Go Forth and Implement… and Other Implementation Myths


by Ruslana Westerlund

I had a privilege of meeting Pauline Gibbons, an Australian teacher educator and researcher whose books teachers love for one simple reason (among others):  she takes complicated ideas and makes them accessible to teachers.   In addition, she not only invites the teachers to provide intellectually challenging curriculum, but she supports their efforts by calling out specific practices how to integrate second language learning with the learning of content with clear examples.  She uses the phrase “high-challenge, high-support classrooms” in her book English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking and is challenging teachers to raise expectations of what is possible for English learners.   She challenges teachers to provide intellectually challenging curriculum where thinking  is valued:  that is,

a curriculum where all students, including EL learners, are afforded the opportunities to think creatively, transform information, engage in inquiry-oriented activity, and construct their own understandings through participating in substantive conversations and, critically, are given the scaffolding and support to be successful.

She summarizes three significant findings in relation to raising high expectations for our students from Newmann et al (1996).

1.  Students from all backgrounds are more engaged when classroom work is cognitively challenging than when it consists solely of conventional low-level work;

2.  All students, regardless of social or ethnic background, achieve at higher levels when they participate in an intellectually challenging curriculum;

3.  Equity gaps diminish as a result of engagement in such curricula.

However, she also points out that English Learners and students of poverty (many of whom are culturally and linguistically diverse) are often fed remedial instruction, a steady dose of simplified texts, or drill and kill teaching of discrete, de-contextualized skills.  One reason for why some teachers give kids simplified texts and remedial work lies in the mindset issue, i.e., some teachers actually believe that ELs and students of color need basic skills (read: worksheets) first before they can handle more intellectually challenging learning.   I was recently reading a study by McLaughlin and Talbert (2001) who contrasts two teachers from two different departments describe the same students.   English department teachers had positive things to say,   “We have excellent students, cooperative, and there’s good rapport with the teachers”.  In contrast, a social studies teacher said, “The kids – there’s no quest for knowledge.  Not all, but that’s in general… it’s not important for them.  They just don’t want to learn” (p. 50).  How is that possible? The same students are talked about here!!!

We need to challenge those mindsets.   Other teachers may think that it is not their responsibility to provide language support to ELs because “we hired ESL teachers do that”.  Should we remind those teachers that if they chose the route of public education, they chose to serve all students and that free and appropriate public education (FAPE) is for ALL students and that the A stands for APPROPRIATE education, in addition to being free.  There is much work to be done in that area.

But how about the teachers who want to do the best for their kids and who want to provide high challenge with high support?  Why are they starved for meaningful professional learning in an organization whose only business is learning (such as schools)?  The challenge I want to issue here is to administrators and instructional leaders.   I ask you to think about how many opportunities your teachers have to high-quality professional learning that’s relevant to their work ALONG WITH continuous support to grow in the use of the new knowledge?  Thus, the mantra we want for our students applies to our teachers:  high-challenge, high-support for teachers, if we want successful outcomes for our students. Regarding the high-quality PD, oftentimes the decisions about professional learning are made at the top by someone in the district office who has their own agenda (or of those above them) about what teachers need to learn. Consequently, teachers end up wasting a day’s worth of work sitting through professional development that has little relevance to the issues teachers’ minds are fixed on at the same time when someone is talking at them.  In regards to the support to  implement the new knowledge, there is a gap between knowing and doing.  Teachers “get the PD”, receive the blessing Go Forth and Implement, go back to their classrooms, put the binder on their bookshelf and sit at their desk to continue to do what they know how to do because…. change is hard.   Some enthusiasts (like me) who love change, dive in and try the new ideas but quickly fizzle out, or assimilate the new ideas to the known way of doing things.  Unsupported learning fizzles out and dies.  This leads me to the three key myths that I would like to debunk.

fullan leading in a culture of change
Fullan (2007) Leading in a Culture of Change.

Myth 1:  Implementation is an Event (such as training)

Many teachers come from training being expected to implement the new ideas.  Leaders, unaware of the implementation challenges, view implementation as an event.  They equate training to implementation, dissemination of information as implementation or putting two teachers in the room to implement collaboration.   Implementation is a multi-year, multifaceted process, both social and cognitive, with people at the heart of it (versus a machine).  Below is sample of the key components lifted from the implementation literature.  It is important that leaders have:

  • a moral purpose (Fullan, 2007)
  • understanding of change process (ibid)
  • program coherence “the extent to which the school’s programs for student and staff learning are coordinated, focused on clear learning goals, and sustained over a period of time” (Newmann et al, 2000, p. 5)
  • dedicated linked teams (not just who is available) (SISEP)
  • initial buy-in and overtime (to get through the awkward stage, aka implementation dip ( SISEP, Fullan, 2007)
  • clarity of outcomes (what do we want to see in the classrooms teachers/students doing?)
  • multiple opportunities to meet and make breakthroughs in the new learning
  • relationships, relationships, relationships. Word of caution: relationships are not ends in themselves.  In schools, relationships are built to improve student outcomes (Fullan, 2007)
  • evaluation of effort and fidelity (do people show up to the training? how often? do they come consistently?) (Fixsen et al, 2005)
  • sustained coaching in the classroom (Joyce & Showers, 2002)
  • understanding that knowledge building is a social phenomenon (Brown and Duguin, 2000).

As stated above, many people equate implementation with training or dissemination of information or discussion and application during training.  Joyce and Showers (2002) debunk that myth with their synthesis of research illustrated below.  Theory and discussion leads to a 0% of uptake in the classroom.  Practice and feedback in training leads to only 5% of uptake in the classroom.  What works? Coaching in the classroom with frequent feedback and opportunities for refinement.

Joyce and Showers, 2002


Myth 2:  Teachers Can Implement New Ideas on Their Own Given the Collaborative Culture.  

Fullan (2010) in his book Leading in the Culture of Change – my favorite read during my dissertation phase (which I wrote on the topic of implementation) – warns that while collaborative cultures are indeed powerful, if they focus on reinforcing the old ideas, they may end up being powerfully wrong.  Not all collaborative relationships have a positive effect on student learning.   McLaughlin and Talbert (2001) made an observation that teacher communities can be effective or not depending on whether the teachers collaborate to make breakthroughs in learning or whether they reinforce old methods.  Fullan suggests that “moral purpose, good ideas focusing on results, and obtaining views of dissenters are essential, because they mean that the organization is focusing on the right things.  Leadership comes to the fore. The role of leader is to ensure that the organization develops relationships that produce desirable results” (p. 79)

Leadership at the department or school level account for a large part of the difference in whether strong professional learning communities develop in a way that positively affect student learning (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001)

Myth 3:  Knowledge Is Static  

Effective leaders understand the difference between tacit knowledge (skills, beliefs, and deeper understandings than just awareness) and explicit knowledge (words and numbers that can be communicated in a form of data and information).  They recognize that knowledge expressed in words represents only the tip of the iceberg (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995).  Tacit knowledge requires individuals to stretch it, to mold it, pass it through a sieve of personal value system.  It is deeply rooted in our mindsets, beliefs, ideas, and emotions.  Successful leaders create environments in which individuals create and access tacit knowledge.   It is tacit knowledge that leads to change of practice.   Insightful leaders understand that not all tacit knowledge is useful, it must be sifted through, keeping quality ideas and discarding noise.

“The sharing of tacit knowledge among multiple individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives, and motivations becomes the critical step for organizational knowledge creation to take place.   The individuals’ emotions, feelings, and mental models have to be shared to build mutual trust” (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995, p. 85)


Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002).  Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.).  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Development.

Fullan, M. (2007).  Leading in a culture of change.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gibbons, P. (2009).  English learners, academic literacy, and thinking: learning in the challenge zone.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

McLaughlin, M., & Talbert, J. (2001).  Professional communities and the work of high-school teaching.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Newmann, F., and Associates. (1996).  Authentic  achievement:  restructuring schools for intellectual quality.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Newmann, F., King, B., & Youngs, P. (2000).  Professional development that addresses school capacity.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.  New Orleans.

Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995).  The knowledge-creating  company.  Oxford: Oxford University Press

Fixsen, D. L., Naoom, S. F., Blase, K. A., Friedman, R. M. & Wallace, F. (2005).  Implementation research: A synthesis of literature.  Tampa, FL: University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, The National Implementation Research Network (FMHI Publication #231).


ru dec 2013Ruslana Westerlund, Ed.D.  wrote her dissertation on implementation and finds the change process, the information about tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge fascinating. She is passionate about sharing implementation myths with educators because they permeate the education system and cause many great ideas to fail miserably without ever impacting the students for whom they were designed. She hopes that implementation science will catch on in more organizations. In terms of her professional career, Ruslana has almost 20 years of ESL teaching experience at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate level. She is a proud immigrant from Ukraine who is fluent in 3 languages and has a rudimentary level of German.  She is blogging to reconnect with teaching.





4 thoughts on “Go Forth and Implement… and Other Implementation Myths

Add yours

  1. Very well written and succinctly covers some big ideas that really impact our ability to implement new teaching strategies effectively. I hope everyone realizes that implementation is not an event and we all have a part in an ongoing story of working towards a goal and improving the lives of children. Thank you, Ruslana!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Given that coaching is the most effective method that leads to actual implementation, and given that it is potentially expensive (in terms of the time needed to carve out coaching opportunities), how can we persuade leaders to pursue coaching? Coaching is often reserved for those teachers who need a great deal of help, but any teacher who is implementing something new needs some coaching from a real person who understands their teaching context, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kelly, I liked how you pointed out that coaching is reserved to teachers who are struggling but neglected for other teachers when they are implementing something new. I don’t agree that coaching is expensive. While I do see your point, investing in a new initiative and not implementing it well is more expensive. What do you think?


      1. Yes, all the work and time it takes districts and schools to launch initiatives is expensive, and they don’t get their return on investment if the initiative isn’t implemented well or just halts at being half-way implemented. I think what I mean by coaching being expensive is that it because coaching usually works in a one-to-one ratio that it would take a lot of man-hours to conduct coaching with individual students. In this way, one on one coaching might be difficult to scale. Perhaps a different strategy for coaching might be to coach teams or PLCs of teachers, making it more of a one coach to four/five teacher ratio.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: