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"Kernel Routines" Can Help Make Beneficial Changes in Practice More Sticky
November 25, 2015 | Comments
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By Cathy Gassenheimer

Why do new practices, proven to improve teaching and learning, not often take hold in classrooms and schools?

This is the question addressed by researchers Lauren Resnick, James Spillane, Pam Goldman, and Elizabeth Rangel, in a chapter from an important international book titled The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice (OECD, 2010).

NOTE: In my first post about the valuable understandings found in this book, I highlighted the 10 cornerstones of cognitive research about teaching and learning.
The authors suggest there are at least four reasons that most classrooms still look like those of our parents.
► First, education still has a “relatively weak knowledge base” with no formal way of systematically incorporating new knowledge into practice.
► Second, teacher preparation and a good deal of professional development relies on “telling what is known” or reading a “specific set of texts—sometimes in the original scholarly versions.”  Unfortunately the result is predictable:
"Most practitioners in the field can remember the names and claims of a few major theorists but the links between research-based prescriptions and what educators actually do in their work are thin. An unannounced visitor to a random school or classroom would encounter very little practice that matches the principles of learning and instruction being taught in teacher preparation programs.

"The same goes for principles of educational leadership: the vocabulary of distributed leadership, or ‘professional learning communities,’ can be heard at professional meetings but is more rarely found in practice” (p. 287)

► A third reason, the authors posit, is even when schools and districts embrace a reform initiative, they may try to fit the innovation into the existing instructional program, often watering it down, or causing frustration and eventual abandonment of the innovation.

► And, finally, teachers’ belief systems may get in the way. “Beliefs about who can learn what run deep in our schooling system and our societies. Despite substantial research showing that ability to learn can be acquired (Resnick and Nelson Le-Gall, 1997; Greeno, Collins and Resnick, 1996), educators in most Western countries continue to believe that intelligence and aptitude set limits on learning…” (p. 288)

Using "Kernel Routines" to Promote New Practices

To overcome these barriers, the authors suggest using what they call “kernel routines” that promote organizational change. Kernel routines are those that have “the potential for transforming school practice by ‘seeding’ and ‘propagating’ new forms of practice in schools” (p. 293).
The idea is to introduce a routine that -- because it is highly specified and supported by well-defined tools and strategies -- can be implemented quickly at a reasonable level of quality under the guidance of the principal or other school leader. The routine has to be visibly focused on teaching and learning and responsive to established standards of accountability in the school.
Kernel routines...link school management functions to classroom practice, thus helping to reverse the loose coupling between classroom practice and policy that has hindered progress in education. The kernel routine strategy does not simply impose a new process on teachers but rather provides sets of structured opportunities for teachers to understand and embrace new forms of teaching. Kernel routines work by connecting and weaving together other organizational routines in the organization. Rather than attempting to drive out current practices, the kernel routine recruits and "re-purposes" the familiar ways of doing things.
[If you're interested, Resnick explains the kerneling process in an illustrated lecture published in Educational Researcher in 2010: "Nested Learning Systems for the Thinking Curriculum." You can download it here.]

Six Criteria for Effectiveness

To be effective, a kernel routine must meet six criteria (p. 294):
  • First, it must be centered on the technical core—teaching and student learning. (This is very similar to the Instructional Core, which is focused on the content, the teaching, and student learning. The most important aspect of the instructional core is the instructional task. The authors of Instructional Rounds in Education say “the instructional task is the actual work that students are asked to do in the process of instruction—not what teachers think they are asking students to do, or what the official curriculum says that students are asked to do, but what they are actually asked to do” (p. 23).
  • Second, the kernel routine must be anchored both in the official curriculum of the district and the enacted curriculum of the classroom—what is actually delivered to students Yet, too often we find teachers relying on the textbook or their “favorite unit,” even if it is not part of Alabama’s College-and-Career-Ready Standards. And, related to the first kernel routine, the level of the task should be challenging, moving from simply memorization to meaningful learning that relates to real-world application.
  • Third, it must build common understanding about teaching and learning among district and school staff members. (Many of the educators in ABPC networks have participated in the exercise where they watch a video of a lesson and then give it a letter grade. Every time we use it, grades range from A to F, with the average grade being about C+. If we can’t reach consensus on what good teaching and learning “looks like,” we’ll never get there).
  • Fourth, the kernel routine must build trust and mutual access among school staff members. Without trust, it is impossible to build the type of collaborative culture where teachers work together to develop a common vision of effective teaching. Trust enables the shift from teacher isolation to deep and effective collaboration, resulting in better teaching and student learning gains. Over time, a culture based on trust can seed collective responsibility where the faculty “owns” all students, not just the ones they teach.
  • Fifth, it must provide routes by which new knowledge can enter the school’s community of practice (This involves job-embedded professional learning that not only helps teachers learn and deeply understand the practice, but also to collaborate with teachers to create lessons, observe each other, and revise lessons based on that feedback).
  • Sixth, it must be open to transformation over time without loss of its core designed elements (This touches on two of the five factors Chris Dede of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education suggests are necessary for an innovation to scale: Shift and Evolution. Watch a short video of Dede describing his 5 dimensions.

What Does a Kernel Routine Look Like?

The authors list two examples of kernel routines they have created: Learning Walks and the Pedagogy and Content Routine. Learning Walks are very similar to Instructional Rounds, but instead of focused on reaching a common vision of effective teaching, they involve teachers learning from each other. Watch a video that captures one school’s take on Learning Walks:

The second highlighted kernel routine, the "Pedagogy and Content Routine," is described by Resnick, et al as “a highly participatory training routine for teachers and coaches that is specific to the demanding programs they are expected to teach." Because it is copyrighted, I found it less useful for our work. (Resnick describes it in some detail in her lecture published by Educational Researcher.)
Are you using any kernel routines that are "designed to deliberately displace standard routines of practice"? Maybe you don't call them that but please share. We’d love to learn from you [permalink for this post]
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