Speaker Reflection: Implementation Science and Organizational Behavior Management in K-12 Education

This week I saw a presentation by Amanda Borosh, a special education teacher and behavior analyst who is currently a doctoral student at Purdue. In her work, she applies implementation science and organizational behavior management (OBM) to K-12 education. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the live presentation (I was hosting a review session for another class at the same time!), but the recording was very engaging and clear. I had not heard of implementation science or organizational behavior management before, but she gave a very accessible overview. The two fields are distinct from human performance technology (HPT), but have strong similarities. Because they are largely popular in healthcare and the corporate world, it was very interesting to hear how their principles can play out in schools.

Implementation science studies how researchers’ findings can be adopted and regularly used by practitioners in a field. Someone working in HPT might use implementation science to help carry out some of their proposed solutions.

Organizational behavior management focuses on improving an organization’s productivity with principles from behaviorism (conditioning, antecedents and consequences for behavior, and so on). HPT could be seen as a sub-field of OBM, focusing on the human element of the organization.

One of the main motivations behind her work is the research-to-practice gap in education. Researchers come up with evidence-based practices to help students succeed, but many of those don’t actually get put into practice in the classroom. It could be a resistance to change on the part of teachers or schools, or inaccessibility on the part of researchers, or probably a combination of both. But the result is that both researchers and teachers are wasting time and resources, and students don’t get to benefit from evidence-based practices.

In her presentation, Ms. Borosh walked through an example of how her team is using implementation science and OBM to help to introduce a specific evidence-based practice into regular use at a local elementary school. You can learn more about her work on her website. She also shared a Youtube video with a more general example of how implementation science can be applied in K-12 schools.

While I don’t see myself going deep into implementation science or OBM, I think some principles from these fields will be useful to keep in mind as a learning designer. One that will stick with me is the active implementation formula, which is outlined in the video above:

[Effective Practice] × [Effective Implementation] × [Enabling Context] = [Socially Significant Outcomes]

I can’t help it, I’m a mathematician at heart, and my first instinct is to check that the “equations” make sense! What first stood out to me is that the active implementation formula is a multiplication equation. Compare with one of the more common equations in learning design and performance technology, the gap analysis:

[Desired Status] – [Actual Status] = [Gap]

This is an addition/subtraction equation. It implies that if you just add your intervention to the actual status, you’ll get the desired status, and the problem will be solved. If you’re not quite reaching that desired status, you can try adding more.

The multiplication equation is different because shortcomings in one area have strong consequences on the whole operation. Making one element really great can’t make up for deficiencies in the other elements. And if two of those elements are only half as effective as they should be, they won’t add up to make a whole: on the other hand, the result will be only a quarter as effective (or less!).

The active implementation formula readily applies to online education. In fact, I think it’s especially important to consider for online students because the “enabling context” is much more variable than a face-to-face course, and is mostly beyond the designer’s and the teacher’s control.

It’s easy to get excited with all the possibilities for online learning: limitless space! huge networks of information! complex interactions! But the fact remains that millions of students across the US don’t have adequate internet access for even basic course activities (see, for example, this article from EdSurge). Pouring more resources into the content and design of an online resource will be useless for these students who cannot access it in the first place: we must deal with the real environments where learners live and work.

For a learning designer, implementation science and performance technology both underscore the importance of thinking holistically. It might be tempting to stick to your own little area and let others deal with the rest. However, ignoring those other factors ends up devaluing your own work. Your creation won’t be evaluated in isolation: its effectiveness depends on how and where it is implemented. Context is everything!

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