This is a column from a few years back for another blog:
One of the most frequent comments I hear when I talk with people about school change is that instructional coaches will only be effective if they ensure that teachers implement new practices with fidelity. This is an easily justified goal. If teachers don’t teach innovations with fidelity, the thinking is, they won’t get results. So we need to make sure teachers do it (whatever it might be) the way it is supposed to be done. I think, however, that it is worth while to ask, “what is fidelity” before we totally adopt this way of thinking.
There are some thorny issues that we need to think about with respect to the topic of fidelity. Of course, if instructional coaching is going to be effective, coaches need to partner with teachers to provide the supports that empower teachers to implement new practices in a way that gets results. But we make a big mistake, I think, if we assume this means that teachers must mindlessly follow a script.
Lucy West, who is an author in a book I edited, Coaching: Approaches and Practices, suggests that instructional coaches, rather than encouraging fidelity, which she describes a “dictum to follow a script,” should strive for mindful engagement of the curriculum with teachers.
I agree completely for a number of reasons, but I’ll mention two here. First, asking teachers to implement exactly what a script says, exactly as the script says, treats teachers like workers on an assembly line rather than professionals. This means, I suspect, that an overemphasis on fidelity likely leads to low quality instruction where teachers do every task on a checklist but do not teach with passion, or love, or even in a manner that involves reflection.
The second issue, though, is more troubling. I just don’t think it is likely that a heavy emphasis on fidelity is practically effective. As Thomas Davenport has shown in Thinking For a Living when professionals (whom he calls knowledge workers) such as teachers are not given the opportunity to reflect and think for themselves, they resist change. Simply put: what knowledge workers do is think for a living; if someone else (researchers, administrators, policy makers) does the thinking for teachers, teachers will resist.
Now I’m not saying everything is up for grabs, or that a teacher can say, “OK, this year, no more reading and writing, this year it is all hockey.” That is ridiculous. I’m also not saying instructional coaches shouldn’t worry about high quality implementation, or understanding the teaching practices they share. In fact, I believe just the opposite.
Instructional coaches need to deeply understand the materials they share, and they should be highly skilled at finding precise and easy-to-understand explanations for those practices. However, when they explain, model, observe, and explore data, instructional coaches need to present that information in a way that allows teachers to do the thinking. For example, when explaining teaching practices, instructional coaches can say, “Here’s what the research says. However, do we need to adapt this at all so it will work for you and your students? What do you think about this approach?” 95% of the time, when instructional coaches ask for teachers’ opinions, the teachers say, “let’s do it the way you describe it.” When coaches tell teachers what to do without honoring their thoughts and voices, however, the first thought if not word for the teachers is, “I want to change it.”
There are several key lessons here.
First, instructional coaches have to deeply understand the teaching practices they share.
Second, instructional coaches have to find precise language to describe in easy-to-understand language how a new teaching practice will look in a teacher’s classroom.
Third, rather than telling teachers how to do it (encouraging mindless fidelity) instructioncal coaches should engage teachers in reflective conversations about how they think teaching practices might work in their classrooms (mindful engagement).
By treating teachers like professionals–by letting them do at least some of the thinking–instructional coaches have a much better chance of enabling high-quality teaching and better student learning–and isn’t that the whole point?