“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it and that’s what gets results.” So goes the 1982 song from the two groups. Over time, I’ve increasingly understood that the way things are done matters hugely but always thought “It ain’t what you do” was just an unfortunate lead in to the Bananarama Principle of School Improvement (Implementation Matters).
The following is a mish mash and potentially misinterpretation of conversations, podcasts or reading provided by Professors Stuart Kime, Steve Higgins and Christian Bokhove. It’s great when people challenge your thinking; it’s the place where you grow.
Does it matter what we do?
My answer to that would have been firmly in the “yes, of course it does; move on” camp. The first part of the song line was an aberration prior to the important point about getting the implementation right.
However, there’s a fascinating and apparently well know study, in research circles; Project Follow Through started in the decade I was born (1960s) and showed the problem of replication in education. For an approach to be considered reliable we would want to see broadly similar results repeated over time and in different contexts. The “what you do” makes a difference.
The project looked at the impact on children’s achievement of “over a dozen philosophically different instructional models of early childhood education.” The problem for the evaluation team was that their finding showed a greater difference in achievement within each programme than between the different programmes.
The why behind this finding is that context matters – arguably as much or even more than the “what you do”. Direct instruction, co-operative learning and phonics, in the wrong hands, are all pretty ineffective and in the right hands may have real impact. It may not be as simple as ensuring sufficient or improved training in how to implement. A teacher’s belief in an approach’s efficacy may affect implementation as much as their technical skills; for better or worse. Add in to the mix the complexity of 30 little human beings and system wide school improvement becomes even more complex.
Teachers mediate any instructional programme aimed at pupils; this is fundamentally different to medical research. A teacher’s beliefs based on evidence (a rationale element); feelings based on what works for them or they prefer (a more emotional dimension) and what they have previously done (habits) will impact significantly on their motivation. The closer any new approach is to their beliefs, experiences and class room habits may well substantially increase the efficacy of the implementation of the approach and the eventual outcome.
Given the part a teacher plays on the success or failure of a particular approach allowing them greater agency in choosing areas of their own practice to improve or new pedagogical approaches to implement, possibly from a range of best or better alternative bets, may have significant advantages. The outcome might be a greater variability in approach but less variability in impact. Maybe the new romantics of the 1980s still have much to teach us. Greater wisdom in the class room and leadership is key to improving schools..