The flywheel effect: educators gain momentum from a model for continuous improvement

by Timothy Kanold


This short article would fit in very well with the New Zealand planning and reporting requirements of the Ministry of Education. In fact, many schools may feel that they are familiar with this material.

It describes a successful high school in the USA, and poses questions about ways in which already successful schools can continue to work to improve their outcomes for students.

The term 'flywheel effect' was coined by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great. The metaphor of the ‘flywheel’ emphasises the need to initiate and evaluate progress continually, which means there will be constant growth and development rather than fire-fighting in response to crises.

Key strategies for keeping up momentum include: having clarity of vision, which is understood and owned by all members of the school community; ensuring that new staff, students and families are carefully inducted in the school’s core values and practices; maintaining a continuous cycle of improvement; annual setting of goals and checking on outcomes; and regular sharing of good practice.

In the case study school the staff participated in regular professional learning that was scheduled within the normal working day. They were also divided into small teams where problems were quickly detected and responded to.

The article suggests a number of specific strategies for schools to use in preserving their strengths, building learning communities, as well as pursuing and celebrating the achievements made by new initiatives.

Reflective questions

These reflective questions might guide you in your reading of this article:

  • How are your school vision, principles, and values (New Zealand Curriculum – draft) introduced to new groups of students, staff, and families when they join the school?
  • Critically reflect on the methods of target setting and evaluation of outcomes that you use in your school. How do they ensure continuous improvement of your school’s professional learning community?
  • How do your discussions about effective pedagogy, curriculum development, and student achievement data sustain the ‘flywheel’ of continuous improvement in your school?

Further reading

Sparks, D. (2005). Leading for transformation in teaching and learning, and relationships. In R. Dufour, R. Eaker, & R. Dufour (Eds.), On common ground: The power of professional learning communities. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.


Kanold, T. (2006, Spring). The flywheel effect: Educators gain momentum from a model for continuous improvement. Journal of Staff Development, 27(2), 16–21.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York: Harper Collins.

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