The Knowing-Doing Gap

In the 1990’s, the Delaware Department of Education assigned an inexperienced educator the daunting task of leading a task force to determine what should be done in order to improve failing high schools. I was a representative of the district in which I worked and sat quietly as suggestion after suggestion was made. After an hour of a futile pursuit of consensus, I suggested the issue was not what it was that should be done; rather, I suggested it would be more productive if we figured out why educators were not implementing what leaders in schools and districts had already decided should be done.

My suggestion generated some discussion, but before we pursued the matter too far, the facilitator turned the group back toward the task with which she had been charged. Ultimately, nothing came of the inexperienced educator’s attempts, through no fault of her own, nor was there a groundswell of interest in my suggestion!

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton studied the phenomenon of someone failing to implement what they knew they should implement and wrote a book called The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action.

Note the reference to “Companies” in the title of the book. For some reason—even though schools are complex systems with many of the same sub-systems and systemic interactions found in business entities—educators, according to my non-scientific sample of one, are loathe to look toward the over a century’s worth of research generated in the fields of management and industrial psychology, much of which—including the title referenced above—has direct relevance to some of the most significant challenges educational leaders are expected to face.

Looking back over four decades devoted to public education, my non-scientific sample of one leads me to hypothesize that the Knowing-Doing Gap is an underlying foundation of failure in challenged schools. (Note that I have not used root cause because underlying foundation, to me, suggests an observation/opinion and not a specific determination arrived at by a structured, root cause analysis.)

The emotional impediments and social machinations that are the foundation of the Knowing-Doing Gap are complex, which means the approaches management must use to overcome the gap must be equally complex, but there is one simple axiom that every educational leader must accept and address unless s/he has a profound need to fail. The axiom is this observation by Francis Cummins Lockwood, quoted in The Freshman and His College (1913) by Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury:

We must view with profound respect the infinite capacity of the human mind to resist the introduction of useful knowledge.

If you are an educator, you can imagine the number of times I have been a participant in professional development over the decades, including the numerous events I have facilitated for other educators, especially in the final years of my career. It is astonishing to me how often my colleagues participated in those sessions but never implemented what it was to which they had been exposed. And if you are an educator, I am certain you are either an example of, or know colleagues who exemplify the Knowing-Doing Gap, i.e. there is a gap between what such persons know they should be doing, and what it is they are actually doing in their classrooms.

What this means is, the decisions made by Knowing-Doing Gappers indicate the Gappers value their individual non-scientific samples of one over, say, Robert Marzano’s nine High-Yield Instructional Strategies, which were derived from a meta analysis of over 4000 pieces of juried research.

In my experience (my non-scientific sample of one), the Knowing-Doing Gap is a huge problem in education, especially in schools populated by the most disadvantaged and challenged students. If you are an educational leader, I believe wholeheartedly that you should challenge yourself to learn all you can about the specific origins of, and specific approaches to overcome, the Knowing-Doing Gap. You can buy, study, and reflect upon Pfeffer’s and Sutton’s book using the link provided above, but if you’re as busy as I was when I was a high school principal, and you’re reading this post at eleven-thirty p.m. because it’s the first free minutes you’ve had all day, you might want to check out the following summary of Pfeffer’s and Sutton’s work that a blogger named Jason Yip put together in 2012 (Eight guidelines for closing the knowing-doing gap). I offer Yip’s summary below with the hope that it might motivate you to learn more about the Knowing-Doing Gap:

  • Why before How: philosophy is important. Focus on Why (philosophy, general guidance) before How (detailed practices, behaviors, techniques).
  • Knowing comes from doing and teaching others how. “Knowing by doing develops a deeper and more profound level of knowledge and virtually by definition eliminates the knowing-doing gap.”
  • Action counts more than elegant plans and concepts. Ready, fire, aim. Act even if you haven’t had the time to fully plan the action.
  • There is no doing without mistakes. What is the (top leadership’s) response? Forgive failure. “Reasonable failure should never be received with anger.”
  • Fear fosters knowing-doing gaps, so drive out fear. “Organizations that are successful in turning knowledge into action are frequently characterized by leaders who inspire respect, affection, or admiration, but not fear.”
  • Beware of false analogies: fight the competition, not each other. Collaboration and cooperation over competition. “The idea that the stress of internal competition is necessary for high levels of performance confuses motivation with competition.” 4
  • Measure what matters and what can help turn knowledge into action. “The foundation of any successfully run (school) is a strategy everyone understands coupled with a few key measures that are routinely tracked.” Focus on measuring the business model/process (aka why outcomes are achieved) over the outcomes.
  • What leaders do, how they spend their time and how they allocate resources matters. “Leaders create environments, reinforce norms, and help set expectations through what they do, through their actions and not just their words.

If you are an educational leader who is placed into the role of change agent, and you ignore the possible existence of Knowing-Doing Gaps, I worry that you will be spending hours on planning for change that is likely to be doomed from the start. If you are a teacher, and you are allowing your non-scientific sample of one to drive your practice, and not what you know is known about what works best with your specific kids, then get over yourself! You and I can “view with profound respect the infinite capacity of the human mind to resist the introduction of useful knowledge,” but if you are a teacher charged with the moral imperative to educate our children and do not implement with fidelity what research indicates works in classrooms like yours, are you truly fulfilling that moral imperative?

How would you feel about having an oncologist treat your child’s leukemia if that doctor had not incorporated into her practice what had been learned about the treatment of leukemia over the previous thirty years? If such a doctor somehow managed to establish a practice, it is highly likely that she would be sued for malpractice and ultimately drummed out of the profession.

How many teachers continue to practice on our kids, despite exhibiting the exact lack of professionalism shown by the oncologist described above, and why, as a culture, do we continue to tolerate this travesty? Why are these teachers not drummed out of the profession? Perhaps that is just one more example of a Knowing-Doing Gap!

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(Photo by Peter Olexa from Pixabay ; no copyright infringement is intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the images in this post)