Common Mistakes in Implementing Common Strategies

Conductor
One of the most common efforts administrators make to improve instruction is to implement certain “best practices” across all of their classrooms or schools.

If some practices are better than others, and we can implement more of the better practices school-wide, doesn’t it follow that our instruction will improve?

I recently saw this equation in an email newsletter from a professional development consultancy:
Common Strategies + Common Language + Common Vision
+ Consistent, Systematic, Explicit Instruction
= High-Performing Students

Pretty straightforward, right?

Before you fire off an email to your staff announcing your big plans for common instructional strategies, though, take a minute to think about what it takes for common instructional strategies to be a move in the right direction.

Some questions to ask yourself:

What are people currently doing instead of these soon-to-be-common strategies?
We need to make sure “common” doesn’t mean “least common denominator.” It may be that some of your teachers are already doing something better than the new strategy you’re champing at the bit to implement. If the practice is already in place in some classrooms, it’ll start off with more support from teachers, and you’ll have less ground to cover in making it school-wide.

Consistency is a good thing, but we need to first make sure we’re not showing contempt for what our best teachers are already doing to be successful. By drawing on the best of what we’re already doing, we can avoid the natural resistance to outside ideas.

What kind of training and support will we provide?
Implementing something new means giving up the old way, and in some cases, it’s better to be really good at a decent strategy than really bad at a great strategy.

When we encounter teacher resistance, it’s often rooted in fear of the implementation dip – the part of the learning curve where we’ve abandoned the comfortable old way (which worked, to some extent) but aren’t yet good enough at the new way to get comparably good results.

If we don’t provide enough training and support to get people through the implementation dip, they will give up, revert to the old way, and become hardened against future changes.

How much bandwidth for change do we have right now?
This depends on a number of factors:

  • The amount of time and money available for professional development
  • The number of other changes are currently dragging teachers through the low points of implementation dips
  • The level of trust, social capital, and confidence in the school’s leadership
  • The sense of urgency for the change

In some cases, a sense of urgency can help people push through several implementation dips at the same time, but it’s all too easy for people to become demoralized when they stop experiencing the success they’re used to.

How will we recognize meaningful progress rather than hoop-jumping?
If everyone knows what you want to see when you visit the classroom, you’ll see it, whether or not it’s happening the rest of the time.

Rick DuFour tells the story of how he would tell his students they must all raise their hands in response to questions if an administrator was in the room – their right hand if they knew the answer, and their left hand if they didn’t. The administrators were no doubt impressed with these eager and knowledgeable students, even though it was a charade.

We need to ensure that the practices we’re trying to implement are really being implemented, even when we’re not looking. The shallower the evidence we’re collecting, the more likely we are to encourage hoop-jumping and deception.

Common strategies can be a great way to improve teaching and learning, but we have to make sure we’ve addressed these questions.

What do you recommend to leaders trying to implement common strategies?

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About Justin Baeder

Justin Baeder helps school administrators increase their productivity through the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. Learn More »

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