Supporting teachers through the implementation dip

A mentor who has been director of 11 schools once told me, “In the last quarter of the school year, don’t introduce anything new.”

Wise advice, considering that external assessments are on the horizon, and what we want, is to close out the school year with as much grace as we can co-create, with positive thoughts as we look forward to and plan for the next academic year.

Many of us are already thinking ahead to the next school year, and beginning to reflect on how to make things better. What we intend when it comes to the adult learning that we facilitate as coordinators, principals and team leaders is captured in this phrase from Stephen Taylor: make it easier to do better things.

When we are creating conditions to make it easier to do better things, we are paying attention to the crossings between what we are doing and what we want for outcomes of what we do. This relationship between intention and action is at the heart of our work in schools.

This terrain that we have to cross necessarily presents some discomfort. Often what our schools need necessitate change in practices; we are learning as we enact, and this ecotone can be quite uncomfortable because it presents new ways of doing things. This is often called the implementation dip.

So how do we support teachers through the implementation dip? These five statements summarize some ways to do that.

“Slow down to speed up.”

This is a nugget I learned from Bruce Wellman of Adaptive SchoolsSM . What this statement holds are a few conditions we can create to ensure that teachers are not overwhelmed with a lot of changes all at once.

What it really means is, to build those capacities for resourcefulness, first, for examples:

Building craftsmanship by modeling, rehearsing and applying strategies. Strategies are made clear through descriptions, models, case studies. By giving teachers examples of concrete applications, we alleviate the anxiety that may arise from not knowing what something means, or how it looks like.

Taking time to deliberately rehearse and reflect on rehearsal of the strategies helps to demystify them. Through this concrete examination of how these strategies look like in action, we provide the safety that teachers need to try things out, experiment.

“Give ourselves permission to experiment, to fail.”

Often, much of the anxiety during the implementation dip is because of the thought that the new thing we want to do is not something we are good at. Yet.

Adding that important word ‘yet’ allows us to aspire to that understanding and application that comes with rehearsal. The explicit and clear permission to be ‘not yet’ at mastery is important in the implementation dip. If teachers feel that the new set of practices are expected to be performed at mastery right away or close to immediately, what we get is a lot of perceptions of threat in the brains. We don’t want that. We want teachers who feel, “I can learn this.”

“Together, we hold.”

This statement implies unity, collegiality, and the support for and of colleagues. When we create a sense that we are in this together, teachers feel that there is collegial support during an implementation dip.

Have you ever experienced a collective memory with a spouse or a family? Someone in the group remembers something you don’t, and together, the group can piece together a memory and it is stronger for the collaborative and distributed cognition.

This is at work in schools, as well. One of the greatest benefits of intentional collaboration is that we pool our collective cognition, and we know more as a result.

In an implementation dip, collaboration is key to building strength of the group as a whole. This interdependence to link the variety of memories and thinking that each member of the group holds, is one of the keys to mitigate the implementation dip.

By designing collaborative reflection into our work together as a group, we provide a source of anxiety alleviation in that some group members will help others remember important information.

This linking of cognition is often overlooked, when a school forges ahead with a change.

By deliberately designing collaborative work around the change(s), we provide that networked thinking that allows for the group as a whole to utilize the cognitive capacity of the whole group.

“Changing our mind is not a bad thing.”

Flexibility as a disposition or habit of mind is the ability to change our minds about something when we gain new information.

In a way, this is the essence of mitigating the implementation dip. The implementation dip presents new ways of being, ways people may not yet have incorporated and integrated into their own mental models.

The permission we give ourselves to change our minds when presented with new information is a celebration of what it means to be a learning human. By making this process explicit in our norms, we allow ourselves to approach learning with flexibility, trusting that our colleagues will not judge us when we do change our minds.

“We have to know what we don’t know.”

Curtis and Warren (in Getha-Taylor et al., 2013) gives us four stages of competence.

The four stages are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence

When people don’t know how to do something and they do not recognize the deficit. At this stage, they may not recognize that the new skill or strategy is useful. In order to move from this level of competence, individuals must understand the value of the new skill.

        2. Conscious incompetence

This stage is when the individual understands the value of the skill and how they might not yet be able to perform it. They understand the gap between understanding and practice. They know that in the trials and rehearsals of the skill or strategy, they will make mistakes. (And they accept that making mistakes are part of the learning of the new skill or strategy.)

  • Conscious competence

In this stage, the individual understands the how of the skill or strategy. Performing the new skill requires concentration or focus. Also while in this stage, the person is intent on being aware as he executes the new skill or strategy.

  • Unconscious competence

At this stage, the individual has gained a lot of rehearsal in the skill or strategy and it has become embedded in his repertoire. To an observer, the skill is now effortless because it seems ‘second nature,’ seamlessly integrated into the practice of the person who has mastered it. Additionally, the individual can teach it to others and can break it down into its elements as he teaches others the skill or strategy.

In summary, mitigating the implementation dip can be an intentional design. The ecotone it presents does not need to be a stressful time for teachers.


Featured photo by Yiran Ding on Unsplash

Getha-Taylor, Heather; Hummert, Raymond; Nalbandian, John; Silvia, Chris (March 2013). “Competency model design and assessment: findings and future directions” (PDF). Journal of Public Affairs Education. 19 (1): 141–171. doi:10.1080/15236803.2013.12001724JSTOR 23608938.

Underhill, Adrian (January 1992.) “The role of groups in developing teacher self-awareness”. ELT Journal. 46 (1): 71–80. doi:10.1093/elt/46.1.71.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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