The Mill and The School


On a recent trip to Scotland, I visited some very interesting oat mills. I always love to visit medieval mills, because I find it endlessly fascinating how people long ago used natural forces and materials – wind, water, and fire, stone, wood, and metal – to create advanced mechanisms that had a profound impact on society.

In Scotland, it’s all about oat mills (almost everywhere else, it’s wheat). These grain mills date back to the 10th century. In their time, they were a giant leap in technology. A mill is very complicated, but at its heart are two big innovations. In the center of the mill, a heavy millstone turns on top of another. The grain is poured through a hole in the top stone for grinding. The miller’s most difficult task is to maintain an exact distance between the stones. A few millimeters too far apart and no milling happens. A few millimeters too close and the heat of friction can ruin the machinery, possibly causing a fire.

The other key technology is the water wheel (except in windmills, of course). The water mill is part of a system that involves a carefully controlled flow of water from a millpond, which the miller uses to provide exactly the right amount of water to turn a giant wooden wheel, which powers the top millstone.


The medieval grain mill is not a single innovation, but a closely integrated system of innovations. Millers learned to manage this complex technology in a system of apprenticeship over many years.

Mills enabled medieval millers to obtain far more nutrition from an acre of grain than was possible before. This made it possible for land to support many more people, and the population surged. The whole feudal system was built around the economics of mills, and mills thrived through the 19th century.

What does the mill have to with the school? Mills only grind well-behaved grain into well-behaved flour, while schools work with far more complex children, families, and all the systems that surround them. The products of schools must include joy and discovery, knowledge and skills.

Yet as different as they are, mills have something to teach us. They show the importance of integrating diverse systems that can then efficiently deliver desired outcomes. Neither a mill nor an effective school comes into existence because someone in power tells it to. Instead, complex systems, mills or schools, must be created, tested, adapted to local needs, and constantly improved. Once we know how to create, manage, and disseminate effective mills or schools, policies can be readily devised to support their expansion and improvement.

Important progress in societies and economies almost always comes about from development of complex, multi-component innovations that, once developed, can be disseminated and continuously improved. The same is true of schools. Changes in governance or large-scale policies can enhance (or inhibit) the possibility of change, but the reality of reform depends on creation of complex, integrated systems, from mills to ships to combines to hospitals to schools.

For education, what this means is that system transformation will come only when we have whole-school improvement approaches that are known to greatly increase student outcomes. Whole-school change is necessary because many individual improvements are needed to make big changes, and these must be carefully aligned with each other. Just as the huge water wheel and the tiny millstone adjustment mechanism and other components must work together in the mill, the key parts of a school must work together in synchrony to produce maximum impact, or the whole system fails to work as well as it should.

For example, if you look at research on proven programs, you’ll find effective strategies for school management, for teaching, and for tutoring struggling readers. These are all well and good, but they work so much better if they are linked to each other.

To understand this, first consider tutoring. Especially in the elementary grades, there is no more effective strategy. Our recent review of research on programs for struggling readers finds that well-qualified teaching assistants can be as effective as teachers in tutoring struggling readers, and that while one-to-four tutoring is less effective than one-to-one, it is still a lot more effective than no tutoring. So an evidence-oriented educator might logically choose to implement proven one-to-one and/or one-to-small group tutoring programs to improve school outcomes.

However, tutoring only helps the students who receive it, and it is expensive. A wise school administrator might reason that tutoring alone is not sufficient, but improving the quality of classroom instruction is also essential, both to improve outcomes for students who do not need tutoring and to reduce the number of students who do need tutoring. There is an array of proven classroom methods the principal or district might choose to improve student outcomes in all subjects and grade levels (see

But now consider students who are at risk because they are not attending regularly, or have behavior problems, or need eyeglasses but do not have them. Flexible school-level systems are necessary to ensure that students are in school, eager to learn, well-behaved, and physically prepared to succeed.

In addition, there is a need to have school principals and other leaders learn strategies for making effective use of proven programs. These would include managing professional development, coaching, monitoring implementation and outcomes of proven programs, distributed leadership, and much more. Leadership also requires jointly setting school goals with all school staff and monitoring progress toward these goals.

These are all components of the education “mill” that have to be designed, tested, and (if effective) disseminated to ever-increasing numbers of schools. Like the mill, an effective school design integrates individual parts, makes them work in synchrony, constantly assesses their functioning and output, and adjusts procedures when necessary.

Many educational theorists argue that education will only change when systems change. Ferocious battles rage about charters vs. ordinary public schools, about adopting policies of countries that do well on international tests, and so on. These policies can be important, but they are unlikely to create substantial and lasting improvement unless they lead to development and dissemination of proven whole-school approaches.

Effective school improvement is not likely to come about from let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom local innovation, nor from top-level changes in policy or governance. Sufficient change will not come about by throwing individual small innovations into schools and hoping they will collectively make a difference. Instead, effective improvement will take root when we learn how to reliably create effective programs for schools, implement them in a coordinated and planful way, find them effective, and then disseminate them. Once such schools are widespread, we can build larger policies and systems around their needs.

Coordinated, schoolwide improvement approaches offer schools proven strategies for increasing the achievement and success of their children. There should be many programs of this kind, among which schools and districts can choose. A school is not the same as mill, but the mill provides at least one image of how creating complex, integrated replicable systems can change whole societies and economies. We should learn from this and many other examples of how to focus our efforts to improve outcomes for all children.

Photo credit: By Johnson, Helen Kendrik [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.


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