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The High Cost of Bad Implementation Habits

By Guest Blogger — November 29, 2017 6 min read
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Rounding out our month of guest bloggers this week is RHSU-veteran Eric Kalenze. Eric is the Director of Education Solutions at the Search Institute in Minneapolis and the U.S. organizer of researchED. He has nearly two decades of experience as a teacher, coach, administrator, and author. Regularly found at his own blog, “A Total Ed Case,” Eric has kindly agreed to pull double-duty with us this week.

Hello again, RHSU reader! My previous post celebrated that the U.S. education enterprise had finally acquired a research-and-evidence pulse, but stopped well short of saying we were anywhere near proficient in our actual use of it. In this post and my next, I’ll focus on steps we can take to actively strengthen this new pulse and, if we’re lucky, subsequently get evidence-informed practices coursing through education’s systems.

Sticking with the “pulse” and circulatory system metaphor, I’ll today discuss why the bad implementation habits that cause so much research-to-practice “blockage” must be eliminated, then later this week move on to how better “exercise routines” with research and evidence bases can make our emerging pulse even stronger. My hope is that this guest-blogging stint provides some guidelines for a high-level “health plan” for education.

At education’s organizational level, we have a number of implementation habits that simply must be broken if we want research insights to have a chance of positively affecting classroom practices. Just as the best workout regimen won’t much help a person’s cardiovascular system if the person’s also consuming two double-bacon-cheeseburger combo meals a day, so will effective study and application by practitioners never be able to achieve much positive impact within clogged or incoherent systems.

After a career within and studying education, my awareness of how these implementation habits can stymie research-informed practices has been heightened through my research-to-practice work with Search Institute. While we work with schools to help them design shared practices in light of identified growth areas (prioritized via our student survey data and schools’ unique improvement visions), insights from research literature (specifically around adolescent motivation and student-teacher relationships), and supporting in-class resources, we and our school partners often find ourselves having to work around various bad-habit-induced “blockages.”

While this is unfortunate for all instruction, it’s especially unfortunate for students’ social-emotional growth and how educators can foster it. More researchers, after all, are seeing educators’ day-to-day practices (not interventions delivered via scripted curricula, but subtly woven into teachers’ expectations, policies, and ways of interacting with students) as the keys to yielding better social-emotional outcomes. As developmental psychologist David Yeager puts it, “The question of whether character can be learned is unambiguously yes, but intentional efforts are far less successful than unintentional ones.”

With that in mind, it’s important that we get our heads around how to change practices in ways that are supported by research about kids’ underlying developmental processes. To do so, we’ll first have to remove those bad-implementation-habit-induced blockages between sound research and actual practice transformation.

The list of such bad habits is rather long, but two stand out to me as particularly damaging to the health of our research and evidence use: our too-quick jumps from promising research findings into actions, and our dependency on improvements via packaged programs over transformed practices.

Bad Implementation Habit #1: Misunderstanding and Misapplying Promising Research
On our refusal to properly understand promising scientific findings before rushing them into poor practice, cognitive neuroscientist Mark Seidenberg might have said it best: “Educators are incorrigible early adopters...getting far too carried away far too rapidly with a finding that is interesting but not well established or understood and possibly wrong.”

Even in just the recent past, the list of whiffs is astonishing: interactive whiteboards, mindfulness training, reform math methods, building growth mindsets, teaching grit, reading comprehension strategies. You get the idea.

What’s worse, education’s field-leaders sometimes whiffed away at these barely released ideas as the research’s originating academics—Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, and the aforementioned David Yeager included—jumped up and down trying to correct them. While this is hardly surprising if you’ve been paying attention to how we tend to do things (the late reading researcher Jeanne Chall once noted that educators tend to go “in a direction opposite from the existing research evidence”), you must admit this makes the field look rather ridiculous.

In case it’s not bad enough that these misunderstandings and misapplications don’t do much for kids’ growth and preparation, each one also takes considerable amounts of time and money to implement, thus—you guessed it—clogging the way and blocking soundly researched instructional actions from making it through to teachers’ practices. Those hours spent on full-staff PDs and moneys spent on IWB installations are never coming back.

Bad Implementation Habit #2: “Selecting and Executing Programs” Over “Transforming Practices”
When seeking improvement solutions, education leaders too rarely think in terms of getting their professionals’ practices to change. More commonly, they seek to address identified needs by browsing for ready-made programs and resources. This reflex hinders the strengthening of our research-and-evidence pulse by pretty well taking evidence out of decision-making processes, accordingly absolving leaders from growing as research-informed professionals.

Additionally, ready-made curricular and intervention programs often add to the research-to-practice blockage by not always being as reliably “research-based” or as aligned to learning standards as providers promise. (It’s not for nothing that the IES’ What Works Clearinghouse was once jokingly referred to as the “What Doesn’t Work” Clearinghouse.) Again, don’t forget the opportunity cost: Each hour and dollar spent on training employees in something weakly evidence-supported is an hour or dollar not spent training them in something strongly evidence-supported, thus blocking, yet again, the way between what we know from research and classroom practices.

Recognizing these bad implementation habits as research-to-practice blockages is an important first step, but actually dealing with them is even more important if we truly want to continue growing evidence-informed classroom practices. Again, knowing we consume too many double-bacon-cheeseburger combo meals is nice, but cutting down on them is what counts.

I know firsthand from our work at Search Institute that acting on these habits can be difficult—sometimes requiring entirely new ways of thinking about how schools learn, plan, monitor, and improve together—but if we truly want to strengthen our now-beating research-and-evidence pulse, we’re most definitely going to have to get out of our own way first.

Eric Kalenze

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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