Jul 7, 2021

Operationalizing Theories Takes Logic

Lori Vandeborne
Map of people connected to each other via a network

The Region 5 Comprehensive Center team embarked on a journey with state educational leaders in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia to co-develop a Networked Improvement Community (NIC) which is resulting in ready-made NIC facilitator resources for states, districts, building leaders and/or teacher teams to utilize. This co-creation involves a design, apply, refine, finalize, and release cycle.  The most recent set of materials released focus on creating a theory of action and the development of a logic model to put that theory into action.

The NIC members have discovered first-hand that implementing a NIC framework is by no means a linear process. Although the process is documented in a linear format, the progression through the steps may consist of a back and forth movement between steps. Since education is an ever-changing ecosystem, this non-linear movement may occur for multiple reasons such as shifts in leadership, changing participants, or shifting priorities. NIC teams also routinely revisit the initial problem of practice to confirm they are focusing on the problem and not just a symptom of the problem.

Developing a theory of action can help ensure the team is on the right track to achieve success. A theory of action is a process that outlines a vision of success for an improvement effort through a series of “if-then” assumptions around high-level actions and relationships.  To shift the theory to a concrete and operational plan, the team then creates a logic model. A logic model is a strategic tool that helps to guide longer-term goals by identifying specified actions, milestones, and outputs needed to achieve the desired outcomes.  A logic model can also help clarify what can actually be measured to help teams monitor success and bridge the transition from a theory of action, to developing a measurement infrastructure.


Theory of Action flow chart


During the steps of creating a theory of action and logic model, a team often needs to revisit and revise the previous stages in the NIC process, including the root cause analysis or refining the problem of practice, reiterating the non-linear nature of this work. To verify the direction of the work is on target, a continuous evaluation, confirmation, and refinement cycle throughout the steps are necessary and essential.

Several of our Region 5 states who have adopted the NIC process within state-specific improvement initiatives have experienced this refinement cycle firsthand. After working through the creation of a logic model, Region 5 NIC state level participants shared the following feedback about the benefits of the theory of action and logic model steps in the NIC process:

Benefits of creating a Theory of Action and Logic Model:

  • Provides both a broad view and strategic view of the work needed to achieve success
  • Highlights the context, assumptions, and external factors at play
  • Solidifies processes and identified specific workflows
  • Establishes connections between multiple activities
  • Displays information on connections of multiple departments and levels of the system
  • Provides a tool to communicate with and “rally a team” around multiple components
  • Identifies need to communicate with a larger audience than originally believed
  • Identifies components for measurement
  • Organizes thinking in a way that reduced stress through a focused effort

As indicated by the states’ feedback, logic model creation is an important step that bridges theory into action. Similar to the non-linear movement within the NIC process as a whole, it’s important to note that “logic models should not be static. As the outcomes of interest shift and the intervention activities are refined, the logic model should be updated to reflect the current state of the interventions.”  

The process of creating a logic model not only identifies specific activities required, it also helps to identify measurable components. The resulting measurement infrastructures will be utilized through a series of plan, do, study, act (PDSA) cycles, to validate the accuracy of the theory of action and inform revisions needed to achieve the desired outcomes. The Region 5 Comprehensive Center NIC is currently developing additional resources to support logic model development and the measurement infrastructure.

The Center for Assessment makes the case for why “Theories of Action Aren’t Enough: An Argument for Logic Models,” and the Regional Education Laboratory Appalachia explains “Why Build a Logic Model.”

For more information and resources, contact the Region 5 Comprehensive Center.