Joy in Learning: Deming in Education (part 1)

“When there’s a system built around joy in learning, everyone wins. Students accomplish good things, and teachers win because kids are happy to learn, and parents are happy because their kids are happy to go to school.”

The Beginning

David P. Langford started like most teachers: believing grades and elaborate systems of punishment and rewards were required to motivate students. He even figured out how to grade to 1/1,000 of a point and coached other teachers in his method. Then he learned about the Deming philosophy and heard Dr. Deming’s admonition to stop grading students. It seemed appealing but how could that work? David decided to test this near-blasphemous idea on a group of high achieving senior high school students – they would do well anyway, so if the test failed, it wouldn’t harm them.

It was spectacularly successful. David and his students worked together to set the quality standard for an assignment, and anyone who didn’t meet that standard got more support – not an F. They weren’t allowed to let a deadline go by and not do the work – they had to do the work to the standard, and they had as much time as they needed to do it.

“If I get out of the students’ way, all of our kids could be “A” kids – some kids move faster than others, but everyone can learn.”

Variation in Education

A critical aspect of the System of Profound Knowledge is variation. In schools, the variation comes from the students – their backgrounds, cognitive abilities, home life, neurodiversity, temperament, and more. The key is understanding variation and maximizing every student’s opportunities for success.

For example: in a high school math class in Alaska, one student worked at a 2nd-grade level, and the frustrated teacher wanted that kid removed from the class. But from a Deming perspective, you look at the context of that student’s life, value their abilities, and help with areas where they aren’t meeting standards. Maybe that student grew up in an isolated spot on the Yukon River and is now thrust into a city high school environment. Of course, they are going to struggle in that situation. But if you’re in a plane that crashes in a remote valley, you definitely want that student with you.

David believes most children fall into Common Cause variation; only about 2% are truly Special Cause. Pulling the Common Cause variation children – for example, children with ADHD, Down’s Syndrome, Asperger’s, dyslexia, mood disorders, and more – out of mainstream classrooms is tampering (which Dr. Deming warned against.) The result is a system that doesn’t allow those children to succeed and deprives mainstream students of the opportunity to learn from them (and appreciate variation.)

Every child has at least one thing they love – something no adult needs to push them to do. So we know they’re capable of self-motivation, but it’s limited to the one (or two or five) things they love. In other words, they willingly do things that bring them joy. Deming called this “intrinsic motivation” and noted that adults are also intrinsically motivated to learn when it’s a pleasure.

Classrooms and school systems built around “joy in learning” tap into intrinsic motivation and allow children to apply it to a wider variety of subjects and tasks.

Success Begets Success

David eliminated grades for all 7 of his high school classes and ended the year with only three kids out of 135 that didn’t meet the standards. The superintendent recognized his unprecedented success. Even those three would have met standards given more time – they weren’t Special Cause cases.

David remembers: students came to me in tears saying, “this is the first time I’ve ever gotten an A.

The only two people who weren’t happy were the principal and the guidance counselor because he ruined the GPA system.

The superintendent then charged David with implementing the new no-grades/collaborative style system school-wide for a 5 to 6-year test period. It takes time to make significant changes, but most teachers were entirely on board with the new system as soon as they saw the impact on students and felt joy themselves.

Not everyone loved the new ideas. One teacher in particular thought David was nuts. This man stuck to his grading system, chaffed against working collaboratively, and hated the Deming methods. The principal found another job for him, and two years later, David received a letter: “right now, I would give my eye teeth for sticky notes in a staff meeting. I didn’t realize what we were learning!”


This is the first of two articles about Deming in education, based on an interview with David P. Langford. The second article will be published next week. You can find more discussions about Deming in education in a series of short episodes on our podcast “In Their Own Words,” where David offers practical advice for implementing Deming in any learning environment. 

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