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Professional Development Opinion

Response: New Education Ideas Must Not Be ‘Just for the Sake of Change’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 28, 2017 17 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can we close the gap between new Ideas & implementation?

In Part One, Cathy Beck, Dr. Heidi Pace, Dan Rothstein, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Jaime Aquino and Jeff Bradbury provided their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Cathy, Dan and Kathleen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s guests are Linda Denstaedt, Elise Foster, Alyssa Gallagher, Vicky Giouroukakis, Maureen Connolly, Kirke Olson, and Nancy Sulla.

Response From Linda Denstaedt

Linda Denstaedt is a literacies consultant, co-author of Doing and Making Authentic Literacies with Laura Jane Roop and Stephen Best, and co-director of the Oakland (MI) Writing Project. She works alongside teachers and students in high needs schools as they engage in change. She also serves on the National Writing Project’s College-Ready Writers Program Leadership Team collaboratively designing and implementing argument writing in rural schools:

New ideas, even engaging ones, stall during the implementation process. So there will always be gaps. Focusing on closing gaps frames the conversation as a problem, but gaps are also opportunities to explore. New ideas activate change in the ways we see, listen, think, feel, and act. The “gap” is really an essential moment in the ordinary and authentic process of learning for both teachers and students.

Three suggestions:

Make It a Journey

Essential elements in new ideas are often presented to teachers in lists or t-charts. Either approach represents implementation as a “do-this” or “go-from-that-to-this” which unintentionally reduces the complexity and relationships between the elements. More often change occurs in cycles or across time in continuums that portray essential elements in small steps generally forward with room for moments to pause, digress, reflect, and refocus. All of this takes time and an ever-emerging road map with clear destinations but possibly multiple entrances and routes.

Try This: Become a student of yourself and your students. Commit to 3-5 years of study, action, and reflection. Accept approximations from yourself and your students as you move forward. Make and learn from mistakes and missteps. Don’t shy away from complexity or multiple solutions.

Do It

Implementation, generally, calls teachers to move beyond acquisition of content and toward identifying authentic disciplinary literacies as a practitioner. Doing and making something that becomes public produces ripples that change the ways teachers and students think about themselves. Makers adopt the role of expert to make sense of, apply, and transfer knowledge. Whether teachers step deeper into applying literacies or work at the edge of the discipline, doing and making shifts the work to imagination and innovation.

Try This: Do whatever you are asking students to do. Try on the thinking and tasks that new ideas call you to implement. Reflect on ways you engage with new learning. What types of expertise do you bring to new ways of acting? How do they stretch you? Stretch toward authentic experiences: do and make products or performances, use the tools and strategies, take up the language and practices. If you are teaching students to write arguments, study writing decisions of OpEd writers, identify a local issue, and join the conversation by writing for a local paper. Invite students into the same thinking and writing.

Don’t Go It Alone

Change requires deliberate transformation of what we know and ways we know and make meaning. Partners may be the best way to consciously build a series of bridges toward transformation. Collaboration may be the most effective change agent. Actually, co-anything. Becoming a co-learner and thinking partner makes learning public and visible. Hearing yourself speak as well as listening to a partner’s sometimes murky sense-making pushes for continuous reflection and revision.

Try This: Find a partner or create a team. Commit to cycles of conversation around any of the following: a book, student work, planning, and classroom observation. Join a network--online or local. Identify community-based problems and partners for problem-driven implementation.

Response From Elise Foster & Alyssa Gallagher

Elise Foster is a speaker, leadership and executive coach, and a co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools.

Alyssa Gallagher, a public school leader and the educational partner for The Wiseman Group:

Before we can suggest how to close the idea gap, it’s important to wonder: Why might there be a gap that needs to be closed? An idea-implementation gap often is rooted in the decision--making process.

Despite educational leaders desire to create an inclusive community with empowered teachers invested in the decision making process, it’s not uncommon for principals to act as rapid responders, making critical decisions without providing the time or structure to allow for debate. These decisions are often made with the best of intention, however, because they are made with a small few, it leaves the rest of the staff unprepared to implement and feeling alienated. Would be supporters of the decision often feel confused and active dissenters are driven underground. What leaders often don’t realize is that by withholding the opportunity to weigh-in on issues collectively, they not only spend valuable time selling the idea, seeking buy-in, but also don’t realize that the debate still happens and they just didn’t get invited.

You’ve seen it - in the hallway, lunchroom or parking lot after-hours creating a communication nightmare. There must be a better way to communicate throughout the decision making process.

What if leaders were able to more effectively leverage resources around them and utilize the intelligence of their entire staff prior to making important decisions? What if these leaders not only used all the brains that they have, but also all that they can borrow? A tenet of leadership, aptly stated by Woodrow Wilson.

How might you borrow the brains inside your building, especially considering how common it is for principals to be on the receiving end of a decision that has been made at the district level? One strategy might be to take a page from your middle school debate class - “3 Asks.”

The next time you’re feeling pressure to implement the latest educational mandate, perhaps you

Ask the question - how might we make this work in our building?

Ask for evidence - what facts or information do they have to support their position?

Ask everyone - who needs to weigh-in? Be sure to include teachers, custodians, students... any voices impacted.

By leading with questions, the collective “brain” of the community is engaged, before the decision is made, allowing the focus to shift from behind the scenes debate (“why are we doing this and what’s my role?”) to upfront intellectual weigh-in, which results in an organization that not only understands the decision, but one that is well-positioned to implement swiftly and effectively.

This simple reversal allows leaders to spend time and energy engaging the community pre-decision. By letting people weigh-in, they will often give you their buy-in because they have had the opportunity to think through the issues and are now ready to more fully support the decision that has been made.

Response From Vicky Giouroukakis & Maureen Connolly

Vicky Giouroukakis and Maureen Connolly are co-authors of Achieving Next Generation Literacy: Using the Tests (You Think) You Hate to Help the Students You Love (ASCD). Giouroukakis is a professor in the Division of Education at Molloy College, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in literacy, English education, and TESOL. Connolly teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in secondary education for the School of Education at The College of New Jersey and is a consultant for CBK Associates:

There’s a car commercial that asks Why make something new? Why not make something better? This question gets to the heart of the question of closing the gap between new ideas and implementation. The first thing that we need to do is assure that these new ideas are not just for the sake of change, but for the betterment of our schools. Believe it or not, even some of the decisions around testing have been made with improvement in mind. According to College Board (2014a, p. 14),

We firmly believe that rates of college and career readiness and postsecondary success will not improve if teachers and students are distracted by the need to speed through impossibly broad course content and spend time on narrowly cast test preparation in an understandable but misguided effort to boost scores at the expense of mastery of critical knowledge, skills, and understandings.

As teachers, we know that what is most important in education is the development of “critical knowledge, skills, and understandings.” We need to keep the focus of education on what we know is best, even when changes in student and teacher evaluations make some of us feel pressured to turn to test preparation.

We believe that the Capacities of the Literate Individual (CLI) are a strong description of the skills that we want our students to have in terms of literacy.

  1. Demonstrate independence
  2. Build strong content knowledge
  3. Respond to varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline by
  4. Comprehend as well as critique
  5. Value evidence
  6. Use technology strategically and capably
  7. Come to understand other perspectives and cultures

Teachers can design instruction that addresses new kinds of testing and aligns with the CLI by using the Backward Design model of considering Desired Results, Evidence, and Instruction. Backward design is a curricular design approach developed by Wiggins & McTighe (1998) that puts outcomes, otherwise known as the lesson goals, at the forefront, then has the teacher work “backward” to plan the learning experiences that will help students achieve these goals.

Desired Results could be Capacity 4, Comprehend as well as critique and Capacity 5, Value evidence.

The Evidence of students’ development towards these Desired Results could be measured by the new SAT:

As you read the passage below, consider how Dana Gioia [the author] uses

  • Evidence such as facts or examples to support claims.
  • Reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • Stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

Source: College Board, 2015

For Instruction, students could engage in a carousel analysis. Post various excerpts of an essay at the center of large poster papers. Students rotate from poster to poster underlining important evidence used by the author and annotating the work. As they move to other posters, they can comment on one another’s annotations.

Another option is to set up literature circles. Each student takes on a different role. To deepen students’ ability to analyze use of evidence, roles might include Evidence Evaluator, Reasoning Reactor, Style Surveyor, and Pathos Purveyor (see full description on page 94 of “Achieving Next Generation Literacy” by Connolly & Giouroukakis, 2016).

When we keep our focus on Desired Results that we believe in, we can appreciate changes that come our way and think through how best to guide our students toward success.

Response From Kirke Olson

Kirke H. Olson, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist, has devoted a career of nearly 40 years to helping teachers at pre-K through graduate levels apply research on human relationships, neuroscience, and mindfulness to educate even the most complex students. He writes a regular column for the GAINS (Global Association for Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies) journal and lives with his wife in rural New Hampshire. He is the author of The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience & Mindfulness in School. Watch Dr. Olson talk about using mindfulness in the classroom at Parker Academy here:

To begin to close the gap between new ideas and implementation we must ask, which new idea and which school? Narrowing the idea-to-implementation gap begins by narrowing one’s focus to a specific idea, based equally on its proven effectiveness and its support from the stakeholders that will be implementing it. There is an immense amount of research from psychology and the business world that makes it clear that the people who will be implementing an idea must be involved from the outset, for example Self Determination Theory and Servant Leadership, to name only two. When people are able to choose the new idea to implement they are more likely to have an emotional connection to it. If the new idea is imposed on them it is unlikely they will feel the emotional connection necessary persevere (Daniel Siegel’s “The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are” (2nd ed.), 2012, New York: Guilford Press.). In a school it is unrealistic to expect unanimity of agreement, but if there is a majority of people who are emotionally connected even enthusiastic about the new idea, then they will bring the others along.

Once the stakeholders have narrowed their focus to a specific idea that fits the local conditions, and once most have an intellectual and emotional connection with the idea, the challenging and fulfilling implementation work begins. There are various names for this process from the business world, for example “Kaizen,” the practice of continuous improvement , which involves a series of small steps that gradually close the gap between idea and implementation. Kaizen involves a continuous cycle of implementation, assessment of the implementation, making adjustments based on the assessment, and then trying again. Teachers may recognize the parallel between the practice of Kaizen and that of teaching informed by formative assessment (teach the lesson, assess student learning with a quiz, homework or a small project, adapt the teaching based on the formative testing results, and then repeat.) The Professional Learning Community is one vehicle for the journey from idea to successful implementation which follows the recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research, as in Kaizen.

Finally, the key to the long-term commitment needed to close the gap between new ideas and implementation involves the commitment of the people who will be doing the work: the faculty and staff. The gap between idea and implementation disappears when everyone is working together on an idea they had a voice in choosing.

Response From Nancy Sulla

Dr. Nancy Sulla is the Founder and President of IDE Corp. -- Innovative Designs for Education -- an educational consulting firm focusing on instructional innovation. She is the creator of the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom, taking a systems approach to creating student-centered, problem-based classrooms. Dr. Sulla is also the author of two books: It’s Not What You Teach But How: Making the CCSS Work for You and Students Taking Charge: Inside the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom:

In schools, ideas to be implemented are not typically developed by those expected to implement them. When people develop their own ideas they are more likely to implement them.

There often exists in schools a disconnect between those who conceive of ideas and those who are expected to implement them. This disconnect can result in a lack of motivation on the part of the implementers. Absent of a level of ownership, school leaders must first inspire change, then support, reflect, and celebrate in order to see the new idea to full implementation.

Focus on the Why Over What

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

You can’t mandate innovation. You must inspire people to envision a new reality and long for that change. Often leaders who promote ideas do so because they have a strong sense of why those ideas will be beneficial; however, they tend to emphasize the “what” when presenting the idea to those they lead. Inspiration for innovation must begin with the “why,” not merely as a rationale explanation, but to elicit an emotional connection.

Begin With the Willing and Able

If you’ve ever waded in the ocean you may have noticed that small schools of fish can change direction in an instant. Ian Jukes uses the metaphor of committed sardines to stress the importance of leading innovation with a small, committed group of individuals. Find those who are most passionate about the innovation and most capable of implementation at the onset. Some people are better suited to risk-taking and innovation; engage them first. Others, who may be more risk averse may prove to be powerful forces in institutionalizing change once they become comfortable by seeing the success of others.

Supporting Teachers Through Three Phases of Innovative Practice

Innovation requires a personal shift in paradigms. This level of intimate change takes time and brings with it phases. The first is “dynamic disequilibrium.” One day everything is working beautifully; the next you’re questioning why you ever pursued this idea. Because human beings seek balance, they quickly attempt to make sense of the chaos and enter a phase of “contrived equilibrium.” In this phase, they adopt practices that make sense to them, believing they’ve “got it,” when, in fact, they may have fallen short of the goal of the innovation. A savvy leader builds a risk-free environment in which people share successes and failures, possibilities and challenges. Such an environment will nurture the move to the third phase of being “reflective practitioners,” where they continually challenge their practice and push to higher levels.

Celebrate: Not Too Early; Not Too Late

It’s important to celebrate successes at first only as stepping stones, not as destinations, in order to move teachers through contrived equilibrium. Feedback should be specific and detailed, avoiding personal judgments. Instead of “you’re great,” consider “I like the way you ....” Change is hard and teachers will have second-thought moments and plateaus. Don’t be disappointed; continue to support them through the lows. Keep the celebration going to maintain momentum. Offer teachers opportunities to present at conferences and share ideas at faculty meetings, tweet photos, create videos to capture the power of the innovation. As other new ideas emerge, be careful not to appear to change directions but instead think strategically and build a system of interdependent innovations.

Thanks to Linda, Elise, Alyssa, Vicky, Maureen, Kirke and Nancy for their contributions!

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