When asked to support folks in implementing something new, coaches in a variety of fields are aware of the “knowing-doing gap” - the idea that individuals are often aware of the best practice, but for a variety of reasons, do not find success in implementing that practice. This situation tends to result in frustration; for those who supervise the individual, for those who the individual interacts with as peers, and perhaps most importantly, for the individual themselves. Our unique experience as instructional coaches has made us keenly aware that “the gap between knowing and doing is more famously vast in education than in any other profession" (Hall & Simeral, 2008). How, then, might we work to close it?
Before any attempt to close the gap, instructional leaders and coaches must first work to identify the type of gap that exists. In our experience, there are two varieties of knowing-doing gap: in some cases, teachers are aware of a best practice, yet lack the skill base to implement it. In other cases, teachers have both the theoretical and practical knowledge to implement best practices yet lack the will to do so. This knowing-doing gap is often narrow; teachers who are proficient in other areas find themselves with a gap in a certain area they find hard to overcome.
In cases where there is a “skill” gap, teachers can articulate the rationale behind a practice (an essential first step) but need support to implement it effectively. For example, many teachers experience this when first implementing Peer Conversations; they know that students should be asked to talk to each other and paraphrase, yet the practice is sometimes ineffective as the teacher is not yet able to facilitate structured academic talk. Frustration ensues and the strategy does not become an integral part of their practice if no other supports are available.
Much like any other learner, teachers in this situation would benefit from additional learning and practice related to the target skill. This might take the form of a professional learning opportunity in which they participate in an exemplary use of the strategy, and then deeply explore the structure of the strategy in a debriefing conversation. Similarly, the teacher might also find value in observing the modeling of the practice and engaging in a reflective conversation that explores the successes and challenges of implementation. In either instance, the teacher engages in reflection and conversation which prompts them to think about what successful implementation in their own classroom might look like. No matter the initial support, the teacher would work together with the leader/coach to organize follow-up classroom visits and feedback sessions focused on building capacity with the target skill. Through such collaboration, the teacher can successfully close the knowing-doing gap.
Where a “will” gap exists, leaders and coaches face a different challenge. We are reminded of the old joke about therapists and the lightbulb: “The lightbulb has to really want to change.” When coaching for professional growth, the coach/leader cannot simply prescribe a solution to a teacher; after all, if such prescriptions were effective, there would be no knowing-doing gap. Instead, such change can be affected through reflective conversations that probe the teacher’s attitudes and beliefs connected to the targeted skill area. Through this reflection, a teacher can be encouraged to examine and give voice to the reasons why their knowing-doing gap exists. Such conversations can often be emotional; it is not often in day-to-day life that such intense introspection occurs. However, the power of these conversations presents itself when a teacher comes to the realization that their choices have neutrally (at best) or negatively impacted student experiences and outcomes. At that level of self-awareness, we begin to see meaningful changes in instruction.
Be prepared - we caution that sometimes a single reflective question or conversation does not lead to such change. In many cases, the topic may need to be revisited throughout a series of reflective conversations. In our experience, this repeated exploration of beliefs can ignite slow, yet meaningful change. In cases when the need for change is so dire as to be immediate, instructional coaches must inform instructional leaders of the situation. Likewise, instructional leaders must be ready, willing, and able to make tough decisions about formal steps. Such decisions should not be made lightly, and never after one emotional coaching conversation; they should only be considered when a persistent pattern of resistance is presented. In other words, we must first seek to understand and build teachers’ capacities, rather than to punish them for not immediately implementing a known best practice.
Knowing-doing gaps often cause much consternation, especially when the cause of the knowing-doing gap is not understood. Once instructional coaches and leaders have identified those causes, they can begin to work with individual and groups of teachers to close them. For further information, or to inquire about how our team can help your school system close its own knowing-doing gaps, please contact us.