Actions speak louder than….talk?

action-talkI remember first bumping up again Argyris and Schön’s theory of action – espoused theory and theory-in-use – when I was studying my administrative team for my dissertation back in 2009.

A simple explanation of the two components:

When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which, upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is this theory-in-use. (Argyris and Schön 1974: 6-7)

At the time, I was studying how school leaders conceptualize teaching and learning in the 21st century and how they act upon that in their schools. In addition to several other interesting findings, there was one related to theories of action:

Data analysis revealed a preponderance of espoused beliefs and theories of teaching, learning and leadership as opposed to in-use examples of the teaching and learning the participants were attempting to define. (p. 137)

Essentially, the participants in the study were able to articulate conceptually a vision for teaching, learning and leadership in the 21st century that closely mirrored the literature. The challenge was actually implementing that vision in their schools – turning that theory into action.

Fast forward five years…. our educational partners from Apple, Inc. sat down with the administrative team as we were trying to answer the question, “What next?” with our 1:1 laptop program. During the time we spent together, they brought us back to thinking about three questions:

  • What does the LEARNING look like?
  • What does the TEACHING look like?
  • What does the LEADERSHIP look like?

Here is a condensed version from our notes of what our team discussed. At this moment in time, this is how we conceptualize teaching, learning and leading in our schools. It’s what we believe. But is it what we are doing? How do we bridge the gulf between the espoused and the in-use? How do I as a central office administrator support our principals and teachers?

Here are some ideas I have been thinking about to help bridge the gap:

  • Map out the change – What are the benchmarks for curriculum, instruction, assessment, digital leadership and professional learning in the next three to five years? Collectively, as teachers and leaders, we need to come to consensus, plant a stake in the ground and document benchmarks.
  • Define the actions necessary to meet the benchmarks – What steps will students, teachers and leaders actually need to take to meet the benchmarks and achieve the change? How do we move forward incrementally?
  • Provide the supports – What professional development or new learning is necessary for everyone to meet the benchmarks? What do we need to do differently to support the change?
  • Build in accountability mechanisms – Along with support comes some pressure to follow through. Accountability isn’t a bad thing, but what should it look like? Organizational and individual goals?
  • Share the progress – Model digital leadership using the tools we have in place to celebrate the accomplishments of students, teachers and administrators. Tools might include blogs and social media, used to engage the community through transparency. Also, share progress through regular updates to the school board.

How change management strategies have  you used successfully? How do you bridge the gulf between espoused theory and theory in action? What would you suggest changing or adding to the ideas above?


3 comments on “Actions speak louder than….talk?

  1. Randy, this post should be read. It’s something I have thought about often. I intermittently suffer from the syndrome of which it speaks…ideas that flounder, that don’t come to fruition. The first point in your set of solutions is key. At some point, you just need to do something. Trust that what you’ve put together, lessons, units, curriculum, is “ok” and implement it. It’s very easy given the flow of information, the number of resources available, the political wrangling, and of course change, to question the validity and worse, the value of things you’ve created and never get to implementation. This leads me to your last point, sharing your work. First, there are a dizzying number of tools today to accomplish this task. That alone can be daunting. Then, add uncertainty about ones work and it’s not surprising that there isn’t more electronic sharing of classroom activities with the public. Finally, administration needs to be active in creating an atmosphere of trust and collegiality that values what is happening. They need to put up shields of positiveness to deflect and lessen the effect of the myriad of negative messages being aimed at public education. I love science because it thrives on failures and shows how failure is normal and useful. Witch hunt models never result in progress. Assistance models do. So, when accountability is considered, so too must those notions. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!
    Rock On, Charlie

  2. Thanks for your reply, Charlie. Regarding the sharing piece, I struggle understanding the disinterest. Your thoughts have given me something to think about – uncertainty about ones work and fear of negative criticism. So I’m thinking about how I deepen trust to provide teachers and admins the opportunity to take that risk. And to know I ‘have your back” so to speak.

    • From what I have discussed with and learned from speaking with Michael, you and your district have the right “stuff” and people in place. It’s my observation that what you have in place isn’t everyone’s experience. I should clarify two points from my reply. When I spoke of negative messages I was referring to the political atmosphere and some public opinion that results from it. Many teachers really take the political commentary to heart. It can be deflating and negatively impact the ability to accurately and effectively reflect upon one’s work. In my administrative work, we discussed how an assistive model of supervision can be highly effective for both effective teachers and those who need improvement. However, public opinion and politically charged decisions can undermine the trust necessary for such a model to be effective. So, as you pointed out, it’s difficult to believe that disinterest is the reason more electronic sharing doesn’t take place. I don’t think it is the reason at all. Finally, I doubt there is a lack of trust in your situation. Based upon my knowledge of your processes and the inclusion of all stakeholders in decision-making, it would surprise me to learn otherwise. So, maybe I should have worded things a bit differently. Maybe rather than a need to build trust, it is instead necessary to provide reassurance of trust. Reassurance that will deflect or at least soften the blows from those negative voices. That may be the key to providing that “I have your back” atmosphere.

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