Below is a summary of my article in the February 2021 issue of Educational Leadership. Read the full article here.
Knowing the stages teachers tend to go through as they implement a new approach makes it easier to support them.
Those of us who support educators who are implementing innovations will provide much better support when we understand what the journey to proficient implementation really entails. What follows is a model for understanding stages of implementation and suggestions for principals and professional developers like coaches to consider as they support teachers moving from one stage to the next.
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The Stages of Implementation
A clearer understanding of these stages of implementation, especially what hinders and helps people as they move from one stage to the next, should lead to better professional development—leading to better teaching practice and, consequently, better learning and lives for students.
Non-Use – When people are not carrying out an innovation because they’re either unable or unwilling to implement it.
Awareness – When people know something about an innovation, are not resistant, but also aren’t implementing it.
Mechanical – When people start to implement an innovation, but often feel awkward carrying it out because they have to remember a lot of new information in order to change what they’re doing.
Routine – When people start to become comfortable with aspects of the new strategy or skill they are learning.
Proficient – When people have developed a deep understanding of the knowledge or skills they are learning and a deep understanding of how they can and should modify an innovation to provide personalized support.
Supporting Movement from One Stage to the Next
Naturally, those working to support teachers in improving their practice or in trying a key innovation want to help teachers move to more sophisticated stages of using that innovation. Here are some approaches leaders and professional developers can try to make this happen.
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Moving Beyond Resistance
In reality, resistance is more often produced by a system or change agents’ approach to change than it is by a resistant individual’s personal characteristics. If a large number of people are resisting within a system, the people probably aren’t the problem. Movement forward in an organization, like movement forward for a person, is messy and nonlinear. The coherence that results from empowering, meaningful conversations with teachers in schools takes time.
Getting to Proof
One reason people resist moving through the stages of implementation is that they aren’t convinced that a proposed change will be worth the effort. No matter how big an “effect size” research shows for the innovation, people usually aren’t convinced it will work until they see it make a difference for their students. This creates a catch-22: People don’t like to implement a new strategy unless they have seen it be effective, but they can’t experience its effectiveness unless they try it.
“The best way to get teachers to implement an innovation and become proficient with it is to turn the focus away from the innovation and toward students.”
When educators see that a new strategy is making a difference in students’ lives, they’re much more likely to keep using that strategy.
Overcoming Fear and Perfectionism
Professional developers can make it easier for people to step out of their comfort zones and move beyond perfectionism by providing sustained, meaningful support for professional learning. This often involves:
- clear explanations
- demonstration (in person, through video, or by visiting another teacher’s class)
- ongoing conversations about how innovations or implementation can be modified to meet individual students’ needs
Onward to Action
Talking about change can feel like something is actually happening, even though, as the Chinese proverb says, “Talk doesn’t cook rice.” But the only way professional development can have a positive effect on students’ learning and well-being is if that new knowledge is translated into action.