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.

I Trust your Intentions

Over the better part of the last decade I have had the good fortune of presenting in schools & school districts, and at a variety of workshops & conferences across North America. The topics have varied, but the message has always been similar: Some things in our system need to change or improve and here are some ways in which I think we can accomplish that goal.

Anyone who knows me knows that my presentation style is fairly direct, clear, honest, and focused on what I perceive to be the job at hand.  I believe what I believe, I try to show credible research and examples of why I believe it, and help others understand what it might look like if applied within their context.  Even as a school leader, I’ve never been one to avoid having the conversations, debating the merits of an issue, or guiding someone to feel compelled to move in what I think is the more appropriate direction.

With all of that, there is one thing I try to avoid at all costs and that is questioning a teacher’s intent and telling them how wrong their career has been up until that moment.

I trust your intentions.

While I might not agree with you and we may – fundamentally – have a completely different view of what is best for our students, I try to avoid being right by proving how wrong you are. I believe that every teacher has the students’ best interest at heart. Whether it is how you develop a positive school climate, how you support students with behavioural challenges, how you assess, grade, and report student progress, or design the instructional experiences for your students, I believe that you believe it is the most effective way to maximize learning. Again, I might not agree with you, but to question your intent, for me, crosses the line. I want what I believe to stand on its own and not rely on simply being the best of the worst; teachers are not inspired by that.

Occasionally, and especially on twitter, I come across 140 character attacks that question the intent of people who have dedicated their careers to teaching and supporting their students.  Words such as malpractice, dangerous, control, power, manipulative, bribery, conspire, and coerce, are thrown around (I’m guessing) for their definitiveness and their shock value.  Bribery as an example, is about coercing people to act in an illegal or immoral way; I don’t know any teachers who do that. It’s easy to have keyboard courage but it’s something else to look people in the eye and inspire them to learn, move, or grow. I’ve come to know – and have experienced several times firsthand – that you don’t need to browbeat people and put them on the defensive in order to create the optimum conditions for change and growth.  Browbeating people through inflammatory language only serves to expose our own insecurities about our convictions, create animosity, and drive people away from the messenger who, in fact, may have a compelling message worth listening to.

Questioning teacher’s intentions cuts to their character and none of us – none – are fully qualified to judge that invisible entity.  I believe many things in our system do need to change and/or evolve, BUT I also believe that 99.99% of the teachers, administrators, district staff, support workers, custodians, secretaries, etc. are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the students in our schools.

Push their thinking, challenge their widely held beliefs, and show them there is a more effective way and they might just feel compelled to listen and follow. Attacking their character and questioning their intent will only lead to them tuning you out and to you becoming white noise.

Classroom Management is about “Predictability”

The other day I came a cross a tweet that asked what they key to classroom management was.  The first word that came to my mind was predictability.

Now before I explain…a little disclaimer.  This is not about “control” – it’s about creating “conditions.”  The word management seems to have fallen so far out of favor that it feels necessary to use “air quotes” each time we say the word.  There also seems to be a never-ending semantically anchored debate that labors to move to actually discussing effective practices when we continue to say, I don’t manage kids (insert air quotes).  Managing situations and learning environments – at least from where I sit – is not at all about trying to control every single move a student makes or stifle creativity.  For me, managing a class means creating the optimum conditions in which students can learn.

Classrooms are effectively managed when there is predictability around expectations, routines, and relationships.  

Predictability of EXPECTATIONS: Students have to know what is expected of them; how they are expected to interact with their peers and with the teacher in the classroom.  They have to understand how to listen attentively, how to respect both themselves and others within the room, how to respect the learning environment, etc.  The consistent interplay between teacher and students establishes a predictability that brings comfort to students; that what is expected of me is not a mystery but clearly established and agreed upon.

Predictability of ROUTINE: There is a rhythm to effective teaching – it’s the rhythm of how we do learning.  Predictable routines – how to access assistance, how to re-organize for group work, how to submit completed assignments, how to respond to feedback – create learning conditions that students can depend upon day in, day out.  In turn, anxiety around routines is reduced which reciprocally raises student confidence and removes yet another obstacle toward the expectation of eventual success.

Predictability of RELATIONSHIPS: For me, most important.  The relationships we develop with students need to be predictable in that there is no doubt that we are on their side and will do whatever it takes to help then succeed. It also means that the relationships between the students is also predictable; that the classroom is a safe place to learn, take risks, make mistakes, and recover free from personal or emotional harm.  All that we do – assess, instruct, grade, report – should not jeopardize our relationships with our students. Everything our students do should not jeopardize their relationships with each other.

The optimal environment in which to learn is one that is predictable enough to provide the necessary parameters without stifling individuality and/or creativity.  It’s a balance – a balance that when struck is the sweet spot of teaching that allows learning to sit front-and-center.

How Systems support Practices

My previous post (Leadership FOR Confidence, Jan. 30) emphasized that leaders need to balance the hard and the soft – the structure and the soul – of leadership.  Too much hard and we end up pushing at all costs; too much soft and we feel great about going nowhere.  This is especially true when we consider implementing a new practice, policy, or routine. 

Whenever something new is being implemented, it is important to make sure that the appropriate support is in place.  Over my career I have seen many new initiatives; some have come and gone, while others have remained.  The difference between the ones that last and ones that fade away is typically not about the quality of the idea itself.  I have seen more than my share of innovative, award-winning, research-validated practices shelved in favor of something else.  If I have learned anything about implementing something new, it is this:

Effective practices are only as good as the systems designed to support the teachers who use them.

Practices are the things we do directly with our students; Systems are the necessary structures and routines put in place to support the teachers implementing the new practice.  The lack of a system – a support structure – for teachers is often the reason why so many research-validated practices fade over time or don’t get off the ground at all.  We don’t often think this way since it’s much easier to blame the practice or program.

Systems create predictability for teachers by taking the guess-work out of what to do, how to do it, and when the next step is required.  Without systems, teachers will feel as though their implementation is happening in isolation.  This is why, as leaders, we are responsible for establishing these systems that show teachers that there is a routine around the new practice we are establishing; this builds their confidence – the expectation of success – because they know they are not alone.

Systems can also account for scenarios where things don’t go exactly as planned.  If we can predict some possible errors in implementation we can plan for our most likely responses. If, for example, a teacher is implementing a practice of not reducing scores for late work, the system developed would identify a replacement routine – what to do instead, how someone else (administrator) can assist, and how everyone accesses support.

As leaders, we can make sure that no one gets left unsupported by establishing systems that support the implementation and sustained use of the best practices for our students.

Leadership FOR Confidence

If it’s all about confidence (see Jan. 27 post) then what role do leaders play in creating the foundation for confidence? In Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End, Rosabeth Moss Kanter suggests that as leaders, we are responsible for both the hard and the soft of leadership – the structure and the soul as she puts it.  As school or district leaders, this is how we create the foundation of confidence for our teachers.  Kanter writes:

Leadership is not about the leader, it is about how he or she builds the confidence of everyone else. Leaders are responsible for both the big structures that serve as the cornerstones of confidence, and for the human touches that shape a positive emotional climate to inspire and motivate people.

The hard of leadership is providing the structure, the systems and the routines that create a consistent experience for the adults we work with.  It’s about sharpening the collective vision and creating purposeful opportunities for everyone to be involved in the development of that vision.  The hard of leadership is about establishing predictability in how things are done and ensuring that the vision for the school or district remains clear.

Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success.  Leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. (Stephen Covey)

The soft of leadership is the soul – the human touches – that deepen relationships, establish trust, and create a collective loyalty toward the team and the vision of success.  It’s the little things that make people feel valued, encouraged, and confident that they are part of something important.  As much as we drive the vision (hard) we must come in behind that vision with support (soft). 

My take on what Kanter suggests has always been that No one gets off the hook, but no one should be left unsupported.  Let’s break that into two parts.

First, no one gets off the hook. As leaders, we have to establish an environment where no one gets a pass on being current.  We wouldn’t accept that in so many other professions – surgeons, lawyers – and teachers are no exception.  Of course you can’t make someone change.  The point is that you, as the leader, never waver from the expectations that teachers be the very best they can be and that their practices reflect what we now know about learning.  It’s not okay to opt out; it’s not okay to take a pass.

However, no one should be left unsupported. For some, change is difficult and we must be patient as people come to terms with what the vision of the school is asking of them.  We have to support our teachers by removing the barriers (real or perceived) that keep them from taking the first step.  We have to recognize that everyone is along the change continuum and it may take time for some to come along with us.  That has to be okay. Some people need more support; others are more independent.  As leaders, we must recognize the individual needs and have reasonable expectations for when they will put both feet in. Maybe they are not sure they can do it; maybe they don’t want to.  Either way, our role as the leader is to find out why, provide the necessary supports, and encourage them to keep an open mind.

If we only provide the structure – the hard – then the vision could drive a wedge between us and our staff. We will be asking them to take professional risks without allowing for the messiness of those risks. If we only provide the soul – the soft – then everyone feels comfortable and supported along a journey to nowhere.  If we provide both, we create the foundation for confidence through a positive emotional climate that inspires people to push through their own perceived ceilings of excellence.

It’s all about CONFIDENCE!

It’s all about confidence…everything else is just details.  The book Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End by Rosabeth Moss Kanter is, without question, one of the most influential books on my career as an educator.  Kanter is not an education writer per se – she is a professor at the Harvard Business School – however, her work helped me realize that confidence is the key that unlocks the door to maximizing student success.

In Confidence, Kanter explores the issues of winning streaks and losing streaks.  She highlights various organizations, sports teams, and individuals who consistently win and those who consistently lose.  Why is it that some companies, regardless of economic instability over long periods of time, continue to succeed?  What are the conditions within a professional sports organization that allow teams to remain at the top?  What is the mindset of individuals that brings them to place where they expect to succeed?  Why can’t some companies, teams, or individuals halt their losing streaks?

In Confidence, Kanter writes:

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.

Think about that for a moment.  If our students are convinced they can be successful – if they have the self-efficacy – they are likely to try harder and persist longer when they face obstacles. Confident students believe they can eventually learn anything.  They will try harder and persist longer because they have what Kanter calls a grounded optimism; their confidence is based upon a track record of success and not simply an inflated level of false hope.

As a parent, I vividly remember the time when my children learned to ski.  At the time, my son was 5 and my daughter was 8…and they were both terrified.  They didn’t think they could do it, thought they might get hurt, and thought the “learning hill” was too steep.  Now the learning hill was not really even the real learning hill – it was a path with a very gentle slope – but they were convinced it was a double black diamond!!  Just prior to meeting their instructor, I huddled my kids together and I reminded them of their past successes. I said to my daughter, you used to be afraid to ride your bike without training wheels; I turned to my son, you used to be afraid to put your head underwater. As I continued to remind them of all of the other fears they had overcome I could see their confidence growing.  We turned and looked up the mountain to the hundreds of skiers enjoying the day and I said, Look at all of those people who have learned how to ski…I bet they were once afraid too, but look at them now…why would you be any different from them?  If they can do it, so can you!  The connection to the classroom wasn’t immediate, but that day convinced me that grounded optimism solidifies a child’s (student’s) confidence to stretch beyond their comfort zone.

The opposite of confidence, of course, is anxiety.  As most of us know, anxiety interferes with memory, attention, and concentration.  Anxious students prefer to have information fed to them as they have a general sense of incompetence.  In turn, this decreases the incentive to learn and begins a downward spiral: Passive students don’t internalize the learning which leads to a poor performance. The poor performance reinforces the feeling of incompetence, which further decreases the incentive to learn, which leads to a greater desire to have the material fed to them, and so on. Anxiety is counter-productive to learning and we need to find ways to minimize its impact.

But where does confidence come from?  How can kids get on “winning streaks” that allow their confidence as learners to grow?  This is where we come in.  Kanter suggests that…

…at the beginning of every winning streak there is a leader who creates the foundation for confidence that permits unexpected people to achieve high levels of performance.

As the leader in the classroom, the teacher creates the conditions for success and the foundation for confidence which allows unexpected students to achieve high levels of performance. Leaders within our system do the same for the adults they lead.  When we have the confidence mindset, we see everything through a different lens.  We begin to ask ourselves some tough questions about the way we’ve always done it.  If something we’ve always done raises anxiety we need to consider whether it is producing the desired results or whether it is standing in the way of success.  All of the structures, routines, and practices create the learning condition within the classroom; the question is whether the condition created will build the students confidence to a level where they expect to succeed.  It’s not that they won’t have to work at; they just know that success will be the end result.

Confidence transcends any skill and any century. Teaching is, and always will be, about building confidence…confidence is about expecting a positive result…expecting a positive result drives the desire to learn.  Everything else is just details.