Small System Cycles

Blueprint Bulletin

As you continue to move forward in these challenging times, know that the Statewide Field Team is here to provide support and resources. It may seem that one more thing, like a Blueprint Bulletin, is just one more thing. We know that as you lead and teach with new Continuity of Learning Plans there are times you need to take a mental break from the day to day and engage your mind in something out of the ordinary or different.  We hope you find that taking a break to continue your own learning by reading the Blueprint Bulletin is valuable and fruitful. This issue of the Blueprint Bulletin was scheduled to be published on March 19 just as the first Executive Order by Governor Whitmer to close schools was released. Due to the ever-changing landscape and added pressure on districts during the last month, we decided to postpone the publication of this issue. 

We are publishing the original issue today with a planned follow-up later this week that focuses on how Small System Cycles can help you monitor the implementation of your Continuity of Learning Plan. As you will read in this issue, Small System Cycles help districts clearly define specific leader and teacher actions that lead to improved learning outcomes for students. In this new era of remote learning, it will be important to monitor and adjust your Continuity of Learning Plan to ensure your efforts have the most impact on your students as possible in the next months. We look forward to our continued partnership to support you and your staff to meet the academic and non-academic needs of each child.

“Improvement science refers to a methodology that uses cycles of inquiry to learn what is needed to improve practice.” 

~Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and Lemahie

Creating and sustaining systems using the Blueprint framework is complex and at times may seem daunting as you go about your day leading and teaching. There are district systems, building routines, networks, and infrastructures. If you stay in the theoretical world of the Blueprint for too long you forget about the need to take the complicated and parse into reasonable bite-size chunks that can be put into action. Have you ever heard anyone say, “just tell me what to do, and I will do it”? That phrase signals that someone is struggling to move from theory to practice. Using a model to help describe a complex concept can help move from understanding to action. 

One way to map out how systems function and to clearly outline specific actions is to use the Input Process Output Feedback (IPOF) model. This simple graphic shows how the IPOF model is structured. The Input is defined as the concept or plan that is the starting point of the cycle.  Processes are the actions or routines that are taken to put the plan into place. The Output is the desired result. The Feedback portion of the model includes data analysis, decisions about adjustments, and communication to inform the next iteration of the cycle. Effectively making adjustments during each consecutive cycle brings you closer to your desired output.  

One way to develop an understanding around a concept like the IPOF model is to provide a common example. The good news is that the IPOF model can be used to develop a plan of improvement for anything including developing a healthy lifestyle such as,  

  • Input: Develop a plan to get healthy through eating and exercise.  
  • Process: Meet with a nutritionist, create a food plan, shop for foods, eat only foods on the plan, use a food diary, weigh myself weekly, exercise 30 minutes a day 4X per week. 
  • Output: Lose 12 pounds in 1 month (desired result)  
  • Feedback:  Data collected – weekly weight loss charted, weekly food diary, exercise tracker
  • Adjustments based on Feedback: At the end of the month I reviewed my data and saw that I did not meet my desired result of losing 12 pounds. I only lost 8 pounds. My food diary showed I did not stick with the foods on my plan for 9 of the 30 days. The next month I reviewed my food diary at the end of every week and increased my exercise to 5X per week. 

We call utilizing the IPOF model implementing Small System Cycles. To focus on change in schools and classrooms, begin with identifying priorities, desired results, and specific teacher and leader practices that are most likely to help them reach the desired result. Start small with a few, well-defined actions, measure their impact, and adjust the actions to improve on the results. This should sound familiar as it is often called an improvement cycle. Fully functioning systems operate as iterative cycles that inform and adjust to move toward better and better results, rather than a singular event. 

Using Small System Cycles as an organizational framework allows districts to clearly outline specific actions for both teachers and leaders and identifies the data needed to inform decisions around the next cycle. An example of a small system cycle is outlined below.  As you read through, identify connections you make to improvement/iterative cycles in your building and district. 

Blueprint Connections

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success have no meaning.” 

~Benjamin Franklin 

The Blueprint’s foundational research is based on work in both education reform and improvement science. Small System Cycles function to intentionally integrate components from different systems and routines within the Blueprint. Educating students is a complex endeavor. Making sustained improvements in educational systems means seeing the interconnectedness of components, practices, and actions from a number of systems and routines to maximize the impact on leading, teaching, and learning. The example provided above outlines the interconnectedness of Instructional Infrastructure, Instructional Leadership Routines, Teacher Collaborative Routines, Performance Management, Problem-Solving, Communication, and Building and District Networks. 

One way that small system cycles shift the perspective of the Blueprint Framework is how performance management, problem-solving, and communication become interconnected as part of the feedback loop. District and building leaders collect data that is determined based on the focus of the small system cycle, and specifically, the actual results achieved. Comparing this data with the desired output, as well as information for how the process was implemented, is used to make decisions to improve the process in the next iteration of the cycle. This process is a more focused form of both performance management and problem solving where the protocol for selecting data and making decisions is specific to the focus of the small system cycle.  Additionally, districts determine how the decisions and changes to the process are communicated to educational staff including necessary professional learning, additional support, or actions that need to be taken to improve results.

There are several research studies that support the use of these iterative improvement cycles, including some of the foundational pieces used in the creation of the Blueprint. These include research on systemic improvements in curriculum and instruction for mathematics (Cobb et al 2013)), science (Penuel and Fishman (2011)), and writing (NWP, 2010). In all of these efforts that resulted in systemic improvement, researchers and district leaders used iterative cycles to focus on making gradual, and sustained improvements to curriculum, professional learning, and building routines. This research highlights the value of iterative cycles to improve outcomes for students and emphasizes the power of collaborative data analysis and decision making to clarify and refine leader and teacher actions that impact student learning.

Leader’s Corner

“A person and an organization must have goals, take actions to achieve those goals, gather evidence of achievement, study and reflect on the data and from that take actions again.  Thus, they are in a continuous feedback spiral toward continuous improvement. This is what ‘Kaizan’ means.”

~W. Edwards Deming

In February’s issue, Data-Driven Decision-Making, we shared with you a set of five questions that can help frame how you look at using data to inform decisions in your district or building. Data is used to help clarify district priorities and goals as you determine your focus for a small system cycle. Now, let’s take a look at the use of data through the lens of the IPOF model. We have all heard before, “start with the end in mind,” so let’s start with the output.  As you read through the IPOF model below, reflect on the ways data is used to guide decisions along the way to reach your ultimate outcome. 


Start with the results you want to achieve, in other words, what do you specifically want to improve? Use your current data to determine where things are going well and where there are opportunities for growth. Your data tells a story and will help you narrow your focus and address the most essential areas first. The actual results of the cycle should be compared to the desired result to make adjustments. 


Narrowing your focus helps you determine your input. Within your district or building, what few areas do you want to start with first? What does your data tell you are the areas that provide the most likelihood of impacting routines that will show measurable changes in both teacher practices and student outcomes. Consider the routines you already have in place that are working well and can be strengthened to have greater impact on teaching and learning. 


This is where you map out the who, what, and how of the plan to drive toward your results. Define specific actions for district leaders, building leaders, and teachers that help you reach your desired output. The details outlined in the process make the theoretical concepts of the Blueprint become concrete and actionable. 


For specific leader and teacher actions, identify the data you will collect along the way to ensure the actions are taking place and set a timeline for when you will review this data. Plan for a relatively short timeline, such as the end of the month. What data did you collect to determine how you are moving closer to your desired result? You should plan to collect and analyze the data so that it can be shared at the end of that cycle in order to make decisions about modifications you will make in your process for the next cycle. At that time, you should determine how the decisions, based on the data, and the modifications in process(es) will be communicated to the rest of the staff.

The IPOF model encourages you to start small and be very clear about expectations for district leaders, building leaders, and teachers. During each consecutive cycle, the changes you make are based on the data you collect and analyze which will bring you closer to your intended result. Consider discussing Small System Cycles with another leader in your district. How might you use the IPOF model to map out actions for leaders and teachers that lead to improved results? 

Teacher’s Corner

“Practice the philosophy of continuous improvement.  Get a little bit better every single day.”

~Brian Tracy

Teachers have the single largest impact on what students learn in the classroom. What teachers do and say, how they present content, how they provide feedback, how they provide additional support when needed, and how they build relationships with students makes a difference in the learning of the students in their classrooms. How might you use the Small System Cycle, or the IPOF model, to help you to continue to improve outcomes for your students?  

One way to think about small system cycles is by exploring the Instructional Learning Cycle (ILC) process.  The ILC is a defined process that promotes collaboration and collective responsibility within a teacher team by setting up structures for short-term cycles of improvement. Upon review of data, teacher teams determine a focus for each short-term cycle. Following the IPOF logic from above, think about the following ILC description through the IPOF lens.  What might be the input, process(es), output, and feedback?

The ILC short cycles of improvement are meant to last 2 to 4 weeks and are guided by a teacher team identifying a measurable objective aligned to state standards and determining an instructional strategy for implementation during a specific round of the ILC.  The ILC process includes a series of collaborative meetings held by content-area or grade-level teacher teams. Each meeting provides an opportunity for teachers to reflect on the quality of instruction and the evidence of student learning. Collaborative meetings also allow teacher teams to analyze their combined implementation and impact data to build a sense of collective responsibility for the learning of all students. Between meetings, teachers implement specific instructional strategies and gather student data through formative assessment. Each teacher collects and analyzes data on both the implementation of the strategy and the impact of the strategy on student learning within their own classroom. This data is used to determine the next instructional steps for students. 

So how did you connect the ILC description to the IPOF model? You guessed it . . . the measurable objective and state standards are the input.  There were various processes embedded as well: teachers meeting to review data and implementation of instructional strategies.  The desired result, or output, is increased student achievement.  The actual result is the evidence of student learning and formative data which becomes the feedback to support the team in making adjustments to their instructional strategies.

Share your learning around Small System Cycles with a colleague. Talk about how you might set up your own IPOF model to impact learning in your classrooms. 

Timely Topics

At this time, the August 4-5 Blueprint Institute VI: Creating & Leading Systems for Sustainable Results, is still scheduled to take place at the Crowne Plaza as planned. Registration opens on May 4.  Know that we are closely monitoring the status of the health and education in Michigan and will make changes to this event based on health guidelines as we draw closer to the event. The Blueprint Institute will offer a variety of half-day and 90-minute seminars examining the Blueprint components using small system cycles.  Geared toward districts using the Blueprint framework as a guide for systems installation, districts are encouraged to bring teams made up of district, building, and teacher leaders.  Participants will select program offerings that deepen their understanding of the various Blueprint systems and routines and are designed to assist districts in narrowing their focus, especially in light of our current environment. This is an opportunity to share best practices with one another, hear from Blueprint districts, and continue to build a learning network. 

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Author of ‘The Tipping Point’

Small System Cycles are one way to move beyond theory to action within the Blueprint framework. Clearly defining specific actions, determining how you will monitor those actions, identifying the data that you will collect, analyzing the data, and determining next steps lead you closer to your desired result of increasing student learning. Adult actions impact student learning. Adult actions repeated, measured, adjusted, and repeated again help us move closer to our ultimate goal, positively impacting student learning so each student has the opportunity to grow and thrive.

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