Connecting the Dots for Our District Learning Part 2: Moving from Theory to Practice


Board Improvement Plan Representation 2014


Moving from theory to practice…sounds simple.  However, as we know, this shift in thinking and behaviour is truly about implementation – and implementation is hard work requiring time, commitment and focus.  Thinking about this in context of our School and Board Learning Plans reminds me of our strength in the planning stages – we know what the most urgent learning needs of our students are, we can develop an initial theory of action and the associated learning goals and perhaps some criteria for success (based upon our understanding of the “theory” so far). However, it is the monitoring of the evidence of impact  (both for the adult learner and the student) of that theory in actual practice that presents complexities that are sometimes difficult to navigate.  When we think of “The Responsive Gym: Moving From Theory to Practice” visual, the left side “weights” are incredibly heavy!

So what makes the weights so “heavy?”  Let’s unpack (briefly) the work that comprises an effective implementation.  We know that theory is important to get our thinking started, however we also recognize that all of our learners have specific needs.  How do we ensure that the implementation is responsive to the learning needs of the adults and the students? We know that our work includes determine our specific learning goal (which is based on theory), teaching, providing learners with multiple opportunities to practice their new learning through the gradual release of responsibility, having learners make their thinking visible to us through demonstrations, observations and conversations, and —  studying the learning in that evidence to measure change or impact.  I believe that the answer to being responsive actually lies in how we determine the impact of our work on the learner.

Studying the evidence of thinking will result in new questions about the initial theory and will require us to return to the research to seek deeper clarification.  We need to be able to answer the question, “What are you learning from this documentation about the needs of our learners?”.  This is tough work as we look for gaps, misconceptions, trends, etc. in thinking. However, it is this analysis that then tells us how to respond. We can provide feedback to the learners; this responsive feedback can take the form of an enhanced learning goal or criteria for success, a new learning opportunity, a question/prompt, etc.  We then begin the process again.  As we strategically measure impact in an iterative manner, our thinking and behaviour changes over time – the theory is now actualized into practice and might even be “learned” (as opposed to “known”). Implementation is about “learning to do the work by doing the work” (From Instructional Rounds in Education by City, Elmore et. al) – being responsive by engaging in ongoing monitoring and measuring impact is critical.

As learners and leaders, our team is committed to this shift in our thinking and practice.  We know, as do classroom teachers, that the analysis of documentation is critical to being responsive – to meeting the needs of the learners.  And I challenge that the analysis is even more powerful when we are actually in the “classroom” (wherever the learning is occurring) to see and hear the learning taking place.


4 responses

  1. This is something that I am working hard to model with my staff. Just as we want classroom leaders to be responsive to learner needs, I must also be responsive to the staff member’s needs. I say staff member , not teachers, because I can not even begin to explain the value of everyone on staff being involved in learning! It is time to differentiate the learning to meet the variety of needs that have been identified. Will this make it more of a challenge? For sure! but in the end, we will all take something useful and meaningful from our learning sessions.
    P.S. Thanks for the gentle pressure NIck!


    1. Hi Deb,
      Thanks for the reflection. I truly appreciate the notion of “learners”; it adds such a dimension to our work – when we see everyone as a learner in an organization. It helps to support what Dave champions with us – the notion that it is “we” in our district. It is about both the adults and the students engaging in learning – both inside and outside of the classroom. When students see the adults in their classrooms as learning with and from them, the true notion of a co-learning environment is realized. Theory to practice! Collaboration – a condition for learning! Involving everyone in the learning is so critical – thanks for the reminder!


      1. After being in classes for the last few weeks I am realizing how important having a lens for learning is. Just as with our youngest learners it can be extremely overwhelming when trying to figure our what it is we are supposed to be focusing on. When I’m in the classroom I observe so many different areas for learning but if I bring all of them to the teacher (learner) it gets overwhelming. Like our kids they start to feel bogged down, they think they hear you say certain things because they don’t really have an understanding of the content yet, or how to get to the target that they may perceive you looking for. I believe collaborating to establish look fors for the teachers and for the students (what it looks like, what it sounds like) will allow me to have more focus to my visits and ultimately a deeper focus for our learning. Otherwise, my fear is that we will skim over a lot of information, as we do sometimes with curriculum, and never instill real learning. With the look fors and a target I will be able to respond in an increasingly specific and personalized way.


  2. Hi Kellie, Thank you for this post. The reminder of the need to focus, to determine criteria for success, and to give learners time to put new theories into practice (so that they truly “learn”) is one that leaders and educators need to constantly keep at the forefront. Thank you for the depth of thinking in this post -which I know has resulted from your practice!


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