How the right theory of change can inform and optimize your professional learning initiative

What’s the best way to design and implement a large-scale professional learning initiative in your state or other large education system? The answer, of course, is “It depends.” It depends on the complexities of your system, the needs of your teachers and staff, and the whole mix of day-to-day realities and cultural factors that make your system unique.

In my last post, “Clear, shared, and focused: How to envision successful professional learning initiatives,” I explored ways to develop and articulate a vision for success that will engage and inspire the people you lead. Today, we’ll take another step forward and begin to think about how best to scale up your plan and prepare for large-scale implementation.

I’ll begin by discussing how important it is for leaders to accurately define the scale of the initiatives they intend to roll out. As it turns out, it’s surprisingly easy to not get this key step quite right, which can lead to a mismatch between an initiative and the actual needs of a system. I’ll also share some thoughts on why it’s a great idea to develop a thoughtful theory of change before you jump right into implementation.

“We scaled up—isn’t that great? But wait…”

I’ve supported quite a few state education agency (SEA) leaders over the years in various states across the nation. They’re great people! They work really hard to implement programs to improve teaching and learning. However, I’ve seen what can happen when these leaders don’t have complete information about the scale of the challenges in front of them. Let me share an anecdote to illustrate what I mean.

It’s important to think about the scale of the change that you’re trying to make before you even begin, and then systematically work backward with your planning to determine what’s necessary to reach that scale.

A few years ago, I met with a leader and team when their state was rolling out new college and career-ready standards. This team was responsible for transitioning the teacher workforce into an awareness and deep understanding of the new standards. They had carefully planned a two- or three-year rollout that involved providing workshops and webinars directly to teachers. There was some support in place for district and school leaders too, but their team really wanted to get to the teacher level. They didn’t want to rely on anyone else to get the message downstream.

When I asked how they were planning to reach all the teachers who needed the information, the team leader happily reported they had almost met their goal of reaching the whole state. They had delivered so many workshops over the past year that they were feeling ready to move on to the next phase in their plan. When I asked how they knew they’d reached enough teachers, they got really excited and shared that over the past year, they’d reached 1,000 participants!

I thought about that for a moment, and then I asked: “How many teachers in your state are impacted by the new standards?” They didn’t know, but they felt that they must have been close to reaching everyone, since 1,000 was such a large number of participants. But when I pulled up the National Center for Education Statistics website, we learned the truth: Even if every participant had been a unique individual, 1,000 participants would have been less than 10% of the state’s educator workforce. At best, fewer than 1 in 10 teachers—and more like 1 in 20 after accounting for repeat attendees and non-teacher roles—had even heard their message. At this rate, it would take about 20 years to reach every teacher with their team working at a breakneck pace!

This conversation highlighted for me just how important it is for state leaders to understand implementation science and know how to plan large-scale initiatives with the end in mind. It’s important to think about the scale of the change that you’re trying to make before you even begin, and then systematically work backward with your planning to determine what’s necessary to reach that scale.

Keeping these principles in mind, leaders should ask themselves a few crucial questions about scale when starting to plan a professional learning initiative:

  • Who do we need to reach with this change (e.g., teachers, instructional coaches, administrators, district leaders)?
  • How many people are there that we need to reach?
  • What’s the magnitude (or scale) of the change that we’re working to create?

Start by clarifying your theory of change

Once you know the scale of the impact you’re working toward and have a clear vision of what that impact will look like, a thoughtful theory of change will help illuminate your path forward as you plan all the activities and evaluation processes you’ll need to accomplish your goals. “Theory of change” often gets lumped together with “logic model,” but while the two are related, they’re not quite the same thing. The distinction matters, and it’s important for leaders to know the difference before they get too far into the planning process.

A theory of change is the set of beliefs that a program designer has about what it will take to actually make the change they have envisioned, while a logic model is a visual representation that summarizes the theory of change in a simplified, sequential manner. A theory of change should be your starting point, as it will help you determine the best interventions for your desired outcomes and will lay a foundation for the logical steps that follow. We refer to this foundation as a theory because the educational system is so complex that no one can really say for sure if the initiative will work until you try. It’s also a theory because, when done well, it leads to all of the “if–then” statements that connect specific actions to outcomes. For example, compare these two if–then statements:

  • If we provide workshops about effective math instruction to 100 teachers, then their students will improve in math.
  • If we provide workshops about effective math instruction to 100 teachers, then they will have the knowledge to plan for better math instruction.

Which of these statements is more valid? The first statement expresses what I’d call “black box thinking,” as there is a huge void between the if and then concepts. Student improvement in math depends on so many influences—curriculum, learning time, and collaboration practices, to name a few—and in the first statement, these influences are hidden in the black box and aren’t surfaced.

A theory of change is the set of beliefs that a program designer has about what it will take to actually make the change they have envisioned.

The second statement, while more limited in scope, is actually a much more valid connection between the if and then concepts. It makes sense that a workshop will have a direct impact on teacher knowledge. When the leaders of a state professional learning initiative dig into this level of a theory of change, they quickly see the need for additional if–then statements that will chart a course toward their end goal of improving student outcomes. Uncovering those if–then assumptions is necessary for the design of an effective professional learning program because skipping any of the necessary logical steps will cause the program to break down.

Use your theory of change to craft a winning game plan

A good theory of change can reveal the mechanisms needed to bring about desired outcomes and the gaps that need to be closed. Let’s imagine that we create a professional learning initiative that instills deep professional knowledge in participating teachers, but those teachers work in a school system that has either no collaboration structures or dysfunctional ones. If the initiative’s goal is simply to improve teacher knowledge, it may seem like a success, but if the goal is to make a positive impact on students, we’ll need some actionable ways to improve collaboration among teachers in addition to expanding their professional knowledge.

Let’s return to our example of math instruction workshops. A theory of change that encompasses the steps we’ll need to take toward our overall goal might look like the following:

If we provide workshops about effective math instruction to 100 teachers, then they will have the knowledge to plan for better math instruction.

And…

If we provide resources and coaching to teacher teams on how to effectively collaborate and make decisions, then teacher collaboration will result in effective curriculum and instruction decisions.

Which leads to…

If teachers have the knowledge to plan for better math instruction, and if teacher collaboration results in effective curriculum and instruction decisions, then instructional practices will improve.

Which finally leads to…

If instructional practices improve, then student learning will improve.

By spending the time to drill down into the if–then connections you’ll need in order to meet your ultimate goal, you’ll be able to uncover all the different activities that will help you get there. For example, if a state team were to follow the theory of change we’ve outlined here, they might discover they need to develop not only the math workshops they had already planned for, but also at least one strategy that fosters collaborative teaming.

Now it’s time for planning and implementation

Once you’ve articulated a clear vision, wrapped your head around the scale and reach of the challenge you’re working to solve, and developed a strong theory of change, then it’s time to create a detailed implementation plan for your initiative. This will include working out all the details of how you will address each aspect of the if–then outcomes you’ve identified in your theory of change. Many leaders find that this is the fun part, where you get to plan all the professional learning processes and support structures that will engage your people in working toward a shared goal.

Between this blog and my last piece on the importance of having a clear, shared, and focused vision for your professional learning initiative, we’ve covered a lot of ground. If you’d like to discuss these ideas or get some support developing your own large-scale initiative, please reach out to us. We’d be happy to continue the conversation.

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