Reflections on Lean Teaching

When I started down the path of Lean teaching in the late 1990s, I was confident that students would see it as a positive change in teaching pedagogy. This was informed by my prior work experience in industry where the correct application of Lean principles and practices consistently yielded favorable outcomes. These outcomes were not always easy to achieve, and we faced some roadblocks and resistance, but eventually most people could see that it was a better way to do work.

As I look back, I think about the things that I did not expect to happen or what surprised me. It is not a long list because the small scale experiments I did on an ongoing basis to improve teaching yielded outcomes that were more-or-less consistent with what was expected (the result of a continuous flow of small improvements versus large step-function changes such as MOOCs). The improvement rarely resulted in controversy with students (though there was that one time…), and mistakes I made were corrected quickly.

But there are a few things that I did not anticipate would be the result of Lean teaching:

  1. Students were more reflective on what they learned, and I think more appreciative as well.
  2. Information absorption and processing by students appears to be more efficient (less wasted effort, wasted thinking, waiting, etc.). This is mainly because Information is conveyed more frequently and in much smaller batches.
  3. Lean teaching requires faculty to put a lot (repeat, a lot) of effort into connecting the teaching materials to their world, which makes it easier for students to relate to, and to help them absorb and process information better.
  4. Students perceive me as organized, fair, helpful, and available.
  5. Lean teaching is quite a bit more work for the professor, particularly because of Item 3, and because I do not use textbooks. Lean teaching requires professors be to creative and innovative in their use and improvement of teaching materials.

In hindsight, I am surprised that students retained the teachings longer and applied them in practice to a greater extent than I had thought they would. And I did not realize how much I like to experiment and try new things, see how people react, and then try something new again. If you like to experiment and try new things, and be creative and innovative, then you will enjoy the Lean teaching pedagogy.

One thing that did not surprise me was how applying the “Respect for People” principle to teaching made so many things better. A better learning experience for students, far fewer complaints and disputes, and more personal satisfaction in having done a good job. In addition, it has been and continues to be a lot of fun.

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