Professional Development Opinion

Response: ‘Educators Are Suffering From Innovation Fatigue’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 17, 2013 11 min read
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(This is Part Two of a multi-post series on this topic. You can see Part One here)

Shawn Blankenship asked:

What are strategies to close the gap between new ideas and implementation? The question may need to be adjusted a little, but many educators are reading, sharing, learning, and growing together. However, what are ways in which we can put these new ideas into action in a timely manner? I’m sure self-initiation, problem-solving, risk-taking and the freedom to fail and learn from such failure will be a part of the conversation. As a principal, I would love to have some strategies to close this gap.

Part One in these series featured responses from Renee Moore and Kelly Young (who I consider a mentor and from whom I’ve learned more about teaching than anyone else), as well as my own thoughts.

Today’s post includes commentaries by Scott McLeod, Sally Zepeda, and Tony Frontier.

Part Three will be the last post in this series. Along with guest responses, I’ll be including reader comments...

Response From Scott McLeod

Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D., is the Director of Innovation for the Prairie Lakes AEA in Iowa and the Founding Director of CASTLE, the nation’s only academic center dedicated to the technology needs of school leaders. He blogs regularly at dangerouslyirrelevant.org and can be found on Twitter at @mcleod:

How do we close the gaps between ideas and implementation? In other words, how do we go from knowing what we should do to actually doing it?

This concern is rife in all organizations, not just schools, and is an incredible challenge for most leaders. All of us can identify numerous examples of school programs that were both well-intended and aimed in the right direction but never really gained the traction that they needed to have substantive impacts.

When we boil down the reasons behind those breakdowns, they usually distill to a failure to take a systems approach. In other words, leaders attempt to push on one or two levers of the school organization when what they really need to do is make numerous aspects of the system work together in concert. They try to achieve the rich harmonies of a cathedral organ by pushing on just a couple of keys and the end result is usually discordant.

One approach to address this systemic failure (pun intended!) is to do a premortem rather than a postmortem. Instead of breaking down all of the reasons why your efforts failed after the fact, why not try and identify why it will fail beforehand? I’ve used the premortem approach - along with the Bolman and Deal frameworks - to great effect with schools planning new technology initiatives. Educators that thoughtfully target possible failure points beforehand have greater chances of success.

Once potential failures are identified, then it’s time to utilize a comprehensive change model that helps you overdetermine success. This year my team is using the Influencer framework to guide our work. Our goal is to deliberately design for individual and organizational change in ways that almost guarantee that we will succeed. Every time someone working with us tries to move in a direction that leads away from success, something is in place that meets her where she is, heads her off, and gets her back on track. The Influencer framework uses principles of personal, social, and structural motivation and ability to influence change and has been quite useful to us. Comprehensive design up front is quite difficult but well worth our efforts.

Another suggestion is to choose fewer initiatives and focus on doing them well. Most educators are suffering from innovation fatigue. We bounce from initiative to initiative and, despite never doing any of them well, are quick to discard them and move on to something else. There seems to be a fundamental confusion between goals and strategies. Instead of focusing on several key outcomes and aligning everything we do to achieve them, we hop between tactics every few months or years. One of my team’s mantras this year is “fewer things, done well.”

Organizational change is difficult, complex work. If you haven’t read Influencer or The Knowing-Doing Gap, they’re both excellent resources for you. Good luck and stay in touch!

Response From Sally Zepeda

Sally Zepeda is a professor at the University of Georgia in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration, and Policy and a Fellow in the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in Education and Human Development. Sally serves as a professor-in-residence with the Clarke County School District (Athens, Ga.) and the Barrow County School District (Winder, Ga.) where she supports professional learning and teacher evaluation efforts. She can be reached at szepeda@uga.edu . Sally is the author of Professional Development--What Works (2012), 2nd edition:

No doubt, every fall teachers begin the year with something new to implement such as new standards, a new curriculum, a new series of strategies, etc. Indeed, schools are complex and that is why principals must actively support teachers as they grapple with what’s new while they hold onto the tried and true strategies that work and are within their comfort zones while at the same time, provide support for content, skills, and approaches that are new and more than likely out of their comfort zones. Like students, teachers are always in a state of learning. Principals need to think about what supports teachers need and to act on this knowledge.

During implementation, regardless of its content or structure--principals need to provide teachers with time and opportunity to work with one another; they need access to new information and technologies to help them do the new work of teaching. Principals that make professional learning a priority, give sufficient time and follow-up support for teachers to master new content and strategies and to integrate them into their practice. Teachers are the link to student learning and they need time to tinker with content, structures, and the methods needed to make implementation work. By creating the conditions where teachers can work and learn from one another, principals honor the voices and content expertise that teachers bring to the classroom as well as knowing their students better than any principal can. As teachers build relationships with their students, leaders must also strive to build relationships with their teachers as learners.

Principals can support the implementation of new practices by championing job-embedded learning, learning that occurs from the very work teachers do. This form of learning is important because it enhances reflection, promotes collegiality, combats isolation, makes learning more relevant to each teacher, increases transfer of newly-learned skills, supports the ongoing refinement of practice, and fosters conversations centered on improvement. Principals are in a position to support teachers’ one conversation at a time by hearing what teachers need as they engage in the constantly changing and evolving new work of teaching. The new work of teaching needs to inform the new work principals must do to support teachers throughout the implementation of what’s new.

However, job-embedded learning does not magically occur. Principals actively need to support teachers as they learn to learn from the very work they engage. What can principals do to support teachers to be leaders in their own learning? Here are few ideas to tinker with as you reflect on the context of your school, what’s new, and what needs to be done to support teachers as they learn from each other and from the results of what students are doing--learning.

Go beyond “sit and get” professional development by 1) finding time in the day for teachers to learn from one another, 2) supporting teachers by being a leader-learner, modeling what’s new--this positions the leader as an equal co-learner--moving away from being a passive observer in the teachers’ classroom monitoring for compliance. Modeling can be a powerful tool for leaders to show that teaching is about taking risks, learning from those risks, and then trying the strategy again, making tweaks along the way.

To take risks, teachers need to be in a fault-free environment where they can learn in the company of others to try new things and to reflect and to share with colleagues on what worked, what did not work as well and then engage in the big conversation--asking why or why not. Principals encourage teachers to think critically about what they are attempting to accomplish in the classroom.

To support teachers in the work they are doing, regardless of the results, classrooms must become learning zones for students. The places where teachers work outside of the classroom also must become learning zones. Think about the context in which teachers work outside of the classroom--data teams, grade-level meetings, subject-area meetings, committee work, and the list could continue including myriad configurations in which learning occurs throughout the day, before school, after school, during summers, on weekends, etc. These are the places where teachers learn from each other. The principal needs to make time for learning a priority. But don’t under-estimate the power of conversations--the spontaneous ones that occur in the parking lot, the hallway, the lunchroom, and even standing in front of the Xerox machine.

Effective principals know their people--their strengths and shortcomings--and the wise principal empowers teachers to learn from one another as they face unchartered territories (e.g., implementing the Common Core, etc.). Effective principals constantly scan the environment, purposefully looking for ways to support teachers. It’s impossible to be a learning leader if the principal is cloistered in the main office. The clarion call is for principals to become opportunistic in finding ways for teachers to work with one another tying all efforts back to learning--both for teachers and students.

Response From Tony Frontier

Tony Frontier is an assistant professor of doctoral leadership studies and director of teacher education at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisc., where he teaches courses in curriculum development, organizational learning, research methods, and statistics. He began his career in education in 1994 teaching at Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts in Milwaukee Public Schools. He is coauthor of Effective Supervision: Supporting the Art and Science of Teaching (ASCD, 2011). His new book, “Five Levers to Improve Student Learning,” is due from ASCD in January 2014:

When implementing change we need to consider the depth and complexity required to truly impact student learning. Is management of the status quo - rolling forward existing practices with some new dates and deadlines - the depth we seek? Or, are a new set of expectations going to be put in place that require a transactional shift in practice (new processes, new resources), but individuals can rely on the same skills that have been utilized in the past to successfully engage in that change? Or, are we working toward transformational change - entirely different ways of thinking about teaching and learning that will require new beliefs and behaviors than those that guided our efforts in the past? Too often, we seek transformational change but don’t invest the time and resources required to help staff re-conceptualize their work.

A classic case of this challenge is making the transition to standards-based report cards. If the change is perceived to be about new proficiency descriptors or new ways of calculating grades it may simply be viewed as a transactional change in processes. Unfortunately, some staff will implement the new report card, yet maintain the status quo by utilizing existing classroom practices (but calculating grades a bit differently than in the past). This disconnect results in frustration among administrators, staff, and students, alike.

Effective use of a standards-based reporting tool requires a transformational shift in how we think about the relationship among assessment, feedback, instruction, and grading. If our intent is transformation, then we need to be clear about the depth and complexity of the change and establish a plan that guides our collective work across all of those areas. A transformation of how instructional strategies are used to mindfully connect students to standards requires time, collegial dialogue, quality professional development, and frequent communication among administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

Thanks to Scott, Sally and Tony for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in the last post in this series.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be ending this year with Stenhouse.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

Also, Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Look for Part Three in a few days...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.