By Lekha Sharma
While we can increase our chances of success in terms of WHAT we do, there’s still the tricky business of HOW we do it. In this article, Lekha Sharma explores three key concepts that could act as powerful catalysts to the successful and impactful implementation of change in schools.
Navigating the Complexities of Implementation
The educational landscape at present is exciting, characterised by a constantly evolving understanding of how we, as educators, can maximise the effectiveness of our practice. ‘Best bets’ derived from educational research provide a useful, guiding force to support schools in adopting evidence-informed approaches. They are most likely to make a difference to pupil outcomes, but the implementation of these approaches and the process of managing the change that often comes with delivering them is an entirely different ball game, fraught with complexity and rooted in individual, unique contexts.
‘The purpose of learning is not to affirm our beliefs it is to evolve our beliefs…’ Adam Grant, Think Again
Before any new approach, initiative or directive is implemented, there needs to be a common and shared understanding of WHY the current practice requires rethinking in the first place. Often, we become overly attached to the way we do things. After all, we are all creatures of habit. If we invest time and energy into doing something a certain way for months or even years, it can be difficult to come up against opposing ideas that tell us ‘there may be a better way.’
To support the delivery of a new approach, we should, perhaps, rethink it. Organisational psychologist, Adam Grant, explores this extensively about this in his book Think Again which explores the power of rethinking and questioning our opinions and beliefs, with the goal of evolving in understanding. If this concept of rethinking can be modelled and woven into our school cultures and practices regularly, we can normalise the process and encourage risk-taking and a culture of error. Collective rethinking could be a potentially powerful way to gain buy-in, enabling all members of staff to engage in the process of evaluating the effectiveness of an existing approach before rethinking.
What might this look like in practice? This may involve a leader sharing candidly ‘I’ve been rethinking our approach to pleasure for reading and perhaps we need to go back to the drawing board on this one. What do we think? Let’s explore this together’. Or it could be a teacher feeling empowered enough to say, ‘I need to rethink my approach to delivering this unit, it just didn’t quite work, and I need to address some gaps in understanding.’ If this language and the underpinning attitude becomes habitual, fear and anxieties towards change reduces and teachers can invest their cognitive energy into trialing new initiatives wholeheartedly, in turn reducing resistance, partial implementation and resignation to new approaches not working for them.
‘Tight but Loose’
In his paper ‘Tight but Loose: A Conceptual Framework for Scaling up School Reforms” Dylan Wiliam and Marnie Thompson share a tool that can support implementation, entitled ‘Tight but Loose’.
‘The Tight but Loose framework focuses on the tension between two opposing factors inherent in any scalable school reform. On the one hand, a reform will have limited effectiveness and no sustainability if it is not flexible enough to take advantage of local opportunities, while accommodating certain unmovable local constraints. On the other hand, a reform needs to maintain fidelity to its core principles, or theory of action, if there is to be any hope of achieving its desired outcomes.’
This tool highlights a very real tension in the implementation process that can have a significant impact on the utility of a given reform in schools. Evidence-informed approaches have the benefit of being rooted in robust research but if upon implementation, they are drastically changed to fit the context of individual schools or classes, the very substance of the approach that led to its efficacy can be lost, reducing its impact on pupils on the ground. The ‘tight but loose’ concept defines a ‘sweet spot’ where approaches can be tweaked to address the individual needs of schools and classes, but the integrity of the active ingredients are maintained, therefore maximising the chances of success in terms of outcomes. But what might this look like in practice?
I would argue this tool can be used actively for leaders and teachers to collectively define what ‘tight but loose’ means for them and to exemplify what this looks like so the perfect balance between fidelity and responsive teaching can be achieved. If this concept is explored explicitly and there is a shared understanding of ‘what good implementation looks like’, this could potentially reduce the margin of error in terms of a delivery which is inclusive of the key active ingredients. Once the approach is being delivered, this can be built upon by curating ‘benchmarks of excellence’ that showcase the optimal balance, which can then go on to reduce the variation in provision and impact.
It can sometimes be the case in schools that evaluation is confined to senior and middle leaders. Leaders will explore data, explore outcomes, and perhaps chat with pupils to decide if the approach works or not. The concept of multi-disciplinary teams has been utilised in multiple fields including Medicine. In Medicine, a multi-disciplinary team, made up of individuals with diverse expertise, comes together to decide on the care of an individual with complex care needs. (NHS 2018) I’ve always been fascinated by the application of this approach for pupil progress meetings and for evaluating the impact that certain practices have, once implemented.
Leaders may be experts in strategy or in their subject, but this alone paints an incomplete picture of what is working with regard to the successful implementation of a new policy. Anyone engaged in a Mathematics intervention, for example, will have valuable qualitative data to contribute when deciding whether it is working, which can supplement and strengthen the quantitative data that may be acquired from assessment. For example, speaking directly with pupils, teachers and support staff can unpack the common challenges of implementing a certain practice and the opportunity-cost this presents in the reality of day-to-day teaching.
This information cannot be gained from test results alone. By building a more holistic picture, leaders can make more informed decisions about whether to commit to a course of action, or whether to rethink or readjust the course entirely.
This article, of course, has not explored the full range of factors that influence implementation. Plus, the concepts discussed overlap significantly with issues surrounding school culture, relational trust and psychological safety.
But by considering these ideas, perhaps we can develop our understanding of implementation as an ongoing process, vulnerable to many moving parts and complex factors that need to be considered, in order to maximise their effectiveness. This is certainly far from simple but the long-term pay-off in terms of impact on pupil progress and outcomes is undoubtedly worth it.
A. Grant (2021) Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Penguin Publishing Group, 2021
D. Wiliam, M Thompson (2017) Tight but Loose: A Conceptual Framework for Scaling Up School Reforms, Institute for Education London
Sharples, Alber and Fraser (2018) Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation, EEF