The Power of PDSA in Education

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Guest Post by Amy Ripperger, Instructional Coach, Indianola CSD, Educational Leadership Graduate Student, Drake University

“If your horse dies, dismount.”

(WWI Cavalry Officer)

The Post-it is scruffy, retaped, the ink faded. I need to rewrite it, but it is sentimental, recalling those ivory-towered days in which my chief occupation was learning a beloved subject. I have heard several iterations of these words over the years and their source seems lost to the ages, but the version I like best is set during the First World War. I like to think the officer was speaking to his men, maybe new recruits, on the early eve of war. They would have been proudly traditioned cavalry in a conflict that would soon see tanks and airplanes.  One nervous fellow ventured a question; the quote above was the reply.  Not the inspiration the men were hoping for, maybe, but the words they needed to hear.  A tough mindset for a tough job ahead.  If something’s not working, make a change. Do what you need to do. The droll, practical advice of this military officer of a bygone era struck a chord, and I wrote it down.

The note has been in my high school history classroom ever since, a reminder that if something’s not working, make a change. Certain students aren’t contributing to class discussion?  Make a change. Too much time being wasted in transitions? Make a change. Student writing isn’t showing adequate progress? Make a change  But not just any change. Make a data-informed change.  Make a change that will lead to positive outcomes. This mindset of critical reflection is at the heart of continual improvement.

If we want our students to reach their fullest potential, then we, the educators, must work to reach ours. But we have to be careful here, for at the heart of continual improvement lies an acceptance that we won’t ever “arrive.” We must be okay with this. Perfection isn’t the goal, continual improvement is. If your horse dies, make a change. And then another. And another.

The Power of PDSA in Education

I will grant you that if our cavalry officer had been speaking to a group of educators rather than to his regiment, his wise words would have shortly been followed by a buzz of confused questions from the audience. How do I get off the horse?  Where will I find another?  Will I be evaluated on the dismount? Teachers are planners (most of us), and we need a bit more of a roadmap to improvement than those five short words.  We need a reliable and straightforward method to enact positive change.

David Langford’s method for continual improvement is exactly that. Built on the work of the late Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Langford uses the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) process to make improvements in educational systems (2015, p. 4-5). A system, in short, is a grouping of interrelated and complex parts that act together to produce a desired outcome. In the world of education, this might be an individual classroom, building, or district. When looking for the boundaries of your immediate system, consider where your primary responsibilities lie. Are you the teacher of a classroom? Then the classroom itself is the system within which you can effect change. Are you exploring a problem that impacts the building? Then conduct the PDSA process at the building level, perhaps with a building-improvement or administrative team. The process will be most helpful to you in the immediate system in which you play a leadership role, because you will be able to most effectively utilize points of leverage to meet your improvement goals.

Let’s take a closer look at the PDSA process (Langford, 2015, p. 4-5):

  1. Plan. Consider your initial opportunity for improvement, or your problem. Study the surrounding details, likely causes, and collect data as needed.
  2. Do. Develop a theory for improvement. Strategize about the best way to implement the theory and then do so. This is the change, and we’re hoping it will lead to improvement.
  3. Study. Look at the results of the change and determine if it worked to solve the problem or improve the situation.
  4. Act. Make more improvements as needed. Decide how the new momentum can be maintained.

Where our cavalry officer’s advice is flat and one-directional, a PDSA cycle, when implemented with integrity, is cyclical in nature rather than linear, its very shape drawing us forward in continual improvement. Do you have a problem in your system but don’t know the best solution?  Study it. Look at root causes, examine the way the system is contributing to the problem, and consider all angles. Try a change, and then study the effects of the change. If the problem is still there, try something else until you get the results you want. This reflection-action-reflection-action pattern is purposeful. It is methodical. It keeps you from fits, starts, and sputtering stops. It protects your efforts from going the way of so many of those well-intended, but poorly-implemented, educational initiatives.

In fact, the clarity of the PDSA cycle is one of its greatest strengths. It is a simple and concrete process that ensures any change comes only after identifying the root cause of the problem and predicting systemic consequences of the proposed change. Then, after the initial plan is implemented, the cycle continues to revisit impacts in order to make sure improvements are actually occurring. Change isn’t easy, but when it solves problems effectively, it is life-giving. In short, the PDSA process is a highly applicable, flexible, and effective method for continual improvement in the educational system.

If your horse dies…you know what to do.


Langford, D. P. (2015). Tool time for education: Choosing and implementing quality improvement tools. Langford International, Inc.

2 thoughts on “The Power of PDSA in Education”

  1. noureddine melal

    I think this system of education is adequate not only for teaching but for any further improvement in any field. Thank you Mr. Deming.

  2. Amy,
    Amazing work! I loved the quote you stated at the beginning of your article. When teaching, it is amazing the amount of information that really hits us. Teachers are constantly looking to learn new things and a lot of what we learn is through teaching and interacting with students. On the other hand, I also agree with your statement that teachers are usual big planners. I laughed when he stated how many questions the officer would be asked if you gave the same advice to a room full of teachers. So many schools and teachers are stuck in old ways. Some are even stuck ‘riding a dead horse’. Change does not happen over night, but it needs to be made so progress can be achieved. The PDSA model is a great tool to analyze a school/teacher and find a way to make it better. It is an endless cycle that teachers/schools can continue to come back to. This will allow them to ‘dismount’ and keep moving forward to better education.

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