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What’s a Theory of Action and Why Do We Need One?

A wise colleague once noted that even the most researched strategy is no better than your best bet. However certain you may be, you’ll not truly know if it works until you try it. So until it’s proven – in your context, with your students, and with your teachers, it’s still at best (or worst) a guess. A theory.

That’s my first point. That strategy is a guess and that there is some theory behind a decision to use one particular strategy over another, or at least there should be. Having a theory of action that accompanies an improvement strategy requires that someone or, better yet, someone(s) have articulated a rationale behind the strategy. Why do we think professional learning communities will improve student learning? How will adopting a new literacy program grow stronger readers and writers? What is the thinking behind an emphasis on teacher evaluation as it relates to student learning? It makes good sense to think through a decision to choose one action over another and even better sense to make this thinking public. This thinking, your rationale, is, in short, your theory of action.

A theory of action is at its core, a simple IF, THEN statement. IF we have professional learning communities, THEN student learning will improve. IF we adopt a new literacy program, THEN our students will be stronger readers and writers. IF we emphasize teacher evaluation, THEN student learning will improve. But do you note something amiss with these statements? They’re pretty general and there is not really any linkage between the IF statement and the THEN conclusion. For example, it’s a pretty big leap to imagine that just having PLCs will improve student learning and yet this theory is in play all across the country. This is my second point about theories of action. Its power lies within the specificity of thought, in the explicit reasoning that calls attention to essential steps and checkpoints. If left unstated, it is far too easy to just put a new strategy into place and during implementation miss critical elements that will render a good idea, such as professional learning communities, a success or failure when it comes to impacting student learning.

So let’s try this again and stretch it out into what Liz City (Instructional Rounds: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning, 2009) calls a storyline using professional learning communities as an example. Here’s how a more explicit theory of action might look:

IF we have professional learning communities, THEN we will have a scheduled time for teachers to discuss their work and the work students produce.

And IF teachers share their work and the results with each other, THEN they will be able to learn from each other’s successes and draw upon the expertise of their colleagues around common challenges.

And IF teachers draw upon the expertise and successes of their colleagues around common challenges, THEN teachers will be able to incorporate new and successful strategies into their practice with support from their colleagues.

And IF teachers incorporate successful strategies into their practice, THEN students will benefit from more effective teaching.

AND THEN student learning will increase.

What this example shows is that any improvement strategy is a sequence of strategic actions and that each must have an associated rationale (or theory). Why is this important? Because if you are not clear on what each element is intended to produce, you’ll not be able to test whether your theory was correct and it’s entirely possible you’ll get down the road and decide your strategy is not having the desired effect on student learning and dump it. And while it may be that the strategy was ineffective, it’s just as possible that one element wasn’t implemented quite the way you expected, or that you needed to tweak something in the middle.

Let’s go back to the PLC example again. In my practice I have watched district after district mandate professional learning communities after an inspiring workshop from the DuFours or a book study. And the most common response to my question, “how are they working for you?” is “some are and some aren’t.” And just as often, no one is ever able to point to a link to student learning as a result. So a good idea runs the risk of investing tremendous resources with no outcomes that affect students, or getting dropped in favor of the newest fad from the latest conference.

But a theory of action around PLC’s that specified what was expected to happen establishes a clear path toward the goal of impacting student learning. It becomes a set of checkpoints to make sure the expected outcomes at each step along the way are realized and suggests important interventions if they are not. What if, for example, early in the implementation process it was discovered that although the schools had found blocks of time for PLC’s to meet, the meetings consisted of nut and bolts or task assignments? Or that the teachers look at student work but not at their own? This is my third point and perhaps the most important. Strategies, because they are best bets,need to have regular and specific checkpoints so that you’re able to test the theory behind the actions underway. A sequential theory of action, as in the example above, offers certain proof points that can suggest whether or not you’re on the right track, whether an intervention could be helpful, or if there are some important steps to your theory that were missing. Harvard University Professor Richard Elmore, who was largely responsible for bringing the concept of theories of actions to the world of K-12 education, says that theories of action, if written at all, should be written in pencil. If it’s doing its job, your theory of action will be revised and adapted to reflect your learning as you follow the predicted and actual events of strategy implementation.

So what’s a theory of action? Your best thinking made explicit…. Your rationale for choosing one strategy over another…. Your predicted course of action with identified checkpoints and evidence that it’s working, or not. Why do you need one? Because even the best ideas can fall flat when we enter that perilous place called implementation. And our students rely on our diligence to make sure that our best bets are working for them.

Can I help you think through your theory of action? Let me know!

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