Implementation: it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Too often, new strategies are launched in schools with a big start-of-term fanfare before quickly fading away. Here, Jo Lamb poses five questions for leaders to ponder before they rush ahead with implementing the next ‘magic’ solution
19th October 2018, 12:00am
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Jo Lamb

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Implementation: it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/implementation-its-not-what-you-do-its-way-you-do-it

In the last week of the summer holidays, re-energised after a break and with the start of term looming large on the horizon, I turned my attention to the school improvement plan.

Although I certainly felt optimism about the year ahead, and things were moving in the right direction, I approached the task with a sense of frustration (I'm sure, as a school leader, I'm not alone in this): we were working hard, we had a committed and talented staff team, we had invested time and resources into high-quality CPD, and yet - in too many respects - we were still not where we wanted to be.

For example, some subjects were performing better than others and some groups of pupils were making less progress than expected. Often, despite our best efforts, new initiatives had lost momentum during the year and faded away. Or, in other cases, they had just not had the expected impact. Where were we going wrong?

Typically, this line of thinking will result in a rush to introduce a raft of new initiatives at the start of term in a desperate bid to find that holy grail: the strategy that will make the difference.

And so would begin another cycle, one in which, inevitably, our well-intentioned initiatives would fade away as we struggled to juggle our competing priorities.

This year, though, I tried to look at things differently. Of all the research I have engaged with in the past year, the "uncommon common sense" of Putting Evidence to Work: a school's guide to implementation, published by the Education Endowment Foundation, has resonated with me the most. Unlike the EEF's other guidance reports, which have tended to focus on the "what" of the evidence around specific areas of school practice (such as literacy, maths and metacognition), Putting Evidence to Work focuses on the "how" of implementation.

Implementation is something that we "do" constantly - arguably too much - in schools: we identify problems and then we introduce solutions to improve things and become more effective. Yet the process of implementation itself rarely receives much attention. The evidence points to the fact that highly effective schools give just as much attention to how they implement new approaches as they do to what they implement.

"Vision without execution is hallucination," said Thomas Edison. Or to put it more simply: it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it …

Using the evidence as a guide, then, I am asking myself these five key questions before implementing anything new this year.

1. Have we laid the right foundations?

As the old proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sadly, there are times in some schools when leadership is less effective, when the vision of school leaders is not necessarily shared by the team as a whole, and when in turn the vision is even less likely to be translated into shared practice. Culture and climate are key here. Do staff feel empowered to take on new approaches? Have we set aside enough time for training?

We have spent a lot more time this year thinking about how to create the right climate for effective implementation of new strategies. For example, when introducing new teaching and learning strategies, we identified a group of experienced teachers who could facilitate training sessions and support colleagues. This gave the strategy credibility with staff.

2. Are we treating implementation as a process or an event?

Rather embarrassingly, I can think of countless examples of new initiatives that I have been involved in launching over the years to much fanfare and excitement, but which have fizzled out after a few weeks or months. The key thing here is to see implementation as a stage in an effective cycle of school improvement, not as an event in itself.

Have we given enough time to the planning and preparation for implementation? Have we thought about implementing changes in a structured and staged manner? The EEF guidance identifies four stages to this process: explore, prepare, deliver and sustain. (It is worth noting that actually doing the new intervention or strategy doesn't start until halfway through this process.)

Crucially, it is just as important to make decisions about what we stop doing, as well as what new strategies we might introduce. Good implementation is often about doing fewer things better. This year, for example, we have reviewed our feedback policy and identified things that we will ask staff to stop doing, so that they can focus on the aspects of feedback that (based on the evidence) we believe will have the greatest impact.

3. What's the problem?

This may sound incredibly obvious, but in the busy and high-pressured life of schools, failing to step back and really think about this question is often the reason why we end up getting derailed in terms of improvement.

Bombarded daily with information about new interventions and support programmes, and under pressure to drive continuous improvement, it is all too easy to start with a solution and then go looking for a problem.

That new reading intervention programme that promises two years' improvement in only six weeks? Sounds great ... Except, does it really address the issue for our pupils? Have we taken the time to properly diagnose the gaps for those children? Do we know with absolute certainty, for example, whether phonics or reading comprehension is the issue? We could be looking at the wrong intervention entirely.

4. Will it work for us?

Having taken the time to diagnose and define the problem we want to solve, we need to consult the evidence. We need to remember here that even the most robust, large-scale studies will only tell us what has worked before in other contexts.

Last year, when we were thinking of introducing a new teaching strategy in our school focused on retrieval practice, we were concerned that the existing evidence came largely from trials with college students in the US, and we questioned whether the strategy would work with our younger secondary-age students.

We, therefore, set up a randomised controlled trial to test and evaluate the strategy in our own setting, before deciding whether to adopt the strategy at a whole-school level.

And while this level of research is certainly not possible every time you implement a new strategy, it is always important to examine the fit and feasibility for your own context before making an adoption decision.

5. How faithful do we need to be?

In terms of adopting new practices, the evidence points us to the need for "faithful adoption and intelligent adaptation" - where should we be "tight" with the intervention and when can we be "loose"? If a new maths intervention has previously been successful when it takes place for 20 minutes every day, we should probably be faithful to this schedule. We should certainly not be surprised when we introduce it for 30 minutes twice a week and it doesn't work. However, we may well need to make other sensible adaptations to the strategy for our pupils and our context.


Considering these questions certainly helps us to focus our thinking before putting pen to paper on an implementation plan. Ultimately, though, these questions may lead to further questions rather than answers. And, crucially, they may lead to a decision that now is not the right time to implement that new strategy.

For me, this is what has had the most impact on me as a leader: the realisation that deciding not to implement something - or to stop doing something that isn't working - is just as important a leadership decision as deciding to implement something new.

In reality, implementation - like all aspects of school life - is a messy process.


Jo Lamb is head of school at Bedlington Academy in Northumberland and director of research at Shotton Hall Research School

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