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 School Improvement:  Broken Windows
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A fundamental requirement in system improvement is to 

  • start by stabilizing the processes (how things happen or get done)
  • then improve the processes (Deming). 


In mechanical systems this is a matter of analysing the processes and eliminating special causes of variation. This helps to ensure the likelihood of the process 'behaving' (performing) within expected limits


The same is true for social systems such as schools but the strategy has to be different because it is a matter of system expectations and human responses. It is easier to isolate mechanical systems from special causes of variation than it is to achieve the same result with social systems.


'BROKEN WINDOWS' represents a strategy that can be used to stabilise the social dimensions of the school's systems. This is not a matter of 'zero-tolerance' in the school context, except in extreme cases. Rather it reduces disruptive factors and achieves greater overall consistency (less variation) in everyone's expectations and responses.

The version of 'Broken Windows' outlined below involves all members of the School community in substantial improvement for all. The approach is educational rather than coercive (cf 'zero-tolerance') and works well.


Origins of BROKEN WINDOWS (an experiment by Philip Zimbardo, the results of which were further developed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling): 

Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, reported in 1969 on some experiments testing the broken-window theory. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx. He also placed a comparable automobile  vehicle, locked and properly parked, on a street in Palo Alto, California. 


The car in the Bronx was attacked by “vandals” within ten minutes of its “abandonment.” The first to arrive were a family -- father, mother, and young son -- who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began -- windows were smashed, parts torn off, the upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult “vandals” were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites. 


The car in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week. Then Zimbardo smashed part of it with a sledgehammer. Soon, passers-by were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the “vandals” appeared to be primarily respectable whites.


BASIC PRINCIPLES    -  why 'broken windows invite vandalism'
    1:  The care and attention we give demonstrates the value we place on things
    2:   Most people (attempt to) respond to the value they perceive others place on matters & things

[Note: with children we may need to point out 'the obvious' so that they notice our care & attention]


1. Prevention - better than cure; design and manage your systems well
    2. Maintenance - make prompt responses
    3. Values Education - demonstrate that we care (& why we care)
    4. Explicit Expectations - provide language, structure & predictability
    5. Expectations & Respect - have high expectations, most can do it, and we cannot know what a person can't do
    6. Consistency - involve all in similar and consistent ways
    7. Not a simple remedy for all ills - remember the Law of TANOBWAY
STRATEGY: as developed by Riverside Primary School from an article by Viktor Zappner based on the original 'Broken Windows' paper.

  1. Make EXPECTATIONS explicit (involve others in deriving & clarifying the expectations if necessary)
  2. Make expectations achievable
  3. Show that we CARE - walk the talk
  4. Show why we care (leadership)
  5. Achieve AGREEMENT across and throughout the School
  6. Arrange PREVENTION: identify frequently broken 'windows' & develop preventative strategies
  7. FIX the 'window' promptly when it gets broken and involve 'the perpetrator' if possible
  8. CELEBRATE improvement
  9. Use ALTERNATIVE responses if the 'window' gets broken repeatedly by the same people

The contributions of STUDENTS in Broken Windows

  1. Making the expectations explicit & achievable helps to ensure that students & their families & friends
    •  understand (and accept) the expectations
    •  have the necessary capabilities to make the appropriate responses
  2. Showing why we care helps ensure that students
    •  consider the benefits of the expectations
    •  appreciate and respect the rights of others
  3. Prevention helps ensure that students
    •  monitor their own behaviour intelligently
    •  benefit from the helpful actions of others
    •  are encouraged to manage themselves well
    •  achieve personal change that might be necessary
  4. Involving students in fixing 'windows they have broken' helps to ensure that students
    •  share responsibility with those around them
    •  accept the consequences of their actions
    •  exercise initiative to rectify and improve situations
    •  learn from their mistakes
    •  have an opportunity to make restitution & achieve 'redemption'
  5. Celebrating improvement helps ensure that students
    •  know their efforts are known and appreciated
    •  achieve a greater sense of belonging
    •  have a firm basis for pride in their achievements
  6. Students who repeatedly create 'broken windows' have the chance to learn that are part of a larger world which has a considerable capacity to respond to their actions.



1. Select windows: What 'windows get broken' around here?
            eg,    late arrival at school,
                    not wearing uniform,
                    lack of care for property,
                    lack of care with work done, ...                    
2. Establish school priorities for attention: prevention & response?
3. Teams or working groups: 
            · Choose a 'window' or two
            · Work through the strategies in order for each 'window'
            · Present to whole group
4. Whole group consider and decide: 
             · Implications?
             · Implementation?


Nb.  Each draft 'Broken Window' can give rise to an action plan to ensure its implementation. In a school context, something can be deemed to be implemented when it becomes part of the school culture, ie, it is generally expected and happens as a matter of course without intervention.