Response: Dos & Don'ts of Implementing New Ideas in Education
(This is the first post in a two-part series)
The new "question-of-the-week" is:
How can we close the gap between new ideas & implementation?
There are lots of ideas floating around in education. However, often times there are pretty big gaps between what they look like in our minds and what actually gets implemented on the ground.
Should we be concerned about that gap between new ideas and their implementation and, if so, what are ways we can bridge them?
Today's guests providing responses to that question are Cathy Beck, Dr. Heidi Pace, Dan Rothstein, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Jaime Aquino and Jeff Bradbury. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Cathy, Dan and Kathleen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
These responses build on a series appearing here a few years ago that tackled a similar question:
Response From Cathy Beck & Dr. Heidi Pace
Cathy Beck is the assistant superintendent in Summit County, Colo. She is the author of Easy and Effective Professional Development and Leading ELL Students to Success: Strategies for Providing Equity and Access for All, published by Routledge Publishing. Cathy is a regular contributing blogger for Bamradio Network. She is an adjunct professor at both Concordia University and the American College of Education. You can connect with her on Twitter @cathypetreebeck.
Dr. Heidi Pace, former superintendent for Summit County, Colo., has 33 years' experience in education. Dr. Pace is a professor for Colorado College and also an adjunct professor for Concordia University. She is the co-author of Leading Learning for ELL Students, published by Routledge Publishing:
New ideas are a necessity to continue the forward trajectory required for growth and improvement. For staff members to feel safe generating new ideas there must be permission to try and possibly fail. Administrators must be the leaders in this endeavor and demonstrate a willingness to accept failure as a potential liability. In truth the only failure is to try nothing new at all.
In terms of closing the implementation gap there are a few steps that can accelerate the successful implementation of a new idea:
- Set up the new idea as a pilot. My English teacher who was also the high school basketball coach wanted to establish an aggressive eligibility policy where players had to make all Cs or better to play. I let him pilot the idea with lots of parameters and communication to parents and players. It was hugely successful. Data was taken at the end of the season in regards to grades, playing time, and player perception. Not one player was ever ineligible and they all felt really good about their grades. The next year the policy moved to the entire school. This radical eligibility policy moved from idea to implementation in the course of one year.
- Use data to convince a larger group as to the "why" for the initiative. There should not be change for change's sake. What does the data say in regards to the need for implementing the new idea? There can be many great ideas but they do not all need to be implemented.
- Progress monitor along the way and celebrate successes. Is the new idea accomplishing what you had hoped? How do you know? Communicate both the wins and the losses for the initiative. The wins encourage further implementation. The losses encourage further new ideas and the understanding that trying something new in of itself is a win.
- Start on a smaller scale. We wanted to host an EdCamp in our community. We began by hosting one just for the administrators in our district and neighboring districts. We had approximately 40 people attend including our EdCamp team. It was very targeted. This smaller version gave us the needed practice for the larger scale one that will be held this school year.
To move from the idea to implementation phase the idea must have a champion. There needs to be a detailed plan as to logistics. You want to see if the idea truly worked on its own merit, not because the plan was or was not ineffective. Who has the passion for the new idea? Put together a team and give them permission to "go for it." Offer support and encouragement along the way. You will be viewed as an out of the box thinker and an innovator. The term "Risk-taker" will be associated with your name. This is a positive thing providing that the risks are calculated. It takes courage to be a true leader. Have courage, model risk-taking, create buy-in and watch your team turn into a think tank of innovation!
Response From Dan Rothstein
Dan Rothstein, Co-Director of the Right Question Institute, is the co-author with Luz Santana of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press: 2011) and Partnering with Parents to Ask the Right Questions: Building a Strong School-Family Partnership (ASCD: 2016):
We've been making the case over the past two decades for a new idea about an ancient skill too long taken for granted: Teach all people to ask their own questions. We arrived at this work by making a mistake, learning from it, then making more mistakes. Along the way, we managed to learn a lot about how to take a new idea and successfully plant it in many communities and across many fields including education, healthcare, advocacy, and democratic and civic participation. Here are six lessons in the form of key questions we ask ourselves to help move from ideas to practice:
1. What do people with whom we are working know that we don't know?
Our work is grounded in lessons learned not from research, nor a university nor a think tank. The original insight about the importance of asking questions came from parents in a low-income community where Luz Santana and I were working to engage more parents in a drop-out prevention program. The parents said they did not participate in their children's education, and did not go to the schools because they "didn't even know what to ask." We thought we could solve that problem by giving them a list of questions. But, their concerns changed week to week and the parents kept coming back for another list of questions. This only created more dependency.
The parents named a profound problem that had not previously been fully properly acknowledged; not knowing how to ask, or more correctly, formulate one's own questions is a significant obstacle to effective participation in any setting, facing any challenge. We got to work and with their help figured out how to better teach the skill to all people. We are indebted to the parents with whom we worked for their insight, later proven to be powerfully important for the skill of asking questions is not only a learning skill, it is also a transformational advocacy skill that leads to much greater levels of self-efficacy. Lesson: Listen to people, especially those not considered experts in the field, who are naming a challenge you might be completely missing.
2. What can we learn from people who are asked to implement a new idea?
We began to work with teachers to deliberately teach the skill of question formulation to students. Many teachers resisted because they worried that taking time to teach students to ask questions will be a detour from all they are required to do and cover. They also were naming a problem, like the parents had done, but their challenge was different. If they were to be charged with implementing a new idea, it must make their already difficult work easier, not harder. When a few teachers began to demonstrate how teaching the skill can actually be a short-cut to deeper learning, we shared their experiences and highlighted what they had observed.
This statement carried the day: "Trying to get all my students to ask questions always felt like pulling teeth. But, when I have a way to turn the process over to them and they start coming up with questions, they take ownership of their learning, and we wind up 'covering' the content more quickly and efficiently. I also come out of it energized and excited again about teaching." The lesson was clear: If the new idea makes it easier to get the job done, implementation will follow. If not, forget about it. If it brings some joy to a very demanding profession, implementation is guaranteed.
3. How can we make sure implementation is not dependent on an outside expert?
Again, we learned this lesson the hard way. After we absorbed the first insight - teach people how to formulate their own questions—we spent several years leading people through a process that worked very well, but it was not transparent. It was as if we were carrying around a black box of tricks and they needed us to perform the magic anew each time. Once we simplified our strategy and made it easier to replicate, we began to see exponential growth.
Most importantly, it was all locally driven. In Los Angeles, a 3rd grade teacher read our book, organized a book club, promoted implementation in her school and word bubbled up to the area superintendent's office which then supported widespread adoption. In Kentucky, the state department of education social studies specialist introduced the strategy to colleagues and they ran with it to all areas of the state. In New Hampshire, the state affiliate of the NEA led the adoption process. They hardly needed us to make it happen and drove the process totally on their own. Lesson: Democratize access to expertise. Make sure the idea is easy to learn, easy to implement and easy to share with others.
4. How can we make sure a new idea is affordable?
Beware of expensive proprietary ideas. Financial incentives and commercial ventures that benefit the originator of the idea can certainly incentivize bringing great new resources to the field. However, if you go commercial, and you want to encourage widespread adoption, make sure it's affordable to users. When possible, take advantage of Creative Commons licenses which make it easier for people to use what you offer while still getting acknowledged as the original source.
5. How can we honor the work of educators?
If this question drove every "education reform" effort, instead of focusing on how to "reform" teachers, we would see a major uptick in teacher-led initiatives to improve both teaching and learning. Recognize early adopters and allow them to run with it. We have been struck by how educators have led a movement to adopt the Question Formulation Technique in more than 100,000 classrooms around the world. There is no mandate for them to teach the skill to students and yet they take it and add it their own mission as educators. We celebrate their work, highlight their efforts, and encourage them to share freely with others.
6. How can we foster greater motivation to adopt a new idea?
Be intentional about scaffolding implementation of a new idea and allow teachers to own it. In the Maine Township High School District outside of Chicago, Asst. Superintendent Barbara Dill-Varga provides a ladder of opportunity when introducing a new idea to teachers. Teachers get to explore an idea and then apply it. If teachers want to go further, they begin to integrate the new idea into their practice. Once that happens, the district invests in master teachers and leaders who can continually support implementation.
This is an excellent model for respecting teacher voice. The district does its job of scanning the environment, looking out for useful new practices and ideas that can enhance its work with students and then offers various opportunities for teachers to explore. From that point, it becomes a process in which momentum for change, implementation of a new idea is pushed from below.
We have observed a similarly respectful approach to introducing a new idea to teachers in the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky. The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), a regional resource working to improve educational opportunities for all students in the area, focuses on supporting and encourage teachers to explore how new ideas can enrich their teaching practices. KVEC offered multiple opportunities for principals, instructional coaches and teachers to be introduced to the Question Formulation Technique.
Only when interest expanded beyond an original core group, KVEC began to offer growth opportunities, inviting teachers to become part of a leadership cadre refining their use of the Question Formulation Technique, sharing stories about students getting excited about learning and documenting and filming classroom practice and student projects. The KVEC model seems to have these key components that bring together the entire process for moving from idea to implementation:
A. Pique teachers' interest.
B. Celebrate their successes and learn from their challenges.
C. Facilitate their becoming leaders in promoting adoption of the new idea.
D. Build an online infrastructure that facilitates communication, peer-to-peer learning, a community of practitioners and recognizes their leadership.
Response From Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski
Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski is an elementary teacher in Farmingdale, N.Y., currently teaching 3rd grade. Kathleen is one of the co-authors of The Two Writing Teachers blog and the co-director of the Long Island Writing Project. She passionately believes that literacy is the key to a kinder, more just world:
Teachers are used to new ideas being introduced all the time. New programs, new materials, new curriculum, and new technologies are constantly being rolled out. When thinking about the gap between new ideas and implementation, there are a few questions to consider:
- Did teachers have any voice in the new idea being implemented?
- Is the new idea in alignment with the philosophies of the educators?
- Are there team members who can coach teachers, over time, on the best ways to implement the new idea?
- Is the school community one that embraces growth mindset and making mistakes as long as you learn from them?
In my opinion, as a classroom teacher for over 14 years, the best way to implement new ideas is to make sure there is buy-in with the educators who will be the ones responsible for carrying out the new idea. The idea should be aligned with best practices and beliefs. There should be team members who can coach educators over time, not in one quick training session. Being part of a school community that embraces risk-taking and innovation will also help new ideas to stick and be fully implemented. Learning something new requires mentors to show the way and time to practice. If the new idea taps into the educator's personal passion and belief system, there is a more likely chance that the new idea will be embraced and implemented.
Response From Jaime Aquino
Jaime Aquino is the Chief Program Officer for New Leaders. He has previously served as Deputy Superintendent of Instruction for Los Angeles Unified School District, Deputy Superintendent in Hartford, Connecticut, and Chief Academic Officer in Denver, Colo.:
A typical idea-to-implementation process in public education frequently mirrors a game of telephone:
- Researchers identify a new idea that advances student learning
- State or district leaders require widespread adoption
- Classroom-level implementation renders the practice unrecognizable and educationally inert
- The practice is discarded, or—more commonly—continues to be enacted in its distorted form, delivering limited benefits to students while often frustrating teachers.
The introduction of new college- and career-ready standards reflects this pattern. Most states adopted new standards around 2010, with several years for schools to prepare for aligned assessments. Districts provided professional development to teachers (and occasionally principals), then tasked them with implementation. As expected, performance plummeted when students took the test for the first time. However, many schools have had difficulty achieving even incremental gains.
To understand how schools are adapting to more rigorous expectations, organizations researched what is happening in a representative sample. They found that schools have struggled—and continue to struggle—to align classroom materials, assignments, and instruction to new standards—yet another implementation gap. How can we break this cycle?
Recently, New Leaders examined ten urban schools that are outpacing their district or state peers on new standards-aligned tests—in absolute proficiency or gains. We observed what they were doing to successfully implement changes to meet rising expectations.
Our findings offer insight into what it takes to close the gap between new ideas and real-world implementation. In particular, we found that school leaders played a critical role: they possessed deep knowledge about the content and purpose of the initiative (in this case new standards), fostered buy-in around a vision for the end-goal of the initiative and also how to achieve it, and supported effective implementation by setting up systems that enabled ongoing self-study.
Knowledge, vision, and buy-in: School leaders in our exemplar schools had in-depth knowledge about the standards and understood how they would advance their students toward college and career readiness. Because they understood the why and what behind the standards, they could lead necessary adjustments to curriculum and instruction and effectively communicate how key strategies would help teachers achieve their goals. Enacting these changes took time, but the principals rallied teachers around an ambitious but achievable vision to inspire them toward continuous improvement.
Building expertise through self-study: The principals we studied built expertise and ownership among their teachers by focusing collaborative time around implementation of the standards. Teachers worked together to unpack the standards and develop aligned unit and lesson plans, meeting frequently to confer on the strengths and weaknesses of individual lessons and how to improve their approach. Through peer review and feedback, they zeroed in on specific standards-aligned practices that worked. They also conducted learning walks and lesson studies targeted at improving less-effective practices. In sum, their learning was directly connected to their daily work at school, focused through the lens of standards-alignment.
From these observations, we can draw two broad lessons. First, school leaders must understand the why and what behind a new educational initiative in order to communicate a vision that inspires ownership and urgency among the educators who must undertake the hard work of implementation.
Second, effective implementation requires constant monitoring. Too many educational ideas are introduced through one-off, perfunctory professional development. Teachers need ongoing support and feedback to master unfamiliar approaches. New initiatives also require significant, ongoing adjustments. To enable this kind of monitoring, principals must build a culture in which teachers feel safe acknowledging areas of growth, while also establishing structures for collaborative professional learning to identify and replicate examples of strong implementation.
There are no magic bullets for closing the implementation gap, but it starts with ambitious leadership that inspires buy-in and supports continuous improvement.
Response From Jeff Bradbury
Jeff Bradbury is the Technology Integration Coordinator for the Westwood Regional School District in Westwood, N.J. He is a member of the 2015 class of ASCD Emerging Leaders. Jeff runs the popular website TeacherCast, a site providing blogs, audio, and video podcasts dedicated to improving EdTech by building a bridge between developers and educators. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @TeacherCast:
What if I told you that I had a new idea that was going to solve all of the problems in your classroom? What if I told you that the widget I was building was far superior to all other widgets found in edtech today. What if you could save time and energy and increase instructional time with your students?
Would you want to try it? Would you test it on your students? Would you be willing to go to your principal and share what you found?
What if I told you that all you had to do... was pay me to build it for you?
I bet I had you for a second there. I bet... just for one split second, you were thinking.. "WOW... this is a great idea! I want to save time in my classroom. I want to be able to bring the latest and greatest to my student. I want to be that lead innovator in my school that brings change in the classroom. I want to be able to have a clear mind and give my students my full attention when i'm with them each day."
There is a trend going on in the educational technology fields these days. Everyone has a great idea. Everyone has a better way to recreate the magic widget. Everyone wants to be able to put their idea, into your classroom.
Here is the thing.... Good ideas, don't always equal good implementation.
Over the last four years, I have had the privilege of working closely with teachers, administrators, school districts, and edtech companies. I have recorded over 500 podcasts. Most of these shows have involved putting a teacher in the same show with an edtech startup for the sole purpose of having that edtech startup showcase why they have the latest and greatest widget that will solve all of the problems in the classroom.
What I have found is that the edtech startup generally comes in two flavors.
- The first flavor involves an entrepreneur who looks at the educational landscape, perhaps speaks with a teacher or two and asks the question "What is your biggest challenge in your classroom?" When a teacher responds, the entrepreneur goes out and tries to build a solution for a problem.
- The second flavor involves an educator, usually a teacher, who is in the classroom day in and day out working closely with students. This educator comes across something in his teaching that gives a bit of difficulty and outside of the classroom comes up with a solution to make life in classroom easier.
What makes these two scenarios differ?
On the surface, these two examples might seem similar. A problem in the classroom is identified and a solution is found. On the other hand, these two examples might not be farther apart. One example involves someone trying to solve a problem themselves by creating something to help their students while the other is someone trying to do a quick fix of a problem they heard about and on many occasions is trying to race their idea to their local venture capitalist.
So, how can we close the gap between what could be a really good idea and actually getting those ideas implemented in the classroom?
It starts with teachers. Teachers need to reach out and be vocal in the edtech community. They need to tell the creators of their favorite edtech applications what they like and what they don't like. They must be able to clearly identify, not only feature requests, but give clear examples of how their feature requests will be implemented in the classroom. Teachers need to get on Twitter and make friends with edtech companies and share thoughts and opinions on their websites comments section. These are important actions because if teachers don't tell edtech companies what they want, nobody else will.
Edtech companies can do teachers two favors. First, they need to be open. Edtech companies need to not be looking at the next big payday but rather be looking at the students that their applications are going to directly be affecting day in and day out. They need to not only listen to teachers, but be able to give strong solutions. Second, they need to be trolling blog posts, youtube videos, and itunes reviews about their products and when someone says a good thing, bad thing, or begs for a feature request, they need to be receptive and begin conversations with teachers about how they can not only support, but fix their own products.
Much like many of the issues we face in our everyday life, the situation we are really talking about here isn't a "gap" between good ideas and classroom implementation, rather it is a gap between educators and the edtech world that supports them and how we all need to better communicate the needs of our students to each other.
Thanks Cathy, Heidi, Dan, Kathleen, Jaime, and Jeff for their contributions!
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Look for Part Two in a few days...