What if we are thinking about implementation in the wrong way?


Education researchers spend a lot of time worrying about implementation issues. In an ideal world, a promising approach would first be tested by its developers. It would then be tested on a relatively small scale by researchers who are independent of the developers before being rolled out for a much larger test ‘at scale’. Many promising approaches stumble along this path.

Indeed, on Twitter, Dylan Wiliam has been pointing to the fact that Reading Recovery has seemingly passed through all of these stages and has challenged advocates of systematic synthetic phonics to point to a programme they prefer that has done the same.

However, I can’t help wondering if we are thinking about implementation in the wrong way. We may be viewing it as the purely technical exercise of getting teachers to do and say certain things and neglecting the values and beliefs of those teachers. Nobody operates in an ideological vacuum and there are as many ways to subvert, consciously or otherwise, the intentions of the developers as there are teachers and classrooms.

In the diagram above, I have tried to summarise the technical and ideological problems of implementation as two axes, giving us four quadrants. The technical axis is based upon just how contained the intervention is, with the idea that smaller, more neatly packaged ‘interventions’ are technically easier to implement than wholesale changes to teaching practice.

In the top right quadrant there are discrete, packaged interventions that align with the dominant ideology. These are essentially the kinds of things that the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation spends most of its time testing.

In the bottom right quadrant are packaged interventions that do not ideologically align. The current Education for Learning appraisal of MiniLit, a phonics-based intervention for struggling readers, might fit in here. It will be interesting to see how the ideology gap affected this study when the results are published.

The top left quadrant represents entire approaches to teaching and learning that align with the dominant ideology. Wiliam’s own work on formative assessment might fit here. Formative assessment takes no ideological stance at all, fitting equally well with competing philosophies. However, it does require a wholesale change to teaching practice. It is interesting that one strategy Wiliam has developed to aid implementation is to ask teachers to focus on implementing only one technique at a time, shifting it more towards a packaged intervention.

In the bottom left corner sits the kinds of approaches that I promote on this blog such as using systematic synthetic phonics for initial reading instruction, explicit teaching in general and the adoption of a knowledge rich curriculum. These are clearly going to be the hardest of all to implement.

So what to do?

There are whole schools out there using these approaches, usually facilitated by school autonomy. I hope that, with time, these examples will prove successful and will leak out into the wider system as teachers move jobs and schools look for new ways to improve.

I also think MiniLit and formative assessment are instructive. Perhaps proponents need to package some of their wholesale approaches into smaller units. That way, schools can adopt them as an ‘intervention’ and they can be tested by bodies such as the Education Endowment Foundation.

If you find this last suggestion distasteful, I would make two points. Firstly, more students will be exposed to these approaches, even if they are a little compromised. Secondly, this will happen whether proponents do the job or not. We have an example of this with the Education Endowment Foundation’s entirely useless trial of Core Knowledge; a trial that could never have worked.

Part of the reason for the failure of this trial is that Core Knowledge is opposed to the dominant ideology. What can be done about this?

I think there are several ways to approach conflicting ideologies. Firstly, we must be out there, explaining the ideas. That way, an alternative narrative is available to that of the education establishment. It is not about somehow converting dug-in advocates of whole language or problem based learning, it is about providing options for those who are less ideologically committed.

Secondly, teachers want to do a good job. If they try something and find it produces results, I think that for most teachers, this will trump ideological commitments. The trick is getting them to try it without subverting it and for long enough to start seeing the results. That’s why discrete, packaged, well-defined interventions might be a key part of the solution.

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12 thoughts on “What if we are thinking about implementation in the wrong way?

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    Great post. The only thing I’d add is that teacher-led initiatives have a huge advantage in terms of ecological validity. I expect that ten years from now, Katherine Birbalsingh will have had a greater impact than anything that’s ever been hatched by an education professor.

    • Great point, Tom, and something I think Greg has argued before. The number of teachers I’ve listened to at research-Ed conferences talking about how much they’ve been influenced by what is happening at Michaela has been truly inspiring.

  2. This is a great post but I’m actually not sure about your last para…and this is where so many of the problems originate. My own experience would suggest that, partly due to long and well-founded cynicism in the face of various “interventions” which are actually no more than fads, teachers are often inclined to dismiss even potentially useful interventions as just more fads. And in this case they will implement them in a very half-hearted and jaundiced way.

    I suppose in the end this comes down to sound judgement on the part of senior exec, in terms of which whole-school interventions they are prepared to put their weight behind.

    • Yes. Many schools implement a new initiative every year or often even more frequently. This is related to senior staff having to demonstrate that they have done something. Under these circumstances, jaundice is understandable.

      • Ahhh yes…the good old “something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it” syllogism. Beloved of 90% of deputy principals (not through any fault of their own, really).

  3. Luqman Michel says:

    Greg, you said “Secondly, teachers want to do a good job. If they try something and find it produces results….”

    I am not a trained teacher but I was intrigued as to why kids who were able to read in Malay could not read in English.

    I then decided to do research on why smart kids who could speak well in English could not read in English. I have since 2004 taught more than 60 such kids on a one on one basis. I observed them and interviewed them during and after they had left my tuition.

    I find that all of them had shut down from learning to read because they had been taught phonics wrongly by schools here. I then realised that this is the way it is being taught in many schools around the world.

    If an educator is willing to find out if what I am saying is true all he has to do is to ask kids, who cannot read after a year in school, the sounds of consonants. If an extraneous sound is added to the consonants you can be assured that the cause of not being able to read in not phonics but the wrong way it has been taught.

    These kids, having learned the sound of letter ‘F’ as ‘Fer’ shut down when taught to read words such as ‘fox’ as to them the word should be sounded as ‘Fer-ox’.

    You cannot teach them that the letter ‘N’ is ‘na’ and expect them to read the word ‘not’ which to them should be read as ‘na-ot’.

    The above is what I learned from my former students.

    Fortunately,a majority of kids learn to read regardless of the way they are taught.

    If sounds of alphabets are taught according to the following video clip then I bet kids requiring remediation will reduce drastically.

    http://tcrw.co.uk/materials-teaching-children-read-write/step-1/part-1-introduction-of-18-letter-sounds/

    Compare the above with the clip being viewed in more than 100 countries I had mentioned in yesterdays post.

  4. I’m sure you are absolutely right when you underscore how important values and beliefs are to teachers. If teachers are asked to implement a particular teaching methodology, they must be given a rationale for what it is they are being asked to do and why they are to do it. If they are not given convincing reasons, they are likely to ditch the latest whatever-it-is and have a go at the next thing the tide brings in.
    This why teachers need to understand that, at bottom, the way the teaching of reading and writing to young children is really very simple. There are forty-four or so sounds in English and then there are the ways in which we spell those sounds. The sounds children learn naturally; the spelling system has to be taught. And, it is the latter that causes so much confusion. If reading, which is really how the spelling system maps to the sounds of the language, is taught in the context of real words from the start and it is taught from simple (CVC words) to more complex (longer polysyllabic words) over a period of, say, three years, there is no reason why every child can’t learn to read and to write. These are precisely the ideas we need to be patiently promoting.

    • Luqman Michel says:

      A majority of children will learn to read, as shown by History, whether they are taught using the phonics method or whole language method.

      During both periods (whole language and phonics) many kids still left school as illiterates. This is what we should be ‘researching’.

      “…The sounds children learn naturally…” How does a child learn sounds of letters naturally if he is being taught sounds of alphabets wrongly as follows – ‘cuh oh tuh’ for coat, ‘na oh tuh’ for not and ‘Muh ah nuh’ for man?
      I have many examples of the way letter sounds are wrongly taught around the world in my blog posts.

      • I think you have misunderstood what I was saying, Michel, or perhaps, more likely, I should have been clearer. When I say that children learn the sounds of their own language naturally, I mean they learn to speak and listen naturally: i.e. they don’t need to go to school to learn how to speak. What they don’t learn is how the writing system relates to the sounds in speech and, of course, this needs to be taught explicitly and systematically and from simple to more complex.
        We certainly don’t don’t disagree about teaching teachers to say sounds precisely when they’re teaching. If young children (four years old in UK) are taught to say sounds accurately and without the added /uh/, they don’t do it and even look mildly surprised if someone arrives in class adding the extra /uh/.

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