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.

Implement THAT! (Part 1) – Implement with High Fidelity

There are several reasons why good ideas fail – even award-winning ideas – in their implementation in some schools or districts.  This represents part 1 of several posts about implementation plans and why some are successful and why some are not.

 

For me, the first key to implementing anything is to implement with high fidelity.  That is, if you are going to take on the challenge of implementing a new routine, program, process, or practice, rule #1 is to implement what it is you said you were going to implement.

Like any relationship, implementation fidelity matters.  Fidelity from an implementation perspective means we stay “loyal” to what the research has taught us would work.  This is particularly important if you are leading the implementation plan (whether alone or with a team).  Fidelity is about staying true to the fundamentals of the new routine, practice, process, or system we’re hoping to put in place.  Fidelity is more likely when we ensure that we (and our team, staff, district, etc.) have the fluency and capacity to do what it is we are hoping we’ll do.

Fluency means we are “fluent” with the core content or knowledge of the new idea. It means I understand the language and terminology of the new idea; that I have a good sense of what the new routine  is supposed to look like even if I haven’t completely mastered it.  Fluency is about KNOWING what I need to know in order to do what I intend to do. Fluency is not enough since we are all aware of the knowing-doing gap.

Capacity is a little different.  Once I know I now have to believe that I can…that I have the capacity to execute the plan, practice, etc. Fluency is a precursor, however, it doesn’t guarantee that I have – or feel I have – the capacity to move ahead. I might know what it’s supposed to look like and I might be able to tell you (fluency) but I might not believe I’m capable.  This is why I have come to believe (and subsequently wrote) that leaders should “Lead for Confidence”

A lack of fluency requires more learning; a lack of capacity requires coaching and modeling.  Either one on its own is incomplete. Both, however, ensure that we implement with high fidelity; that we stay “faithful” to the research or fundamentals of any new idea.

Nothing FAILS like SUCCESS…

…when our success is based upon a false assumption, an atypical application, or a restricted context.

Now, we all understand the opposite thought; that nothing SUCCEEDS like SUCCESS in terms of proving that something works, that it’s effective, or is the right course of action. Experiencing success with any practice or routine can be very compelling and the thought of continued effective and efficient results quite alluring. However, the true source of our success must be examined before we can exalt the virtues of whatever it is we’ve chosen to do.

Here’s what I know: Having the stomach flu can result in rapid weight-loss, but that doesn’t make having the stomach flu a best practice when it comes to slimming down. While this is an over-simplified example I think it illustrates two things. First, even though the result of losing weight is positive, the means is not justified by the end.  Second, the results are obviously due to atypical circumstances and will be short-lived once the conditions change or revert back to normal.  Admittedly, most other situations are not that simple and/or easy to recognize, but the point is to know why success is happening.

Sometimes having limited success is worse than no success at all as limited success can lead to an unwillingness to reflect, adjust, redesign, or go in another direction. Afterall, what I’m trying is working, but I don’t have enough experience with it to have perspective on the level of success being realized. Sometimes my limited success has nothing to do with the new practice or routine and has everything to do with the particular group or the particular environment in which the success is occurring.

Let’s face it – there are a few students who are motivated by low grades, do respond positively to punitive discipline practices, prefer a lecture-style lesson delivery, and/or will not need a second-chance to perform at their best. There are, of course, no absolutes in any situation and there are always exceptions to the rule.

On the other hand, while these exception-to-the-rule students do exist, basing our decisions about what works and doesn’t work on these exceptions can lead to us to implementing – even promoting and/or defending – practices that are not universally applicable and are not supported with any empirically sound research.  What works in a senior physics class, for example, can produce different results in a 9th grade science class – and that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the younger students.  It means that the success was based upon a restricted context; an atypical class composition of students who chose physics versus a general science class that all students are expected to take.

The point is this: when experiencing success with any new practice, routine, idea, or program be as sure as possible that the success is grounded in the fundamentals of what you are implementing and that it is not the result of some other condition or circumstance.  Nothing fails like success when our success is based upon a half-truth or an atypical situation.  Being aware of these conditions helps us know the source of our success and allows us to have a greater perspective on what we are seeing.

Nothing succeeds like success when you are confident that your success has wide applicability and is empirically sound.  Results do matter, but how those results were realized might matter more.

We are “The System”

Throughout my career I have been privy to a number of conversations, debates, and discussions amongst educators on various educational initiatives and approaches.  During these discussions I have heard people refer to “The System” or “The District” in ways such as, “The System needs to change” or “The District ought to do something about that!”  It’s as though “The System” is some separate entity that we are distant from. What we need to realize is that WE ARE THE SYSTEM and if something needs changing or something needs to be done, WE need to be first-in-line to act.

Now some of the changes that you deem necessary will be within your circle of influence.  As such, you will likely be able to make these changes rather quickly in order for you to grow and become the kind of professional that you want to become.  In other situations we see that changes are needed but we don’t hold a position that puts us inside that particular circle of influence.  For example, you might identify something within the district that needs to change from a practice or policy perspective, however, not having a position at Central Office may lead you to believe that there is nothing you can do or that your opinion doesn’t matter.  For me, this is far too passive and emphasizes position rather than influence. Leadership is about influence, not title, and anyone can make that happen and everything is within our circle of concern.  Stephen Covey once wrote:

I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a transformer.  It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith to be a transforming leader.”

If we don’t hold a position of authority or a potential change is outside our circle of responsibility then we need to bring the message to those that do and make it loud and clear what it is we believe is necessary for our organization to grow.

While doing so, it is also important to bring that message of change to those who need to hear it in a way that is respectfully grounded in ideas that are sound and supported.  Using sensational language, putting people on the defensive, or attacking people personally (rather than focusing on ideas) will only serve to create more challenges and roadblocks along the way.

You are the system, you can make a difference, and you could be the reason why your classroom, school, district, or even province/state changes forever. Don’t sit back and wait for others to do what you know needs to happen. The time is now and the person is YOU!

Inspired by Anna

This is Anna.  My family and I met Anna during our 10 day trip to Vietnam this past August.  We were in Vietnam as part of a working vacation.  I had conducted a 2-day workshop for the East Asia Regional Council of Schools (EARCOS) and also worked specifically with the Saigon South International School.  After four days in Ho Chi Minh City we flew up to the resort town of Hoi An to fully immerse ourselves in the vacation part of this trip…it was in Hoi An where we met Anna.

Anna lives at the Hoi An Orphanage.  We had decided long before our departure that we were going to visit this orphanage as part of our trip.  We brought an oversized duffel bag full of clothing, toys, and other needed items to donate to the children. Many (but not all) of the children at the orphanage have special needs; others are even bed-ridden with permanent illnesses that, for some, stemmed from the residuals of Agent Orange.  Visiting an orphanage like this is a humbling experience for anyone, but we felt it was important for our kids (14 & 11) to see how these children lived and, obviously, to gain some perspective and appreciation for the life we enjoy in Canada.  What was clear to us the minute we walked into the orphanage was there was an abundance of love surrounding these children by a staff that was so caring and dedicated to making the children’s lives as comfortable as possible.  We did not know we would meet someone like Anna and I didn’t know she would become my role model and inspiration to become the best version of ‘me’ I could be.

What I learned most from Anna is that happiness is a choice; that no matter what our circumstance, we have a fundamental choice each day whether to be happy or not.  If anyone had an excuse to be sad or withdrawn it was Anna.  While it may be true that her age and naivety keeps her from fully understanding her circumstance, I can tell you that there was something special about this young girl…she was unlike any of the other children. There is a spirit within Anna that is unmistakable and an energy that was infectious.  You knew when she was in the room; at times it felt like she was running the place! Being around Anna made you smile, even if she was interacting with other adults or children.  You wanted to be around her, talk to her, play with her – she was a magnet…she was happy!

I want to live in the moment like Anna.  I want to continue to choose to be happy & positive no matter what life brings my way.  I want to choose to be grateful for what my life is.  That doesn’t mean I/we don’t have goals and shouldn’t strive for more (whatever more means to you).  It means that while we are striving and learning and growing we should be grateful for what we have, are, or do now.  Happiness is a mindset that will never be fully realized by the next promotion, raise, relationship, or circumstance. There is always more – more money, better vehicles, nicer homes, a new job – but the happiness that comes of these things is only temporary.  Remember how happy you were when you finally got your first permanent teaching contract or full-time job? At the time you may have even thought “If I could only get a permanent contract then I’d be happy.”  Are you still that happy or has the target moved?

When happiness comes from within I think we see the world differently.  It’s not as though we aren’t going to experience difficulties, set-backs and/or losses – we all will.  However, our chosen happiness will allow us to make the best of any circumstance.  We get out of life what we are since life is always about our perspective.  If we are continually feeling unhappy and negative then that will be our experience since you can always find something ‘wrong’ with just about anything.  Choose to be happy, positive, and inspired on the inside first and the world will change its color; it will become exactly what you want it to become because that’s how you see it.

Thank-you Anna for being my inspiration and for reminding me that happiness is a decision, not an outcome.

Over-Prepare ‘Em

Although many schools/districts have had students in session for a while now, this week, for many, marks the second week of school. As such, it is likely that many of you are preparing your students for their first summative assessment/moment in your class (maybe it’s already happened).  Back in January – in my first blog post no less – I wrote that “It’s all about Confidence.”  While a new school year can provide many students with the opportunity to re-invent themselves and fix what (in their minds) needs fixing, there is an unparalleled opportunity to build student confidence through success on the first summative assessment.

This is not a debate about the merits of summative assessments; this about the realization that many of you will be using some form of summative assessment to determine whether or not your students have reached the intended learning goals. Therefore, if you want students to have a positive emotional response (feeling confident) to the prospect of being assessed, over-prepare your students to the point where success is almost guaranteed.

Two things that over-preparing doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean you give it away nor does it mean dumb-it-down. In either situation students will quickly recognize that the summative moment is atypical and does not represent their usual experience in school/your class, thereby rendering the assessment results meaningless.  Over-preparing means we provide the maximum amount of learning and support to ensure that they are ready for that first authentic summative moment.  This will maximize their success and likely result in many students “out-performing” themselves – which leads to increased confidence that this year might be different and that success (or even greater success) is possible!  As a reminder, here is one of my favorite quotes from the book Confidence by Rosabeth Moss Kanter:

The expectation about the likelihood of eventual success determines the amount of effort people are willing to put in. Those who are convinced they can be successful – who have ‘self-efficacy’ – are likely to try harder and to persist longer when they face obstacles. (pg. 39)

Now…imagine what might happen if we over-prepare ’em for every assessment?

Function over Format

In all of the discussion and debate regarding summative and formative assessments, there is one misunderstanding that seems to be revealing itself more and more.

Too often, the discussion regarding summative v. formative assessment seems to navigate toward a critique of certain assessment formats and their place in either the summative or formative camp.  For me, this is an irrelevant discussion and can distract us from developing balanced assessment systems that seek to match assessment methods most appropriately with the intended learning.  In short, an assessment’s format has little, if anything, to do with whether an assessment is formative or summative; what matters is its function.

To determine whether an assessment is formative or summative ask yourself this one simple question: Who is going to use the assessment results?

See, if you take those assessment results and use them to provide useful advice to students on how the quality of their work or learning can improve AND you don’t “count” them toward any type of report card or reporting process then they’re formative; even more formative if the students self-assessed and set their own learning goals.  If, however, you are determining how much progress a student has made as of a certain point in the learning AND are going to include the result in a cumulative report card or other reporting process then they’re summative.  Whether you convert and/or combine the results into another format (letter grade, etc.) is really not relevant.

In essence, if the assessment results from your classroom leave the classroom and inform others about how students are doing then you’ve got a summative assessment.  If the results stay within the classroom and are used for feedback, that’s formative.

Here’s the rub – every assessment format has the potential to be formative or summative since it has everything to do with the function (or purpose) of the assessment and nothing to do with format.

Now, I’m not here to suggest that a short/selected answer assessment is the deepest, most meaningful assessment format, however, in some cases a short/selected answer assessment can be the most efficient means by which a teacher might know whether his/her students have mastery over the key terminology in a science unit.  This demonstrated mastery will allow the teacher to feel more confident about moving on to more meaningful learning opportunities.  What the teacher does with the results will be the determining factor as to whether it was a formative or summative event.  If the results “count” then it was summative; if it doesn’t “count” then formative.  Summative and formative assessments begin with two very different purposes; knowing our purpose for assessing is the first key to developing high quality, accurate, and clear assessment information.

Anyway, the discussion/debate regarding what quality assessments look like is one for a future post. For now, know that every assessment format can be a viable option and it’s what happens with the results that matters the most.

Incidentally, for another recent and interesting take (one which I happen to agree with) on summative assessments, please check out Darcy Mullin’s post here.