The “Cow Paths” of School Improvement & Maintenance – Design Thinking

Cow Path Theory

“Society’s institutions change at a slow pace.”

Bud Selig – “For the Good of the Game”

Cows, deer, and other large animals carve a path in grass and earth from one point to another though repeated use. Should an obstacle appear along that path such as a tree falling across it, the cows will carve a bend in the path around the tree. This is a necessary change to the path to deal with the obstacle. However, after the obstacle is gone, say that tree decomposing and disappearing, the bend in the path usually remains. In fact, It takes hard work to intentionally remove that old bend in the path and pick a better route to your destination.

Cow Path Theory also goes by many other names in design and business including Desire Path, Desire Line and many more animal related names. The question at the center of this concept gathers around whether or not the tree (obstacle) is still in the path and how to straighten the path when the tree (obstacle) is gone.

Cow Paths In Design Thinking

Simply deciding to choose a process for change management so that you may develop intentionally & anticipate obstacles coming and going is a statement about wanting long-standing and durable change. Intentional change is the evaluating of the path we are on, looking at each bend, turn, and the direction. This evaluating can be a major effort undertaken during Step 2, Collect Information during a self study performed not to understand the problem but to understand the causes of the problem.

One such example that comes to my mind was a practice at a school I taught at where every teacher was asked to undertake an extensive checklist at the end of each school year to “check out” prior to the last day of school before summer break. The list included team leaders checking classrooms, debts being paid in the cafeteria, books returned to the library, keys, summer contact information checked with HR. This list must have included the need of each of 105 teachers to get 20 signatures each. This could easily have been 2000 signatures collected and submitted to one of three division leaders each year. But what problem did it solve? It turns out, the school had little problems with sending teachers off to summer no matter the item listed but some story seemed to survive of a few teachers one year long ago leaving for summer prior to finishing their duties. So after years of practice, the list shrank to five signatures the following year and then the list was totally gone the very next year. No problems happened with the new “no list” end to school and a large amount of time and energy was saved. It turns out that their teachers were generally trustworthy with their responsibilities, school ended successfully and that this cow path was straightened out happily.

Questions to Consider When evaluating bends in your Cow Paths as part of your design process:

  • What problem does this solve?
  • Is this necessary?
  • What might be a more efferent way to do this?
  • Is the problem being solved documented with cases or hypothetical?
  • Is the problem being solved still relevant today?
  • Is this solution (the bend) worse than the problem it was meant to solve?
  • Why do we do this at all?
  • Can we imagine an easier way to do this?
  • Can we imagine not doing this at all? What would happen in that event, what might happen and what do we know will absolutely happen?

New teachers and leaders in an school are often naturally taking on this work simply as a way to try to understand why things are done the way they are. I’ve often heard this called the accounting or assessing phase of new leaders. You might know this internal dialogue yourself while working in a new school and learning how things are done. You may be asking yourself the same questions above internally while in a survey mode of learning the new school rather than questioning out loud. That brief time where you are questioning everything is a valuable perspective and one that deserves capturing and sharing — as appropriate. Heck, it’s not just new faculty, but I regularly hear my new middle school students (yes students) question why we do things a certain way and talking about how their old school or former teacher had efficient or inefficient processes that informs their student experiences.

Power In a Name

Telling your faculty that you wish to change how your school operates or stating the desire to be more efficient is great, but being able to name the concept you are going after is meaningful to your audience. Talk about Cow Paths, the story and the analogy. Provide or ask for examples you or they have seen over the years. Perhaps someone can contribute a story that they are proud of intervening in to help demonstrate the value in this kind of self study to solve a problem. From then on, you and your colleagues at the school have a common language to share when resolving outdated and unhelpful practices at your school.

Celebrate a Cow Path bend that is now straightened and improved.

Careful, Don’t Overuse or Over-Value

The design thinking method is not how a school becomes an over night success — it is a process and only a process. After an extensive time understanding the problems you face in your school, it is then time to research and perform the self study that revels the bends in the path to be straitened out. Even then, you don’t have a new outcomes for your school you may have; efficiency, simplicity and a better working order to support students and families. What you don’t have is a whole new trajectory for your school, just a better path to the same place.

Cow Paths take Center Stage in Maintenance

Wanna travel to the same place but to get there in a more timely and meaningful way? This is when detecting Cow Path bends that need to be straightened becomes the main attraction. Here, maintenance and improvement by small degrees is a major thrust of you initiative. You are iterating in small degrees of difference and working on not going from version 2.0 to 3.0 but rather in going from 2.0 to version 2.1 or even 2.11 to 2.12. You want to improve what you do and you don’t want that work to be strenuous. Here, looking for the bend in the path is the main work that you and your team can focus on.

An example of that small degree of change you are looking for through maintenance and improvement might be similar to an elementary reading program that my school and district in Glendale, AZ had implemented two years before. My very astute principal noticed that this reading program was better in improving reading than anything that the district had ever undertaken as testing results made their biggest gains across two years, ever. Yet, teachers were frustrated with the program. She brought a tiny committee together to evaluate why that would be. As implemented, this reading program required a tremendous amount of copying and copy paper. Her teachers were fed up with hours by the copier that included waiting in lines at the copy room. While the reading program was not up for review as a district, she could work to improve or reduce the coping needed. Her team ultimately reduced the work copying by more than 90% and saved her school a large sum of money in the process. That bend in the implementation happened unintentionally and remained part of the practice as the reading program launched. Soon, her school was the model of practice for the district and the committee continued to evaluate how to do their work better and better. Before long, this effort turned into a cultural norm for the school and became a signature part of the principal’s career.


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