Probably Wrong, Definitely Incomplete

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Note: Here’s part two in our 2019-2020 Learning to Improve series which is the primary focus of the School Performance Institute (SPI) blog this year. In it, we spotlight issues related to building the capacity to do improvement science in schools while working on an important problem of practice.

On its face, probably wrong, definitely incomplete doesn’t inspire confidence. However, we put this phrase in the footer of almost all of the documents we create at School Performance Institute (SPI) to remind  us of its value as a core ethos of our improvement work. When people first see this phrase they typically have a reaction something like, “Wow, that doesn’t inspire confidence!”  

We disagree. Probably wrong, definitely incomplete is the foundation for the culture of improvement that is absolutely critical when trying to improve complex problems in schools. It’s not that we don’t have confidence in our ability to improve really tough-to-solve problems. It’s just that if you don’t humble yourself at the beginning of these types of projects, we believe you are setting yourself up for failure and that you likely know far less about the road to improvement than you think. If you charge ahead without the needed know-how, your improvement project is doomed from the start.


Looking at a couple of examples may be helpful. 

Picture the Wright brothers on the beach in Kitty Hawk. Imagine now if they had gone into that first flight with the mindset that the version of their plane in 1903 was the penultimate example of air travel. Of course, with nearly 120 years of hindsight, that notion seems ridiculous especially knowing that the brothers had been experimenting on the plane for four years before it ever took flight. And yet, how often have you been presented with a problem in a school, quickly jumped to a solution, and then were disappointed because improvement didn’t follow. That is closer to the way we typically operate in schools than most of us would like to admit.

Another more recent example from the world of medicine helps further illustrate this point. For decades, a daily dose of aspirin was considered a best-in-practice approach to preventing a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event. That was considered rock solid medical advice - until it wasn’t. A string of recent studies challenged the daily aspirin regimen assumption and, with this latest research in mind, a new set of guidelines to help people stay heart-healthy is advising against daily aspirin use for prevention for most adults.

The essence of probably wrong, definitely incomplete acknowledges up front that there is a significant know-how gap especially at the start of improvement projects. Thirty years ago, doctors didn’t have the know-how they needed in order to make the present-day recommendation in regards to aspirin use. Similar to medicine, too often, we in education significantly underestimate just how big that know-how gap is when we face a problem.  

Let’s say for instance that you recognize that the school you lead has persistently low scores on state math assessments, and so you decide to purchase an evidence-based math intervention program. However, six months later, math tests results haven’t improved. It’s likely because there is a mismatch between the root cause of the low math scores and the solution you chose.

Imagine instead if you would have taken more time to analyze the problem and discovered that your students do not attempt or persist through challenging word problems in math class. With this recognition, you now have a better understanding of the root cause of your problem and you can start testing small change ideas for improving your students’ problem-solving strategies. As you begin to learn from these tests, you are creating the necessary know-how to impact the larger problem of persistently low scores on state math assessments.

This idea of deeply studying a problem, identifying its root causes, and then designing and testing change ideas lies at the heart of the improvement science work we do at School Performance Institute. Our work is firmly grounded in the idea of probably wrong, definitely incomplete. Oftentimes, the work is slower at the start, but improvement accelerates as we continuously build the right type of know-how instead of jumping to costly and ineffective solutions.  

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More on How We’re Learning to Improve

School Performance Institute serves as both the improvement advisor and project manager for School-Based Improvement Teams working to improve student outcomes. Through an intensive study of improvement science as well as through leading improvement science projects at the four schools that make up United Schools Network, we’ve gained significant experience with its tools and techniques.  

We’re also opening our doors to share our improvement practices through our unique Study the Network workshops that take place throughout the school year. Our next workshop will take place at United Preparatory Academy-State St. in Columbus, Ohio on October 17th.

John A. Dues is the Managing Director of School Performance Institute and the Chief Learning Officer for United Schools Network. The School Performance Institute is the learning and improvement arm of United Schools Network, an education nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio. Send feedback to