Schools are busy places, where time and money are precious, and educators and school leaders are experiencing increasing workloads. There is talk of doing fewer things, but how do you actually do that?
De-implementation is a term that is gaining traction with educators who are interested in freeing up time by removing low-value practices (DeWitt, 2022) which allows us to focus on the things that will have the greatest impact for students. Understanding what de-implementation is, the benefits it may bring, and what ‘good’ de-implementation looks like, is essential to ensure this complex process isn’t oversimplified or misapplied.
What is de-implementation?
De-implementation is the art and science of removing an approach, practice, initiative, or program that is no longer meeting student and school needs. It is commonly described as the ‘discontinuation of existing practices or interventions’ (McKay et al., 2018) or ‘stopping practices that are not evidence‐based’ (Prasad, 2014).
We use the term de-implementation to refer to the removal of embedded, school-wide, low-value approaches through a thoughtful process over time. De-implementation can also refer to stopping individual work practices such as checking emails after hours, but that is not our focus in this article.
De-implementation, like implementation, is most likely to lead to a sustainable change when the process is thoughtful and well-defined. Schools may wish to ‘stop’ particular activities, but this desire isn’t always supported by processes to account for the challenge of removing something that might be interwoven with the culture of a school, or the professional identity of a teacher.
What is there to gain?
De-implementation is not a silver bullet for reducing workload.
But it is a practical option for school leaders who are looking to focus on implementing and sustaining practices that have the most impact for all students.
Removing ineffective, costly, duplicative or time-consuming (low-value) initiatives that can be withdrawn without disadvantaging students may result in a range of benefits (McKay et al. 2018; Prasad, 2014), including:
- giving time ‘back’ to teachers, to focus on effective teaching and learning, and prioritising support for students;
- removing programs or initiatives that are having little or no impact or are detrimental; and,
- enabling the reallocation of resources to more impactful initiatives.
What does the evidence say?
There is limited research evidence on de-implementation in schools, and so we rely heavily on what we have learnt from other fields – such as medicine and social science – paired with the evidence base and our experience from working with schools on implementation (Evidence for Learning, 2022b; Evidence for Learning, 2020; Evidence for Learning, 2019).
Emerging research from social science has highlighted that differing scenarios for ‘why’ you are de-implementing, may inform the most appropriate response (Wang et al., 2018). No matter the impetus, however, a few central tenets commonly arise – including the need for a clear understanding of the evidence to inform a de-implementation decision, strong and regular communication with stakeholders, and, of particular relevance to educators: the importance of professional development (PD). As part of the PD process, school leaders should consider – what ‘learning’, and also ‘unlearning’, needs to take place for de-implementation to be successful?
What are the key considerations for school leaders?
Much like effective implementation, de-implementation is not a simple, one-off activity, but a process requiring time, planning and follow through. An effective de-implementation process is likely to be cyclical and follow the same interconnected stages – explore, prepare, deliver and sustain (Evidence for Learning, 2019).
Using local data and the latest research evidence to determine approaches that are ready for de-implementation is crucial to ensure that the ‘right’ approaches are selected (Evidence for Learning, 2022a). The gathered data and research evidence can provide transparent information to communicate the necessity of the de-implementation to staff and other stakeholders. Creating this case for change is important to build acceptability amongst those who will be affected. The latter stages of a school review process, or the start of a new annual planning cycle, may be opportune moments to review data to determine what might be suitable for de-implementation.
Having made the decision to de-implement, a thorough phase to prepare for the de-implementation should take place, resulting in a plan which articulates the activities, communication required, professional learning (and unlearning), the readiness of the school and staff to undertake de-implementation, and the indicators that will demonstrate if the de-implementation is having the intended outcomes. The development of a de-implementation plan will allow school leaders to articulate and test the intended change with all stakeholders – and help assess the degree of staff and other stakeholder acceptability, and whether the plan can be actioned with fidelity (Evidence for Learning, 2022b).
The delivery phase should focus on supporting staff, monitoring progress, solving problems, and adapting strategies, all in line with the articulated plan. It is during this phase that monitoring becomes critical. Monitoring has several purposes at this time:
- it provides a real-world picture of how the de-implementation process is occurring, including how closely your plan is being followed;
- it can inform adaptations that may be required so that the process remains responsive to the changes in the school setting; and
- it can highlight progress against ‘lead indicators’ (those short-term outcomes that feature in a plan) to signal whether the plan is likely to meet longer-term outcomes.
With long-term or widely used approaches, there is a risk that the approach will creep back into practice without sustained effort. How to sustain the de-implementation of an approach should be considered up front, with activities, such as PD opportunities, planned to support the new way of working beyond the end of the delivery phase. This may be as simple as reminders and positive reinforcement, or may require more intensive practices, like ongoing coaching, to ensure the approach is fully de-implemented.
It may feel counterintuitive to dedicate time to a process when the intention is to ease workload, and this will likely be a real challenge for school leaders embarking on de-implementation. De-implementation is an investment, but an investment that has great potential to improve student outcomes and the wellbeing of educators, if it results in freeing up time for more impactful practices.
What might you consider?
- How will you decide how long to implement or adapt something before determining it isn’t working and should be de-implemented? Have you gathered reliable evidence to support this decision? (Good use of data and monitoring and evaluation, combined with robust research evidence, as part of implementation cycles can assist with this decision)
- If you are a school leader asking your staff to de-implement an approach, what support have you planned to ensure that the change process is given the time and resources required to be successful? (For example, new or revised processes, or well-selected PD opportunities)
- If you are de-implementing an approach and replacing it with something else, do you have a clear implementation plan to guide the introduction of the new approach? (you can read more about effective implementation here)
- If you are a system leader, or in a role that supports schools, can you find ways to open a conversation about de-implementation, but also provide the supports and authorising environment to enable schools to engage in the process?
If you are developing or enacting a de-implementation project in your school, you can contact Susannah Schoeffel to share your experience with the Evidence for Learning team and with other schools.
If you’d like to read more, Evidence for Learning has developed an insights paper to assist school leaders as they think about the complex task of de-implementation, which you can find here: https://e4l.org.au/de-implementation
DeWitt, P. M. (2022). De-implementation: Creating the Space to Focus on What Works. Sage Publications: United States.
Evidence for Learning. (2019). Putting evidence to work: a school’s guide to implementation. Evidence for Learning, Sydney. https://e4l.org.au/implementation
Evidence for Learning. (2020). Northern Territory De-implementation Guide. https://evidenceforlearning.org.au/support-for-implementation/nt-school-improvement-hub/northern-territory-guidance-reports#nav-a-guide-to-de-implementation
Evidence for Learning. (2022a). Gathering and interpreting data to identify priorities. Evidence for Learning, Sydney. Available from: https://evidenceforlearning.org.au/education-evidence/guidance-reports/putting-evidence-to-work-a-schools-guide-to-implementation#nav-download-additional-tools
Evidence for Learning. (2022b). Insights to de-implementation. Evidence for Learning, Sydney. https://e4l.org.au/de-implementation
McKay, V. R., Morshed, A. B., Brownson, R. C., Proctor, E. K., & Prusaczyk, B. (2018). Letting Go: Conceptualising Intervention De‐implementation in Public Health and Social Service Settings. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62:189‐202. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ajcp.12258
Prasad, V. (2014). Evidence‐based de‐implementation for contradicted, unproven and aspiring healthcare practices. Implementation Science (9), 1‐5. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/1748-5908-9-1
Wang, V. M., Maciejewski, M.L., Helfrich, C. D., & Weiner, B. J. (2018). Working smarter not harder: Coupling implementation to de-implementation. HealthCare, 6:104‐107. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2213076417302142