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Saturday / October 1

Bridging the Implementation Gap: From Inklings to Ideas to (Godzilla-like) Impact

There’s a sobering game I’d like you to play. Think back to the start of the academic year and see if you can remember all the new initiatives and programs that you (and your school) signed up for. Maybe take a moment to write them down.

How many of them are still going strong? And what evidence do you have that the ones that made it through, that are still being implemented, are having deep, real, and profound impact on the learning lives of your students?

If your answers to these sobering questions are, “They are ALL still going strong” and “We’ve got TONS of evidence of deep impact,” you don’t need to read on. You’ve cracked the magic recipe for consistently turning goals into initiatives into (Godzilla-like) impact. But you are in a minority, and I really want to know your secret sauce!

More commonly, the answer to these two questions is sheepish and furtive. After the launch event for the new “X-program,” the commemorative T-shirt gets put in the bottom drawer and fades away. Or the initiative gets implemented but no one is sure whether there was, indeed, impact.

If this sounds depressing, here is some good news. We have access to more research on effective education interventions, programs, and initiatives than at any time in human history, with 1.5 million+ articles and books on what to teach, how to teach, how to test, how to run schools, and how to motivate teachers. Some of these shiny suggestions really do shine and have very strong evidence of impact. Take a look at the Visible Learning MetaX for all the runners and riders.

And now to the bad news. Despite this growing body of stupendously brilliant research, student performance on international comparative assessments has hardly budged since the 1970s. Like the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass, we seem to be running really fast just to stand still.

So, we need implementation processes that actually work

To get to the bottom of this conundrum of evidence NOT leading to impact, I’ve been working with Dr. Douglas Reeves, Dr. Janet Clinton, and Dr. John Hattie on a research project to develop implementation protocols that actually work. We are consistently finding that good intentions fall at one (or more) of the 6 Hurdles of the Implementation Apocalypse:

  1. NOT responding to the highest priority local needs
  2. NOT addressing the root causes of the need
  3. NOT adapting the activities/interventions sufficiently to fit the local context and root causes
  4. NOT converting implementation intentions into action
  5. NOT evaluating
  6. NOT using evaluative data for iterative improvement

Think about the most important initiatives in your school right now. Have you successfully navigated ALL 6?

If you drop the ball at any one of these hurdles—even if you have attended closely to the other 5—there will NOT be impact. To put this another way, you need to do all or do none. Miss that one, then forgo the launch event, cancel the T-shirt printing, stay at home, do not pass Go.

To help you consistently attend to ALL 6, Doug, Janet, John, and I have been busy reviewing and distilling the global research on effective implementation. We’ve analyzed 50 different implementation frameworks spanning education, healthcare, software development, construction, and international development. We also trawled the available systematic reviews and meta-analysis about which implementation features are most critical, which is where those 6 hurdles of the implementation apocalypse originally came from.

We then worked these learnings into Building to Impact: The 5D Implementation Playbook for Educators, to give you an A to Z process framework that you can consistently follow to generate impact. Our 5Ds for impact are:

D1: Discover i.e., agreeing with the Goldilocks education challenge

D2: Design i.e., identifying high-probability actions that fit your local context

D3: Deliver i.e., implementing the designs

D4: Double-Back i.e., checking that there was impact

D5: Double-Up i.e., using the evaluative data to iterate and grow the impact.

The Surgeon General Health Warnings

However, I need to fess-up that we get 2 common reactions when we unpack the 5Ds of Building to Impact:

Reaction 1: It’s common sense.

Then, after stakeholders look at what’s under the hood within each of the 5Ds and the 18 required sub-processes (and aligned cross-checking protocols), they change their mind.

Reaction 2: It’s too hard. We can’t possibly attend to all these processes AND do our day-jobs!

Both reactions are bang on. Yes, it is TOTALLY common sense, or rather the systematic and rigorous application of said common sense. It’s also really, deeply, profoundly challenging to stick to it. But if you don’t, if you drop the ball at any of those 6 hurdles, there will be no impact. You really have to do all of it, although there is some discretion in how long you spend on each step and the processes you use to gather and interpret data, depending on whether you are working at system, whole-school, or classroom-level.

But the thing that still seems to get in the way is the knowing-doing gap, i.e., “I know I should be doing this meticulously, but I only have the bandwidth to work intuitively and go on a hunch-based walk.” That’s why we make the case that there is also, perhaps, a missing role in schools and school systems: The Implementation Specialist.

This person is a cross between a strategy consultant, project manager, and evaluator. They have been trained to deeply implement and follow the 5D steps! We already have data specialists, literacy specialists, policy specialists—so why not implementation specialists? Think about it.

In the meantime, whilst you’re thinking, we’ve produced a detailed book of tools that you can use in the here and now. I would say “I hope you like it,” but I know the required rigor may drive you nuts, at least until it becomes automatic and effortless. Then I think you’ll like it a lot.

Either way, I really hope you use it to unlock that necessary (Godzilla-like) impact!

Written by

Dr. Arran Hamilton is Group Education Director at the New Zealand Headquartered Cognition Education Group and co-author of Building to Impact (Corwin) and The Lean Education Manifesto (Routledge).

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