Implement THAT! (Part 2) – Adapt for Context

Context (or contextualization) sits opposite fidelity on the implementation ledger. On the one hand, as PART 1 pointed out, it is important to stick to what the research points to as best practice. However, we also know that each of our contexts – our students, classrooms, schools, districts – need to be considered when implementing anything.

Contextualizing means making sure the best practice is the best fit.  While research points us in the right direction and under which conditions we can best predict similar (or same) outcomes, we have to mindful of the nuances that make our “culture” what it is.  However, contextualizing a best practice has its limits.  After all, if you contextualize too much – personalize too much – what you implement may actually not represent what the research revealed in the first place (i.e. fidelity).  Contextualizing is about adjusting or tweaking without making wholesale changes.

Our contexts are unique: Each of our students is an individual; each of our schools, districts, and communities have nuances that make them what they are.  Each of our staffs have a certain “political” environment (positive or negative) that permeates the relationships and subsequent actions of everyone connected to the organization.  The implementation of every new idea has to be set against the backdrop of personalities, personal preference, school climate, relationships, levels of experience, etc. Implementing new ideas is not just about a clinical application; the art is knowing who, why, how, and when to implement the what.

Our contexts aren’t that unique: Students, teachers, administrators, and districts are more similar than different; sometimes context is over-thought. While adjusting for context is important, we  don’t want to adjust-for-the-sake-of-adjusting just to be different (and maybe to show how much smarter we are than our “rival” school!!).  Context can also be a crutch – a way of excusing inactivity based more in a lack of willingness as opposed to thoughtful hesitation. While there are a cluster of challenges  (i.e. politics, status quo, rigidity, lack of experience) that we all face when trying to bring about change, it is rare that an organization will face such a contextual challenge that it requires an overhaul of the practices the research says will work. Absolutely adjust and adapt for context…but only to a point

That said, fit matters as much as fidelity. Sticking as close to the research as possible while making the necessary adjustments to maximize the rate of success is ideal. Being overly “faithful” to the research is too rigid and not thoughtful; adjusting too much for context has the potential to render the practice as unrecognizable.  Doing both will allow evidence-based practices to fit the context with precision and accuracy.

5 thoughts on “Implement THAT! (Part 2) – Adapt for Context

  1. Tom,

    I think the term “best practice” is misleading. There is no such thing as a practice that is best across all contexts. What we can say is that there are “effective practices” and one can estimate relative effectiveness, but even then it all depends on the needs and abilities of particular learners and groups of learners.

    In “Visible Learning” John Hattie reviewed 8,500 meta-analyses in education and identified the factors with the greatest effect size but warned strongly against simply cherry-picking apparently effective ones. He reminds readers that “Michael Scriven … [has claimed] that various correlates of school outcomes, say the use of advance organizers, the maintenance of eye contact, or high time on task, should not be confused with good teaching. While these may indeed be correlates of learning, it is still the case that good teaching may include none of these attributes … Correlates, therefore, are not to be confused with causes.” (p. 3)

    In the September 2009 Phi Delta Kappan, Robert Marzano stepped back from his well-known list of best practices in “Classroom Instruction That Works” and reminded readers that “We also cautioned that research indicates that the instructional strategies we identified might have a positive effect on student achievement in some situations, but have a negligible or even negative effect on student achievement in other situations.”

    Powerful learning results from a gestalt of supportive relationships, enabling resources, stimulating activities and helpful guidance. All four cornerstones have to be strong and while there are proven ways to work in all four areas there is no way to approach any part of that whole that is “best” for all contexts.

    Of course, that could be interpreted to mean anything and I certainly don’t want to suggest such an irresponsible fiction. I just want to extend your musings about fit in relationship to fidelity. It is a professional obligation to look to research for guidance, but research alone cannot tell us what to do. That is one reason why it is so important to be constantly assessing student learning – not only to provide feedback to the students but more importantly to provide feedback to the teacher so that s/he can change what s/he is doing if the students are not working and draw upon some other effective practices to modify instruction until they do.

    In this way, implementation becomes a continuous process of “fitting” student needs with “fidelity” to the best evidence available about their learning and about instruction that is effective for students with their profile. That’s a much bigger problem than implementation of a program and it gets to the heart of a teacher’s professionalism.

  2. Thanks for commenting Bruce. I agree that the term “best practice” has the potential to mislead, however, most teachers I’ve worked with understand what it means; most know there is no perfect term…”promising practices”…promising for whom? I appreciate you extending the musings as I am trying to keep these “implementation posts” as efficient (brief) as possible. Cheers!

  3. I would agree, Tom, that one would hope the notion of one best way being an impossibility would be obvious. Hattie and Marzano apparently have not found that to be the case, but I suspect their comments are more directed towards policymakers than practitioners, the former falling victim to simple solution syndrome with alarming regularity.

    “Promising practices” seems like a decent term to me – on the assumption that it must mean promising for students – but I would still go with “effective practice” and assign the meaning of “proven in use and substantiated by research results.” Then, the information in Hattie’s extensive review (and Marzano’s ‘research light’ results) becomes an invaluable resource for intelligent interpretation and use by practitioners.

    • All I can say is that in several successful implementation plans, processes, or ventures that I have been a part of or led, the terms “best”, “promising”, or “effective” have never been a deal breaker (or confusion maker) in terms of what teachers actually do and what they learn works with their students. You might prefer “effective” and I might prefer “promising”…and we could both be correct. Sometimes clarity with language is crucial and sometimes it’s over-thought. Pfeffer and Sutton (2006) make it very clear that it is “more important to hear true things than to say smart things.” That more important than “eloquence” is the practical application. What words mean is secondary to what they mean to “us” within our context.

  4. Tom,

    Again, you hit the nail right on the head when you said “fit matters as much as fidelity”. Teachers need to always “tweak” and adjust the plan to fit each class or situation. That can be a teacher’s best gift. I think that all great teachers have a unique ability to read their students…..they have an intuition about each one! Therefore, the teacher can adjust to each situation and each student accordingly. So, it is a never-ending process! With each new year, and each new student…great teachers automatically re-invent the wheel!

    I also loved how you mentioned writing down classroom goals with a short pencil and plan on doing a lot of erasing! Anybody who has worked with kids knows….you better know how to go with the flow.

    Thanks for the insightful words!

    Kathy Zoghby

    P.S. I lived in Thailand for a year when I was young and I really enjoyed reading about your visit to the Vietnamese orphanage. It is really amazing how some people live day in and day out. I can’t tell you how much of an impression that made on me growing up. Your kids are lucky to have had such an experience and they are very blessed to have you as a dad!

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