Want Change? Change the Way you Initiate Change! Thoughts on Inquiry-based Implementation

Tim Kubik, Ph.D.

If you’re a professional educator you know the summer is a time of great hopes for the school year to come. Educators are scrambling to conferences, workshops, and on-line learning opportunities in hopes of improving, or even transforming their teaching. It’s a lot of work, but when August draws near (and yes, that’s only 6 weeks away), they’ll be returning from those learning opportunities to confront the reality they hope to transform.

If that happens to you, you may find yourself—like David Byrne in the classic Talking Heads song—asking: “Well, how do I work this?”

You heard a great idea at a conference or a workshop and you want to bring it back to your school. How, exactly, will you do that? Maybe you hire a consultant to come and train you and your staff. It’s a tried and true strategy, in that it’s been tried over and over again, and it’s true that it rarely works. You’ve been burned by drive-by PD before though, and so you resolve to get smart and sign on for a full implementation plan. There are a lot of meetings. These lead to more meetings. Then, when the budget’s run out you may find yourself asking, “Well, how did I get here?”

Sadly, this happens more than “Once in a Lifetime” for most teachers and teacher leaders. It happens over, and over, and over again, and it leads to what we all know as “initiative fatigue.”

As I look at my summer calendar this year, I’m actually pleased that it’s somewhat empty. Over the past year, I didn’t just help schools begin to “flip” classroom practices; I began to flip my consulting practice as well. I did it with the help of my Project ARC thought partners Dayna Laur (@daylynn) and Jill Ackers Clayton (@ibpbljill), and with school partners Zac Chase (@MrChase) and Jennifer Peyrot (@jenpeyrot) at St. Vrain Valley Schools, plus Debbie Elder at the Albuquerque Public Schools Office of Innovation. Most importantly, I did it by encouraging educators to truly engage the question we all start with:

“Well, how do I work this?”

Too often these days we see that question as a “buy in” problem. Instead of introducing educators to a new idea and seeing what they make of it, we decide an initiative is a good idea. Taking action, we proceed to plan how we’ll onboard members of our staff. Yet like traditional teachers, we’re worried that early failures will lead to frustration and a failure for the initiative. To avoid that, we decide we need to teach things first so that staff, and students, can have early successes. We tell ourselves that if we can train teachers to change just one lesson, one unit, then they’ll see how it works, and get on board.

Yet if you want change in the way we educate, shouldn’t you change the way you initiate that change?

Since Dayna, Jill, and I founded Project ARC two years ago, we’ve begun asking about the questions on teacher’s minds long before we set foot on campus. We’ve realized that running the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) or a KWL the morning of a workshop is actually more likely to kill inquiry because there’s no time to develop a tailored response to those questions. As a result, the workshop is sure to come up short regarding the questions staff had on their minds when it began. By contrast, if you understand what those questions are 1-2 months before, then you can create what we call a “tailored professional development investigation” (TPDI) to engage questions the adults learners have about how to work this, whatever the shift is they’re trying to work. That’s a good place to start, but as the past year proved, it’s not enough.

As my first case in point, last August I began with a two-day TPDI centered on authentic, student-driven inquiry for St. Vrain Valley Schools in Longmont, Colorado. The workshop answered some of the questions the educators had on their minds, but as adult learners and professional educators, they had even more. When Jennifer, Zac, and I began to plan for follow-on sessions, we tried to design learning experiences that would help address those questions, only to learn that what the educators really wanted was the opportunity to work on those questions themselves.

In November, we turned inquiry about inquiry over to the professional educators, and joined the conversations as catalysts. There were fewer “ready to use on Monday” solutions after the remainder of our follow on workshops, and fewer baby-step successes. Yet by the end of the year the school’s principal, Mark Spencer was sure that his teacher reflections represented some of the deepest conversations about instructional practice he’d ever heard.

As my second case in point, in June I found myself encouraging Debbie Elder at APS to take a similar risk. She and her Office of Innovation principals are required to work out a 90-Day Plan steering innovative teaching and learning in the 2017-18 school year. The hope was that this could be done while teachers were working on tuning projects they’d tried last year after an initial TPDI with Project ARC. Scheduling made that impossible. As often happens, the principals had to be at another meeting. So, we turned to the teachers and asked, “Well, how do we work this?”

We handed over the documents related to three Office of Innovation Initiatives, and we gave the educators a mini-project challenge: identify the interconnections between the APS Magnet School Framework for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Project-Based Learning, and the Community Schools’ Standard for Powerful Learning. The teachers had one hour, and in that hour they produced four separate Venn Diagrams to share what they saw with their principals. These diagrams were rooted in classroom practice, and the opportunities they saw as professional educators. When that hour was over, teachers voiced a “sense of ownership” that came from engaging in “deep collaboration” over “meaning making” regarding the questions they had about the documents. The next day, the principals and Debbie expressed a sense of appreciation regarding the diagrams. Much of the work of implementation had already begun, and everyone was onboard. No “buy-in” required.

So now I have the chance to spend a little more of my summer scrambling over Colorado’s gorgeous high country so that I can return, refreshed, to the real work of implementation. Just like good consulting, that work happens when educators are working with their students, rather than being taught how to work.

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