The Zone of Practicality

The Zone

A common lament amongst administrators sitting in district and building offices is the reluctance on the part of their teaching staff to adopt new instructional methodologies. While in future blogs I will discuss the human and institutional problems embedded within any announced change to organizational and instructional routines, there are five questions that are rarely asked in administrative offices, but, whose answers will determine the success or failure of new mandate, program, model of teaching, or organizational arrangement.

The questions listed in the chart below identifies the five critical elements of commitment: importance, clarity, purpose, understanding, and practicality. Each element assumes a position in what I term the house of cards of school reform initiatives—pulling one card out reform house collapses the entire structure. Teachers’ familiarity with a program matters little if they see little worth in the program. Teachers’ enthusiasm for a new teaching methodology matters little if they lack the appropriate background knowledge in the subject. Teachers’ frustration with a schoolwide problem matters little if the district lacks the resources to fully implement an agree upon solution to the problem.

Important?Do teachers believe that this is a worthwhile problem or strategy to pursue?  
Concrete?Are the adopted strategies composed of theories and practices that employ familiar vocabulary, concepts, and practices?  
Coherent?Do the adopted strategies align with and leverage our school’s instructional worldview?  
Teachable?Do teachers possess the prior background knowledge to understand and practice the new strategy?  
Feasible?Does the district/school possess the organizational resources—time, materials, space, and expertise—to train teachers and accommodate diverse instructional design features?  

Work Arounds

I know what practicing school administrators are saying at this point in the blog: “Based on this chart, there is no new program I could implement in my building.” For most schools in this nation, this honest response mirrors the physical, social, intellectual, and fiscal realities school administrators work with in the schools they lead. These realities also account for why most organizational and instructional innovations fail to significantly change how schools are organized and how teachers teach.

Before giving up on implementing a change initiative, let’s return to the chart above. The components listed in the chart above include all of the beliefs, values, aptitudes and resources necessary to fully implement a school change initiative. No school has all of these components in place when adopting a new program, mandate, teaching model, or organizational structure. At the same time, every school, possesses the ability and capacity to “work around or with” each element in ways that both address the spirit and reality of that element in action. What follows are four “work arounds” that mold the elements of implementation into the forms and functions of real-world schooling.

A caution to administrators reading the list below. No new program, or mandate, or instructional method should marginalize or abandon a change initiative that is already producing promised outcomes.

Pilot Programs

As already mentioned few schools possess the physical, social, intellectual, or fiscal elements for successfully implementing a school reform initiative. Most schools, however, have pieces of each element in place. These pieces are not robust enough to support a full-scale implementation of a reform proposal, but, may support a scaled down version of the proposed change initiative. A pilot program not only provides the opportunity to observe, analyze, and adjust the application of theories, ideas, and practices to the local circumstances of a school, but, overtime provide avenues for these theories, ideas, and practices to seep into established organizational and instructional routines.

Assembling Resources

There are two processes that are critical to the successful implementation of a school reform initiative: first, gathering the necessary resources; second, assembling those resources into operating systems. Schools often make the mistake of assembling systems before gathering adequate resources. The source of most school reform failures is rushing into the assembling of systems without adequate resources to support the moving parts of the system. If a main office finds itself checking off “no” on one or more of the components listed in the chart above, they then need to hit the pause button on the implementation process until they have shifted the “no” to a “yes.” To use the fine wine metaphor: “sell no program before its time.”

Study Group

The two elements in the zone that are common stumbling blocks to the full implementation of a change initiative are “importance” and “teachability.” For a change initiative to gain traction in classrooms, teachers must view the initiative as worthwhile and must feel they possess adequate background knowledge to integrate new theories, concepts, and practices into daily teaching routines. To enlarge the zone of practicality in these two areas, main offices should design various learning venues that provide teachers with the opportunity to study, to observe, to discuss, and to practice new instructional models. The goal of these learning venues is developing a critical mass of teachers who believe in the importance and teachability of a new pedagogy. These learning venues should be divorced from the implementation process. They should be strictly designed to convince teachers of the worth and teachability of novel approaches to teaching and learning.

A Consultant

Whenever teachers take a leap of faith on a new instructional model they look for some guarantee that they will land safely. That safe landing spot is best occupied by a third party who has the temperament for holding teachers’ hands through a difficult personal experience of discarding comfortable instructional practices and adopting uncomfortable instructional practices.

The Principal

The component not listed in the zone of practicality is the role school leaders play in program implementation. This omission exposes how most main offices view the implementation of a new change initiative: we announce it; you implement it. Assuming the role of passive observer of programs announced from auditorium stages fails to send the sense of urgency and commitment teachers need to feel when leaving darkened auditoriums. That sense of urgency and commitment can only be instilled when school leaders, particularly the Principal, becomes an active participant in the implementation process.

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