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Improve learning

The theory behind the Improve Learning model

A review of eleven models of quality education

Gain insight into the theory and research behind the 25 issues featured in the IIEP Learning Portal's Improve Learning model.
The IIEP Learning Portal’s “Improve Learning” model focuses attention on five major components of the education system: learners and support structures, teachers and pedagogy, curriculum and materials, schools and classrooms, and education system management. Within each of these components, we present research briefs on five major issues—giving education planners a basic overview of a total of 25 areas they may need to address in order to improve learning outcomes and attain high-quality education systems.
The Improve Learning model conceives of these 25 areas as highly interconnected and mutually reinforcing, and the briefs often link to one another to illustrate this.
Why did we choose to emphasize these 25 areas?
In developing the Improve Learning model, the IIEP Learning Portal reviewed ten models of quality education that have been influential in shaping research and practice over the past 15 years. We also reviewed nine meta-analyses of impact evaluations on efforts to improve learning outcomes, and produced our own decision tree summarizing their conclusions. A full list of references is provided at the end of this article.
Each of these eleven models emphasizes a different set of factors to address in the effort to achieve quality education for all students (see chart). Some are organized in the traditional categories of context, input, process and output. Others emphasize the nested and interconnected nature of interventions, and the feedback loops that bind them together. Many have extended narrative explanations to discuss the detailed decisions that must be made when working on a particular issue, and the contextual factors to take into account when deciding what to address, when, and how.
The Improve Learning model aims to address as comprehensively as possible all of the major factors identified by these different sources. Our objective is to provide an introduction to the many issues that may prove to be relevant to education planners working in diverse education systems and contexts around the world. This comprehensive overview, we hope, will in turn serve as a portal to the wealth of other detailed studies, policies, and initiatives that have been undertaken in each area.
Which areas matter most?
Given that the Improve Learning model attempts to cover such a comprehensive array of issues, it is fair to ask which of these matters most. In the face of financial and human resource constraints, it is simply not possible to address every issue at once—where should you focus your attentions first?
Fundamentally, the answer to this question depends on understanding your own context and diagnosing its needs. The question of “what works best?” probably cannot be answered in a universal and uniform way—reviews of the existing evidence have produced contradictory conclusions, and specific implementation details and contextual factors have an enormous influence on the effects of a given initiative. The earliest model considered for this review, from the Improving Educational Quality Project, states: "The only certainty… is that educational reform is extremely complex, differing radically among societies, within nations, and over time" (p. 23). The UNESCO GEQAF and World Bank SABER models respond to this reality by presenting a set of analytical tools with guiding questions that can help education planners diagnose the major needs of their systems.
Some of the models reviewed as background for the Improve Learning model, however, do stand out for their evidence-based efforts to focus attention on certain key factors. The PISA series of reports Strong performers and successful reformers in education uses assessment data and background questionnaires to identify key factors of high-performing education systems. The Hewlett Foundation model Learning to improve learning analyses the outcomes of thirteen of its own programs to argue for a focus on just a few aspects of classroom instruction, teacher training and supervision, and community engagement. Our own decision tree illustrates how different specific interventions may be useful, depending on the major obstacles currently faced in an education system. And the McKinsey report How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better offers a very useful summary of the different clusters of interventions that have been successfully employed for improvement by education systems at each stage of learning achievement, allowing them to move from poor to fair, fair to good, good to great, and great to excellent.

Supporting teachers in offering more effective instruction is a common element in all of these models. But it is not the only factor to address. Without an understanding of how to support learners’ basic cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical needs; without appropriate curriculum and learning materials; without a well-organized and stimulating school and classroom environment; and without effective overall system management—efforts to improve education quality and learning outcomes will not succeed. We invite you to learn more about each of these areas to reach your own conclusions about what to focus on and how.
1. Portal 2016: Honeyman, C.A. 2016. What works best to improve learning outcomes? A research brief and decision-making tool. The IIEP Learning Portal blog.
2. Hewlett 2014: William & Flora Hewlett Foundation. 2014. Learning to improve learning: Lessons from early primary interventions and evaluations in India and Sub-Saharan Africa. 
3. PISA 2011-2014: Strong performers and successful reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for Korea; Lessons from PISA for Mexico. 
4. GEQAF 2012: UNESCO-IBE. 2012. General Education System Quality Analysis/Diagnosis Framework (GEQAF). 
5. SABER 2012: World Bank. 2012. The Systems Approach for Better Education Results. 
6. McKinsey 2010: Mourshed, M.; Chijioke, C.; Barber, M. 2010. How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better. McKinsey & Company. 
7. EdQual 2010: Tikly, L. 2010. Towards a framework for understanding the quality of education: EdQual Working Paper No. 27. EdQual Research Programme Consortium. 
8. GMR 2005: UNESCO. 2005. Education for All: The quality imperative. EFA Global Monitoring Report Summary. 
9. UNESCO 2004: Pigozzi, M.J. 2004. The 10 dimensions of quality in Education. UNESCO-IBE training tools for curriculum development. 
10. UNICEF 2000: Colby, J. 2000. Defining Quality in Education. UNESCO Working Paper. 
11. IEQ 1999: IEQ. 1999. Educational Quality Framework. Improving Educational Quality (IEQ) Project undertaken by American Institutes for Research for USAID.