Tag: Knowledge Building

“We tried that, but…”

“We tried that, but…”

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I recently served as a process observer during a discussion about how to best support the central office leadership of a local school district as they planned school improvement efforts. The individuals who offered support to the district leaders commented on how frequently they heard these school leaders say, “We tried that, but…” followed by the discouraged refrain, “we didn’t get results.”

As an observer of those coaching the district, I wondered why they didn’t probe further. Whenever I hear “we-tried-that-but,” a series of questions comes to mind: What did you try to implement? How do you know teachers used the strategies? Did they use the strategy often enough for students to get the anticipated benefit? Did the teacher use the strategy long enough to change student learning? Did the teachers use the strategy or method the way it was intended or did they change it? What were the students’ responses to the changes in instruction? Were enough students engaged to make a difference in the results? If teachers struggled to use the strategy, why did they have difficulty? Did they need more professional development to fully understand the new practice? Did they have time to practice using the new approach and work with their colleagues to plan new lessons and discuss how to best use the practice in the classroom? Were the working conditions and culture safe for teachers to try newly learned skills? How were teachers involved in planning the roll-out of the effort? What role did principals and other school leaders play in supporting teachers’ application of new practices and removing barriers that teachers experience when trying something new?…among others.

I wonder how often school administrators and teachers have voiced disappointment about not getting the intended outcomes from various initiatives without looking further into the implementation of the effort. Without answering these and other questions about the implementation of a reform effort, it is not possible to make good decisions about what works or doesn’t work.

At another level, how often have state and national leaders said, “We tried that, but….”? Looking at implementation from a macro-level — reformers have advanced legislation, funded expensive reform agendas, pushed various curriculum and assessment models with the goal of improving student learning, established task forces, organized new departments, created new positions, and a myriad of other strategic actions. I suspect many were tried and abandoned, because the data indicated that student outcomes didn’t improve. It is impossible to tell if the innovation had the capacity to fulfill the promises intended by the policy makers without studying implementation. What was actually known about how widely the reforms being advanced through policy were implemented?

Implementation Science provides the understanding of systemic implementation practices needed to help local district leaders, as well as state and federal policy makers, to design and support reforms in ways that intentionally attend to the factors necessary to achieve full implementation. The National Implementation Research Network(NIRN) offers research and frameworks for understanding effective implementation processes. Educational reformers should study NIRN’s core implementation components and their conceptual model for designing and creating the conditions needed to operationalize and advance full implementation. Dean Fixsen and the other authors of the monograph Implementation Research: A Synthesis of the Literature (2005) state, “There is broad agreement that implementation is a decidedly complex endeavor, more complex than the policies, programs, procedures, techniques, or technologies that are the subject of the implementation efforts. Every aspect of implementation is fraught with difficulty, from system transformation to changing service provider behavior and restructuring organizational contexts.”[1] 

The lessons learned from implementation science should provide hope for reformers at all levels of the educational system who are struggling mightily with these challenges. Anyone listening to the often-cited mantra “We tried that, but…” should suggest they carefully study implementation and seek out these resources.

[1] Fixsen, D. L., Naoom, S. F., Blase, K. A., Friedman, R. M., & Wallace, F. (2005). Implementation research: A synthesis of the literature. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, The National Implementation Research Network.

How Adults Learn: What Do Reformers Need to Know?

How Adults Learn: What Do Reformers Need to Know?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The West Wind Education Policy web site describes our work in the area of knowledge building and professional development as being based on theories of andragogy–or adult learning. The study of adult learning theory and experience in designing and supporting professional development for educators has taught us a lot about the way teachers and school leaders learn when engaging in professional growth experiences. Andragogy theories suggest that adults need to learn experientially and to be actively involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction. We know that adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value. We know that experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for effective learning activities and that problem-centered learning rather than content-oriented learning is more meaningful to the adult. Educators, like all other adult learners bring with them a reservoir of experiences, but they also bring extensive doubts and fears to the educational process. Well-designed learning establishes an environment where each learner feels safe and supported, where the individual’s needs and uniqueness are honored, and where the participant’s abilities and life achievements are acknowledged and respected. A productive learning environment encourages experimentation and creativity, while fostering intellectual freedom.

Carrie Leana, a researcher from the University of Pittsburgh studied the influence of human and social capital in school settings. Her research suggests that social capital thrives in an atmosphere of mutual trust and collective practice. According to Leana, a school climate that is characterized by trust provides an environment where teachers routinely talk to each other, share the same norms, and hold strong agreement in their descriptions of their school’s culture. Her findings suggest that a trusting climate is more important than the teacher education level, teacher certification, or other human capital measures in predicting student achievement scores.

As federal, state, and local district leaders establish policies that seek to improve educator effectiveness, they are advancing requirements that are intended to change practices in human capital management. Reforms being considered aim at raising standards, ensuring that mentoring and induction supports are in place, offering quality professional development, and improving teacher preparation and performance evaluation systems. If these reforms are going to make a difference, the designers and implementers should consider how the intended and unintended consequences will impact the learning environment for educators. Those responsible for leading reforms should ask questions such as:

• Will reforms provide the infrastructure and the necessary funding to provide intensive professional development?
• Are there policies in place that allocate adequate time for professional growth and collaboration?
• Will performance review processes offer meaningful, accurate, and timely feedback in a way that enhances reflection and supports continuous growth in a safe culture?
• Are educator effectiveness systems designed to contribute to a culture of inquiry, trust, and professional collaboration or is there a risk they will contribute to learning environments that are characterized by competition and norms that create distrust?
• Are teachers full partners in discussions and decision making about changes to the educator effectiveness systems?
• Once changes are implemented, are they evaluated to determine whether the intended outcomes are accomplished? Have any unintended consequences occurred?

For those of us involved in the work of knowledge building and supporting policy developers it is key that we keep asking ourselves this question: What can we do to help policy leaders learn about andragogy, as well as human and social capital so they can make thoughtful decisions about how to build the capacity of educators?

Knowles, M. S. et al (1984) Andragogy in Action. Applying modern principles of adult education, San Francisco: Jossey Bass. Web reference site of Nan B. Adams, PhD . Southeastern Louisiana University.

Retrieved from:

Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy’, the encyclopedia of informal education, Retrieved from www.infed.org/thinkers/et-knowl.htm.

Leana.C. (2010) Social Capital: The Collective Component of Teaching Quality Annenberg Institute for School Reform | Voices in Urban Education p 16-23. Retrieved from www.annenberginstitute.org/VUE/wp-content/pdf/VUE27_Leana.pdf

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