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Move Theories 'of' Action to Theories 'in' Action

Jeff Ronneberg
Jeff Ronneberg

"Leaders of companies that experience smaller gaps between what they know and what they do understand that their most important task is not necessarily to make strategic decisions or, for that matter, many decisions at all. Their task is to help build systems of practice that produce a more reliable transformation of knowledge into action"

-Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert I. Sutton 

Educators across the globe regularly engage in learning. This learning is usually grounded in espoused theories of action, with a hope that changes in professional practice and improved student learning will result. Yet, far too often a gap exists between what people have learned and what they do day-to-day.

Why are schools and organizations so consistently experiencing this knowing-doing gap? Alan Webber said: "Doing something actually requires doing something! It means tackling the hard work of making something happen. It's much easier and much safer to sit around and have intellectual conversations ... and never actually implement anything." 

Gervase Bushe, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, asserts that we can't even call an experience learning without change. He describes learning as "the outcome of an inquiry that produces knowledge and leads to change." He adds that organizational learning requires two or more people learning together and changing how they work together.

What does this mean for us as educational leaders — superintendents, principals, professional developers, teacher leaders? I believe it means that our work is about more than creating well-designed learning. Our work is about ensuring that professional learning results in moving our theories of action to theories in action.

I am not advocating for more teacher evaluation or standardized tests. I am calling for school leaders to work with staff to identify expectations for implementation, then get out of the office and talk with those who are implementing their learning. Ask simple questions: What is going well? Who is implementing well that I should recognize? Do you have what you need?

When a school leader sees practices that are different than expected, he or she should talk with people about it. There is likely a good reason an individual isn't implementing the desired change. Leaders need to learn why, and then support the person through it.

The most important thing a school leader can do is to create opportunities for teachers and staff to talk with one another about the difference between current reality and desired practice. Even better, create opportunities for teachers to see one another implementing their learning so they can then support one another to move their learning to a change in practice.

Creating these experiences is essential. As John Dewey wrote long ago, "We do not learn from experience ... we learn from reflecting on experience."

This post also appears in the October issue of JSD. 

Jeff Ronneberg 
President, Learning Forward Board of Trustees 
@JRonneberg

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