Flexibility Within Fidelity: Education is Both Science and Art


The term flexibility within fidelity was initially coined by Phil Kendall, a child clinical psychologist and the developer of the Coping Cat program, an evidence-based intervention for students struggling with anxiety. I’ve yet to find a profession where the notion of flexibility within fidelity does not apply. If one tried hard enough, they could probably find one, but for nearly all professions there is a need to maintain fidelity to achieve particular outcomes of interest. 

I grew up on an almond farm, and fidelity provided our family with the common language and practices to communicate with other almond farmers about how to produce a high yielding crop. Also, I am grateful for the fact that the pilot of my flight home last night maintained fidelity to the process of flying a large commercial jet in the air and landing it safely on the ground. And, I am pretty certain that a pilot from American Airlines shares language and practices with pilots from Delta or United, with the outcome being a safe flight from one place to another. Even artists and musicians have fidelity that provides the basic principles and structure upon which creativity and expression are built. 

Fidelity is an outcomes driven process, which involves delivering a practice, intervention or support consistent with how it was shown to be effective. Fidelity should be embraced in education as research has identified ‘known’ effective practices that lead to better learning and behavioral outcomes for students. For example, in the area of literacy, we know that explicit instruction to teach phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency is important to efficient word decoding that enables higher order reading comprehension. Moreover, in the area of behavior, we know that practices such as precorrection, greeting students at the door, and behavior specific praise are known effective ways of proactively supporting student behavior.

The flexible part of fidelity is that we must ensure that educators understand that they have the ability to adapt and differentiate supports and add their own creative element to known effective practices. 

I like to think of fidelity as defining the lanes or boundaries of professional practice we are trying to stay within, while flexibility is what we do with those practices to bring the practices to life in an engaging and equitable way. Fidelity, therefore, provides the structure to work within, such as 

  • the well-specified components of a practice or intervention that are hypothesized or shown to improve student outcomes, 
  • estimates regarding the ideal amount of exposure to given practice or support (that is, dosage), and 
  • certain quality indicators that increase students’ engagement and responsiveness to the practice or intervention. 

The idea of flexibility within fidelity reflects the notion that education has both a science and art to it. Education is not just a scientific process that should be rigidly delivered nor is it a strictly artful process built on an educator’s creativity alone. It is both. The science is the fidelity and the art is the creativity and personal expression applied to the process of bringing the science (i.e., known effective practices) to life in an engaging and impactful way. To do so, means that educators often adapt certain language, examples, scenarios, and cultural elements to ensure that practices are relevant and resonate with the students who they serve. 

It is critical that educators are able to break down evidence-based practices into key dimensions of fidelity and then use their autonomy and creativity when adapting the evidence-based practice to fit their classroom and students, and ultimately deliver it in an engaging, relevant, and effective way. So, rather than think about fidelity as a rigid process that aims to get educators to robotically deliver a practice, think about fidelity as a flexible process that provides structure regarding known effective practices that have been linked to student outcomes of interest. It is through autonomous, creative educators who deliver known effective practices that positive student outcomes are most likely to be achieved.

About the Author: Dr. Clay Cook is the John and Nancy Peyton Faculty Fellow in Child and Adolescent Wellbeing at the University of Minnesota and Associate Professor in the School Psychology Program. He has extensive research and practical experiences involving the implementation of multi-tiered systems of support to promote children’s social, emotional and behavioral wellbeing as the foundation for academic and life success.

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