Sleight of Hand – activity substitution and program fidelity

Yesterday an article by Robert Slavin was published in the Huffington Post which highlighted the critical need for fidelity in teaching programs. He highlights that, although some consideration must be made for school and student context, care must be taken to maintain the essential elements and principles which underline the approach if it is to be effect for its original purpose.

Usually these programs or learning sequences are made up of key activities that are selected and sequenced to help students achieve a particular skill or understanding. In this blog an activity is defined as a piece of instruction, learning activity, practice exercise, project etc that is selected in order to help students move closer to the intended learning of a sequence of lessons. It usually has a number of features that are crucial to its effectiveness.

Not all the changes Slavin talks about are done with the intention of adapting the program to match a context. Sometimes changes come from teachers who believe in the program and are trying to do make decisions consistent with their understanding of its purpose. Sometimes they don’t quite understand how this sequence of instruction works and what the underlying principles are. In this case, in the desire to differentiate or to adjust things so that a part of the learning better “suits” their class or school, they perform an activity substitution.

Activity substitution occurs when a teacher substitutes a different activity in place of the original. Let’s call the initial activity Task A. It has four main features: 1, 2, 3 and 4. Each of these features is essential for the effectiveness of the activity. When a substitution occurs it is usually because the teacher believes that there is an activity that they have seen that could do the same job as the original and yet has other positive features that the teacher believes would make it more suited for their students. However, the loss of the important components of the original activity actually undermine the learning that the activity was designed to aid.

So, perhaps the teacher decides to replace Task A with Task B. Perhaps Task B might share features 3 and 4 with Task A, missing 1 and 2 but has extra features 5 and 6. Then, next week, or in the next classroom, another teacher then thinks they have an activity that is better than Task B. This Task C has just features 5 and 6 from Task B and the additional features 7 and 8.

In this way Task B is related to Task A, and Task C is related to Task B, but Task C shares none of the features of Task A. On the surface Tasks A and C may share some similarities; however, in terms of the important aspects of the task, they are nothing alike. Fidelity to the progression of the learning is lost and a key point in the learning skipped.

A scientific example might be one where Task A is a read-aloud of a particular text Science. An original text is chosen because it deals with the scientific concepts involved in some events in the past. It requires students to learn about new people, places and historical contexts. It also has some complex vocabulary, but that is a point of the activity; we want the students to spend time learning new words. However, another group of teachers look at the read-aloud and note that the text is quite tricky, containing a number of words their students don’t know. In order to help the students manage the text, one teacher finds a much simpler text with similar ideas in the Usbourne Book of Kid Stuff and substitutes it for the original. Another teacher in the team believes that the historical setting of the read-aloud is making the scientific point harder to discern and so replaces the Usbourne text with a different passage using the scientific concept in a context the students are very familiar with.  


In two short time the important features of the original text have been lost. The read-aloud activity still looks similar: kids on the carpet, teacher reading from a text about science, talking about the same scientific concept. The essence, however, is lost. The original learning that the text was meant to address has been lost despite the fact that teachers are making instructional decisions with good intentions. It is an honest sleight of hand but one that is still results in a poorer experience for students.


3 thoughts on “Sleight of Hand – activity substitution and program fidelity”

  1. Seems to me the “slight of hand” here resides with the program developer rather than with the teacher. Slavin takes the same position as I do with the architects of the Polish villa, but then he does a slight of hand and blames teachers for lack of “fidelity” when instructional architects err.

    In your instructional example, the two teachers know enough to know that the prescribed program activity is going to fail with their students, either because the students’ instructional prerequisites are not up to the task, or because the developer has not clearly conveyed the task to the teacher. So they substitute to “keep the program on the road.

    What is lacking is any mechanism for a teacher to get “Tech Support” when glitches like this arise. If program developers had to “fix the glitch” in real time, they would be more likely to “fix the program” than to try to “maintain teacher fidelity.”


    1. I certainly agree that a key tenet for any teaching progression that has a set of underlying principles is that these principles need to be clear to the teacher. This is to ensure teachers can make informed decisions about their instruction that are consistent with the goals of the progression.

      In the case presented in the post, the teacher recognises that aspects 3 and 4 were important but thought that aspects 1 and 2 were unimportant guff, or, in some cases, getting in the way of the learning. This may indeed be because 1 and 2 are not worthy, but in a good progression this is less likely. Instead, this view stems from a lack of understanding. I agree that often this lack of understanding stems from those leading the program either not helping those teaching it key principles, or, alternatively, not addressing philosophical differences between the teacher and that of the program.


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