Problems of Practice: The Necessary Steps

What is a problem of practice? A problem of practice is an area that a school or school district identifies that focuses on the instructional core, is directly observable, is actionable, and connects to a broader strategy of improvement. Identifying a problem of practice is the first step and element of instructional rounds. After the problem of practice is identified, the theory of action, or the tentative solution to the issue, can be applied to begin addressing the problem.

Step 1: Identifying the Problem

  • Does the problem focus on the instructional core?
  • Is it observable?
  • Is it within the school or district’s control and can be improved in real time?
  • If acted on, will the problem make a significant difference for student learning?

The problem of practice is grounded in evidence such as data and dialogue. For example, a “hunch” that third-grade students are not applying what they are learning in math lessons is NOT grounded evidence. However, identifying that 70% of students did not pass the math section of the standardized tests last year is grounded evidence suitable to identify a problem of practice.

Step 2: Brainstorm

  • The school / school district should assemble a network to:
    • Ask relevant questions concerning the problem of practice
    • Develop objectives about mending the problem of practice

Let’s say there is still the issue of third-grade students not applying what they are learning in their math lessons. During this brainstorm, the network can ask questions such as,

What kinds of tasks are students being asked to do during their math lessons?

What will students know and be able to do as a result of the math lessons?

What types of questions are students missing on the standardized test?

From these questions, the network can discern how the school or district needs to shape their objectives. So let’s say we find out that third-grade students are asked to do many sets of multiple choice math questions in class. These questions generally help them with elimination and estimation. And perhaps the math sections on the state standardized test that they are missing are mostly open-response.

From this brainstorm, the network will be able to create the school or district’s main objective: to have all third-grade students increase their level of performance on the math section of the state test.

To achieve this, the school will focus on one area of weakness as indicated by their analysis: open response math questions.

With the development of questions and objectives, the problem of practice is no longer just raw data and material but is beginning to take shape.

Step 3: Solidify 

  • After a problem is developed and an objective is identified, give the problem of practice time to simmer
  • Reach out to wider faculty for confirmation

Once a problem of practice is shaped and the brainstorm is finished, it is important for the school or district to give it some time before jumping into the theory of action. Ask important questions. Is the problem of practice narrow and focused enough? Does it feel relevant and meaningful? Is it clear?

Have faculty look over it and give their opinion. Once the school or district is satisfied with the problem of practice, it is time to move on to the next element of instructional rounds, that is developing a theory of action.

Breaking Down The Theory of Action

What is a theory of action? A theory of action can be thought of as a story line that makes a vision and a strategy concrete. It provides a line of narrative that leads people through the daily complexity and distractions that compete with the main work of the instructional core. The theory of action provides a map that carries the vision through the organization. It provides a way of testing the assumptions and suppositions of the vision against the unfolding realities of the work in actual organizations with actual people.

A Theory of Action has three main requirements:

1. The Causal Role – The theory of action must begin with a statement of a causal relationship

  • When learning from instructional rounds, it is important for individuals to develop their own personal theories of action and then share them with their colleagues
    • If the adults who work in schools are actively learning about the causal relationship between their work and the work between other teachers and other students, then support for improved instructional practice will increase and the work of teachers and students will become more effective
    • The learning and development of adults must be explicitly connected,through organizational processes, to the learning and development of students in classrooms
      • Investing in higher results for teachers’ level of understanding increases student engagement and high-level cognitive results

2. The Conditional Role – It must be empirically falsifiable

  • Theories of action that develop during instructional rounds are always subject to revision and specification in light of new evidence
    • Questioning the practice is not a bad thing, it is part of the practice

3. The Open Role: It must be open-ended

  • The theory of action is expected to change as the network members learn more about what helps them learn and what leads them to apply their learning most effectively in schools
    • Having a final theory of action is not as important as having an open-ended strategy that is ready to adjust to change

How to apply a theory of action to your district:

To apply the theory of action in a larger context, taking action is the next step after shaping and identifying the problem of practice. Applying a personal theory of action can go something like this:

  • First, develop a clearly articulated and widely held and understood point of view on what high-quality teaching and learning looks like
    • Make sure this view is shaped by the best thinking possible (inside and outside the district) about improving the instructional core
  • Secondly, build a collaborative learning culture that replaces the compliance orientation (for children and adults) typical of most districts
    • Create one with engagement, collaboration, and continuous learning
  • Lastly, develop and implement coherent, system-wide strategies that support the kind of teaching and learning that districts want in all their classrooms
    • Build a theory of action that articulates your belief about how to most effectively improve instruction and student learning, focusing deeply on a few key strategies that bring this theory of action to life

Instructional Rounds in Education: A Networked Approach to Teaching and Learning (City, Elizabeth A., Elmore, Richard F., Fiarman Sarah E. and Teitel, Lee. Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education, 2009.)

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