • Opportunities to learn through conferences, workshops, and professional development
  • Supports, not mandates: “seeds were planted”
  • No fear existed and permission was given to “fail forward”
  • Ongoing feedback was provided
  • Structures were put into place to support the transformation process

Steve learned a great deal as well, including:

  • Students can learn what to do and how to do it and will make good choices when the system is designed and managed properly
  • Students are honest and will provide feedback to improve
  • Students can help each other
  • A teacher can “let go” of external control and still be successful

Through this experience, Steve was transformed as a teacher and as a result:

  • Became a more effective teacher
  • Designed and managed a better learning environment
  • Provide greater student ownership, giving them “voice and choice”
  • Developed a greater ability to increase student learning
  • Saw the system and how everything impacts everything else
  • Learned about the importance of “up-front work”
  • Was able to provide students “on-time” support because there was time in the new system which he established
  • Realized, in a profound way, that “once transformed. . . one cannot go back”
  • Became a leader and role model in the district

Steve Mefford now serves as the Facilitator of Curriculum and Professional Learning in Urbandale, a position that allows him to nurture transformation at the district level. His experience is a shining affirmation that educational transformation is possible, for the principles he applied in his classroom can be applied at all levels throughout the entire system. However, transformation is not based on the newest fad or any single program.  Rather, it is a process that requires a significant shift in mindset rooted in Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge and requiring vulnerability, constancy of purpose, and a willingness to put in the work necessary to make transformation a reality.

Do you believe transformation is possible? I do, for I have seen and experienced it myself and, like Steve, can never go back to my old way of viewing education and learning. I believe we can all do likewise for the betterment of our students if we follow Steve’s lead and develop a profoundly new mindset and new approach to our work.

To learn more about transforming your classroom school, or district please contact Dr. Doug Stilwell, Assistant Professor Educational Leadership, Drake University at:


Ackoff, R. 2010, October 23). If russ ackoff had given a ted talk… [Video file]. YouTube.

Clark, A. (2010, January 14). A timeline of major educational reform since 1958. Racing to the Top: All about the race to the top education reform initiative.

Covey, S.R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change (1st ed.). Simon and Schuster

Higgins, T. (Host). (2017 July/August 2017). New economics study session, episode 5 [Audio podcast]. Deming Institute.

Langford, D. (2015). Tool time for education: Choosing and Implementing Quality Improvement Tools. Langford International.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Currency Books.

1 thought on “From Flat to Round: Is Educational Transformation Possible?”

  1. Elizabeth Kesterson

    Thank you for this article, and sharing this transformation within (at the time) your district. This was refreshing to read and gave hope that transformation is possible in the education system. I like the approach the administration took to implementing this into the district– allowing teachers to seek that “personal mastery”, and take initiative of their own learning, optionally, to better their teaching practice if they chose to. I enjoyed reading about the environment this teacher started in, and how he transitioned into a student centered, responsive, community style classroom. In making the changes he did, I feel that relationships were built with students and students shifted to caring about genuine learning, and felt as though they were supported to be successful with that. I have learned about the negative systemic effects of students beliefs towards learning (grade-driven, “is this going to be on the test?”, etc.). I think evolving this classroom structure helped students to care about genuine learning and motivated them to be successful. Steve was able to recognize the largest part of the system he was able to take control over, and after successfully transforming that, he now has the opportunity to influence a larger circle, and help other classroom teachers make the same changes for themselves.

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