Friends, I know it has been a couple of weeks since the last Coaching Letter, but I’ve been really busy and this one took quite a lot of time to pull together. My colleague Richard Lemons wrote a recent blog post about the idea that it is better to implement a mediocre strategy than to implement a “perfect” strategy half-heartedly. You should read it. This Coaching Letter is a kind of follow-up to that blog post, because I think it’s smart advice, and because I want to connect it to several other related ideas and resources. (The tools that Richard refers to are also available through the Tools section of our website.)

There’s a great TED video about the spaghetti tower challenge. Groups are given the task of building the tallest structure with spaghetti, and the groups that are the most successful are not necessarily the ones that you’d think. Watch it first, then read on.

We are now well into our second decade of research that shows that “classical” strategic planning—large groups of stakeholders meeting over several days to produce dozens of goals itemized and operationalized over scores of pages—is not really effective. There’s a great 2004 article by Mike Schmoker in the Kappan called Tipping Point: From Feckless Reform to Substantive Instructional Improvement that advocates doing away with strategic planning altogether. He makes a lot of the same points that Richard makes, and that I made in this article in the Kappan earlier this year (I’ve included a link to this many times already, it’s not new). Just for the record, we at the Center do not advocate that you get rid of strategic plans, but that you place more of an emphasis on the planning and less on the product. As Eisenhower said, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.

This is what the PDSA cycle was originally all about—you think about an idea for improvement, you try it out, you study what happens, and then you more fully implement. There are several versions of this in business and organizational development, such as TQM and, more recently, design thinking. In software development it’s called iterative design. In science it’s called an experiment. In education it’s often called continuous improvement.

There are a few books that are great resources on the idea of trying things out and seeing what you learn from the experience. Learning to Improve, by Bryk and colleagues, is well worth studying, as are the much older works to which Learning to Improve is indebted, including Deming’s Out of the Crisis, and pretty much anything by Chris Argyris. To get a synopsis of what Learning to Improve is all about, check out this article in the Kappan, or this more accessible piece—however, I don’t have a citation for this one; I’m sure I copied it from a HGSE newsletter, but now I can’t locate the original. Also, big shout-out to my BFF Rose Asera, whose work on community colleges is featured in Learning to Improve. Rose’s ability to ask the most fiendish questions—they sort of reach down into you and grip your intestines—has had a profound effect on my work and life.

This article by Amy Edmondson in HBR, “Your Strategy Should Be a Hypothesis You Constantly Adjust” has been clicked on hundreds of times since I first linked to it earlier this year: ‘We call this approach “strategy as learning,’ which contrasts sharply with the view of strategy as a stable, analytically rigorous plan for execution in the market. Strategy as learning is an executive activity characterized by ongoing cycles of testing and adjusting, fueled by data that can only be obtained through execution.” It seems to me that this is exactly what Richard is talking about. Also, I think it applies to most school/district improvement/strategic plans that we see, which are large monuments to a planning event and not a nimble, thoughtful process aimed at “testing and adjusting, fueled by data that can only be obtained through execution.” We learn by doing, so what are we doing and how are we planning to learn from it?”

At the same time, we know that some strategies are more likely to lead to pay-offs in terms of student achievement than others—in other words, some investments have a larger return on investment than others. Here is a short but powerful reading list that gets to that point:

Another article by Schmoker, this time in EdWeek, bridges from the fecklessness of strategic planning to implementing more judiciously practices that actually have a track record of success.

John Hattie’s work, most notably Visible Learning, is often cited but (and admittedly I have a small sample size here), not so often read. I don’t blame people for this, actually, I find that book very hard to read, and I know there are plenty of critiques out there of both the meta-meta-analysis validity, and the methodology regarding which studies were included. Nevertheless, it is a great place to start a conversation about what instructional practices we should be pursuing, and why.

More useful have been some of Hattie’s other books—I confess I haven’t read them all—but I would say that of the most recent, Visible Learning: Feedback is well worth studying. Whether or not you can get behind Hattie’s methodology for his Visible Learning effect sizes, feedback shows up in multiple research studies over many years as a high leverage instructional practice, if you can get it right. So it’s really important to try and get it right, and this book is really helpful.

Dylan Wiliam has written extensively about not only what does and does not work, but also what it costs. Unlike Hattie, who never mentions cost of implementation, Wiliam is definitely interested in measuring return on investment—finding the biggest bang for your buck. His latest book, Creating the Schools Our Children Need: Why What We’re Doing Now Won’t Help Much (And What We Can Do Instead) is really useful, in part because it’s written with a non-educator audience in mind, so it’s (relatively) free of jargon. There is also a mountain of information on the Dylan Wiliam website—feel free to start digging through that. Writing a Coaching Letter about Wiliam is on my to do list.

This report from the Learning Policy Institute, Closing the Opportunity Gap, is hot off the press. It has many co-authors, the best-known probably being Linda Darling-Hammond, and makes recommendations very much in line with Susan Moore Johnson’s work as reported in the book Coherence (I wrote about Professor Johnson’s most recent book, Where Teachers Thrive, in a recent Coaching Letter) and the Center’s work on capacity and coherence (Richard and Bob Villanova are the authors of this).

What the spaghetti tower challenge makes clear is that the groups that are the most successful are the ones that learn the fastest—which only makes sense. This is a finding borne out by plenty of research studies—many of them also by Amy Edmondson and summarized in her books Teaming and The Fearless Organization. And the way you learn quickly is by having an idea, trying it out, studying what happens, and then building on what you learn. Small, rapid cycles of incremental improvement. Why don’t we do that more often?

If you need help with any of this stuff—I know it’s a lot—please email me, or contact the Center. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
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