The new Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) guide to implementation makes sobering reading for those of us who have led change projects in schools. Its messages are clear and fly in the face of what is often expected by the DFE and school leaders. Implementation of any new practice requires a considerable build up, in order to create a school culture of trust and risk taking that is conducive to implementation, and in order to think through in detail the implementation proposal, both in terms of its content and its practicalities. Key to this is the notion that strict fidelity is not always possible, nor is it desirable. Teachers must make sense of the proposed change in the context of their own pupils and their own classrooms, so a ‘tight but loose’ approach is much more likely to achieve success
Once this ground work has been laid, school leaders should not simply assume that up front professional development will enable the change in practice to be adopted by all school staff: follow up coaching and mentoring will be required, for both individuals and teams, tailored to their needs and based on the implementation data school leaders are regularly gathering. Scaling up from an early small-scale implementation requires a completely new implementation plan. And in order for such implementation projects to be truly successful, school leaders should assume that two to four years will be needed.
Where the report is less helpful is in helping school leaders ensure that implementation is of the highest quality. Here, Hall’s paper on change processes is more helpful. His paper analyses the reasons why teachers do and don’t change their practice in line with leaders’ expectations. He identifies four types of responses to any proposed change in practice:
- The teacher makes no changes to their practice, as the new practice was already familiar and part of their usual teaching repertoire
- The teacher changes their practice in line with what was asked
- The teacher thinks they have made the desired change to their practice but when the school leader looks at it, the new practice is very far from what was desired
- The teacher deliberately does not make the desired change to their practice
Obviously responses 1 and 2 pose no problems at all for the school leader. With regards to response 3, Hall offers a specific tool that implementers can develop collaboratively with staff, called an Implementation Configuration. This simple grid describes different stages the teacher’s practice might go through in order to reach the desired practice. Here is an example from an Implementation Configuration developed with teachers around pupil self- and peer-assessment:
The grid enables teachers to fully understand what the desired new practice looks like, to self-assess and to make plans for their own progress. It can also support the work of middle and senior leaders who are coaching and mentoring colleagues to successfully implement the new practice.
And Viviane Robinson’s new book Reduce Change to Increase Improvement, a brilliant guide for school leaders wanting to successfully implement change, offers clear guidance to the school leader trying to tackle teacher response number 4. Leaders need to explore teachers’ ‘theory of action’: the beliefs that underpin their actions, and that have led them to resist implementation. It is only by recognising and acknowledging these beliefs, that leaders can begin to support teachers to change their practices and make a difference to pupils’ learning. Here, trust is key: teachers must trust leaders enough to feel they can be honest about their feelings, and leaders must be prepared to really listen to teachers’ concerns, and take them seriously. Here again then, a supportive school culture makes a big difference to successful implementation.