Action expresses priorities.”   —Gandhi
Action is the foundational key to all success.”   —Pablo Picasso

A new year has begun, and along with it come the resolutions–to eat better, exercise more, read more, stay in touch with friends, travel; the list goes on. The beginning of a new year for schools is much the same: we all start with great intentions and plans built around the important work necessary to improve student achievement outcomes. We know the research, we have the data, we have the personnel, and we know the great need that exists in our schools—but how do we move beyond the knowing-doing gap? How do we turn that knowledge into measurable action?

I chose this topic because of its relationship to sustainable organizational transformation in our schools and school systems and the importance of building capacity and fostering a growth mindset where we reflect on our current practices and take action based on that knowledge. This message is an important reminder that to truly transform our educational system will require measurable and purposeful actions, driven by research, data, and evidence on a daily basis. Years have been spent discussing and planning without always converting our knowledge into action. It is the difference between espoused practices and enacted practices,  and it connects right back to those new year’s resolutions that often don’t make it past January or February.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, the authors of The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, assert that “one of the most important insights from our research is that knowledge that is actually implemented is much more likely to be acquired from learning by doing than from learning by reading, listening, or even thinking” (p. 6). This speaks to the critical importance of job-embedded professional learning and coaching to make these important, sustainable changes. It also speaks to the importance of implementation with fidelity and accountability. Let’s consider a few key points from the book:

  • Knowing what to do is not enough. The authors conclude that “knowledge management systems seem to work best when the people who generate the knowledge are also those who store it, explain it to others, and coach them as they try to implement the knowledge” (p. 21).
  • Culture is important when implementing change. The authors state, “In organization after organization that failed to translate knowledge into action, we saw a pervasive atmosphere of fear and distrust” (p. 109). The connection to this point is again the importance of school leaders being able to manage the change process and recreate culture. There have been too many examples of school reforms that did not have any impact on student achievement because nothing was done to address the culture of the school. “Fear helps create knowing-doing gaps because acting on one’s knowledge requires that a person believe he or she will not be punished for doing so—that taking risks based on new information and insight will be rewarded, not punished” (p. 110).
  • Shared leadership and a culture of collaboration have a huge impact. “Another key to the firm’s success, and to the success of many of the firms that turn knowledge into action, is decentralized decision making. This practice encourages people to learn things and to actually implement their knowledge” (p. 128). We know that successful schools are schools that foster a culture for learning that is safe and collaborative and that encourage people to take risks.

The strengths of this book are the honest examinations of the knowing-doing gap and how we can learn from the examples of others while examining our own practices regarding inaction. We can’t let fear or the fear of making mistakes stop us from making decisions. As school leaders, we need to use evidence-based management and convert knowledge into actions that can be measured in terms of outcomes for both student and adult learning. This all goes back to the importance of fostering a culture for learning based on a growth mindset and measurable action steps.

We have the knowledge and we know the need. How will we respond so that we impact the lives of the students we serve? How will we close our knowing-doing gap?