What if this is how we learn?

“The genius of our human minds is that they are endlessly adaptable and more powerful than we realise… learning is our superpower..” (Alex Beard, 2018)

“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.” (Dan Coyle, 2009)

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It is probably true that we can make teaching and learning too complicated; we forget the key mechanics and processes of how we learn and secure progress? It is also probably true that developments in cognitive science have not influenced teaching and education enough and that this has informed unhelpful beliefs about a child’s potential; lowering our expectations of what individuals are capable of?

Cognitive science has opened up new (and not so new) understanding of how we learn and make progress that need to better inform teaching and our present approaches to education…


What if learning something new is a physical (and chemical) process in the brain? What if the ability to know, understand or do something relies on the development and consolidation of connections in the brain? What if progress is a measure of how far these connections form and establish in the long term memory so that schemas (groups of connections in the brain) are grown so that over time a child knows, understands and is able to do more?

A schema is a cognitive framework of connections that help organise and interpret information. Schemas allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

What if the ability of our brains to group knowledge and experiences together so that we can quickly interpret the world around us is an important developmental aspect that has allowed our survival across time? What if the development of schemas in each child is unique, is the product of opportunity and learning over time (particularly in the first few years)? What if the early architecture of the brain provides the framework and structure for later learning?

Essentially, the more adept you become at a skill, the less work your brain has to do. Over time, a skill becomes automatic (hard wired) and you don’t need to think about what you’re doing. This is because your brain is actually strengthening itself over time as you learn that skill. (important to teaching as well as student learning)

What if these connections, schema and the physical and chemical altering of the brain to create long term memory is a game changer? … our minds are expandable vessels, shaped by various things we do throughout our lives…

“…no such thing as predefined ability – the brain is adaptable and training can create skills that did not exist before. This is a game changer. Learning now becomes a new way of creating abilities rather than bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones … People are not born with fixed reserves of potential; instead potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.” (Anders Ericsson)

What if Daisy Christodoulou is right?…

“When one looks at the scientific evidence about how the brain learns and at the design of our education system… one is forced to conclude that the system actively retards education… What you think about is what you remember. What you remember is what you learn.” (Daisy Christodoulou quoted in Alex Beard, 2018)

What if the following demonstrates the growth of connections in the brain? What if these show the  growth of connections as a child learns (right)… and the growth in brain size over time (left)… and the impact of extreme neglect that limits future learning?

What if we experience cognitive conflict when we experience new information and attempt to make a connection to it in our brain? If this new piece of knowledge or skill is in the proximal zone, connects into our present schema and is re-visited/reinforced over time it becomes available for application and wider understanding in the future. (it becomes retrievable from our long term memory)

What if Myelin acts like layers of insulating tape surrounding connections in the brain? What if deliberate practice, revision and revisiting supports the wrapping of myelin around connections? What if the application of new knowledge and skills, particularly in new contexts allows both greater solidity of connections and more securing connections to be added? What if overcoming cognitive conflict and permanently assimilating new knowledge, understanding and skills into schemas (secured as long term memory) is progress?

What if this is Myelin; the layers wrapping around a connection in the brain?

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What if the sparking and cementing of new connections is often revealed in our language? What if this is an example of how the developing connections in the brain have located “elbow, shoulder and soldier” in the same area?…

Daughter: Can I have some elbows with my runny egg? (mis-fired connection)

Father: You don’t mean elbows do you?

Daughter: No, ..(pauses, thinks).. can I have shoulders? (mis-fired connection)

Father: You don’t mean that either, do you?

Daughter: No, ..(shakes head, pauses, smiles). I mean soldiers with my egg? (new myelin formed)

What if early learning, in the first few years, is the key to establishing the architecture of the brain and on building the connections that provide the basis for later learning? What if the research suggests that differences in genes only accounts for 3 to 7% of an individual’s IQ?

What if there is no innate talent? What if differences in levels of attainment are the result of the following conditions over time?

  1. growing up in a family that consistently provides opportunities, over time.
  2. where significant others support and encourage effort. Often an expert coach or tutor whose direction enables deliberate practice.
  3. where risk and failure is embraced.
  4. and where expectations are high; it is not ok to give up.

What if this is why deliberate practice is key to the altering of long term memory and to automation; the use of hard wired, often visited, set of connections that enable sub-conscious-like recall or execution of skill? What if this is a useful summary of deliberate practice from Malcolm Gladwell…

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What if the concept of a proximal zone is useful when we consider how connections are formed in the brain? What if Vygotsky is still relevant; that learning occurs when children are taught and supported to think and seek meaning in their proximal zone … that area where a child’s existing schema (connections) are in place to connect to the new knowledge?

What if the following diagram shows connections in a brain and the location of the proximal zone around the outside? What if the yellow dot highlights the impact of pitch of learning on how this is responded to by the Brain? (Highlighting when securing, conflict and rejection of new knowledge occurs)

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What if the ability of teachers to dance between cognitive conflict (middle) and consolidation (left) is the key to sparking and consolidating the connections in the brain that alters long term memory so that it can be recalled and used over time (progress)? What if there is also value in exposing brains to that which is not yet comprehensible to the individual – perhaps to reveal elements that are motivating a sense of awe and wonder and to sow seeds for future progress? What if reading a text to a child that is more complex than they can read supports vocabulary growth and provides hooks for future learning? (Doug Lemov, in TES, 2018)

What if we should seek desirable difficulty? What if connections are formed when we are focused and not distracted, when we experience cognitive conflict, when, because of this effort, there are physical and chemical changes in the brain that fuse and then harden, altering long term memory?

“Comfort (is) the enemy of progress.” (Barnham, Greatest Showman)

“Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.” (Matthew Syed)

What if the purposeful and ordered accumulation of knowledge and skills within a progressive knowledge-based curriculum is essential to building schema and understanding? What if we understood that it is the application of this knowledge and skill that has greater leverage on the growing of myelin and supporting the greater stickability of learning so that it can be used in the future? What if we took more notice of the specific impact of the curriculum on learning; prioritising our understanding of the “learnt curriculum”, in comparison to the “planned curriculum” or the “in-acted curriculum“… when it comes to learning and progress the learnt curriculum is the one that matters? What if the identification of key concepts and mis-concepts by age and topic within the curriculum is key to supporting the conceptual awareness that children need for the next stage of their education?

What if some connections grow stronger (greater wrapping of myelin) when the learning is rich and experiential? Riding a bike or driving a car are good examples of this hard wiring of connections in the brain.What if emotional reaction and seeking/reflecting on meaning significantly enhances the chance of assimilating new knowledge into an existing schema and then consolidated as a change in long term memory?…

“A very important element of learning was therefore the process of how you paid attention to something, thought about it and thus ended up with it stored. … You couldn’t learn something you didn’t pay attention to. Yet the process of paying attention to something was complex, and not always under our control. It could be enhanced… in a few ways: things that created an emotional reaction were much more likely to be remembered; repetition helped a little; wanting to remember didn’t help much; reflecting on meaning had a positive effect, such as knowing where something fitted in a story or schema, whether personal or general.” (Alex Beard, 2018)

What if “a teacher’s goal… should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” (Daniel Willingham, quoted to Alex Beard, 2018)

What if feeling safe and ensuring that all basic needs are met is crucial for supporting a child to focus on learning? What if learning and committing abstract information (not essential to survival) to long term memory can only be done when we do not feel under-threat or anxious?


What if formative assessment is the key to understanding what a child can and cannot do so that teaching is more often pitched in the child’s proximal zone? What if the support of a knowledgeable other/coach/ teacher catalyses the opportunity for a child to connect with new content? What if this means that the planning between learning episodes based on formative assessment and how teachers respond to learning in classrooms is key to maintaining as many children in their proximal zone as possible, over time? What if these are the conditions that grow connections in the proximal zone?..

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What if the specificity of feedback is key, as it has greater potential to overcome cognitive conflict and conceptually be the next area for the child to learn? What if too much feedback is presently too generic and not focused on cognitive science, which tells us that new connections, consolidation of existing connections and linking across schema to create new meaning requires specific pitch and precision of feedback (and teaching)? What if we are highly specific about the knowledge and skills being taught in a learning episode – reflecting the connections that are being sought and how this fits into the schema?

What if precise and specific feedback has much greater impact on leveraging learning? What if this specific feedback needs to happen in the moment when children are in cognitive conflict or we need to take children back into cognitive conflict when they receive feedback? What if we re-evaluated our present approaches to feedback through this lens?

What if we should develop different ways to explain and show the same concept or idea? What if this increases the chance of making a connection to existing schema in a child’s head? If a child does not understand or connect with new information, we increase the chances of connection if we seek to connect to other parts of the child’s schema.

What if modelling is a key aspect of pedagogy that seeks to support the growth of connections and the development of schema? What if modelling systematically consolidates previous learning and takes children forward with their learning – actively building schema?

What if teachers need to support children to remain in their proximal zone so that they wrestle in cognitive conflict and make gains in their learning? What if we let children give up too readily and that children are often inclined to de-select themselves when it gets hard? (particularly if they are disadvantaged) What if low level disruption is the enemy of forming and establishing connections in the brain?

What if “ah ha” moments occur when schema connect to provide a new view of the world? What if such moments can be planned for?

What if the opportunities, experiences and support that we receive (particularly in our first few years) shapes the architecture and web of connections in the brain and that this is the key difference between advantaged and disadvantaged children? What if this early advantage accumulates over time to accentuate the gap?  What if the following represents that difference in size of schema, amount of connections and size of proximal zones between advantaged and disadvantaged children?

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What if  the lower exposure to words, vocabulary and conversation for disadvantaged children  reduce the opportunity to overcome linguistic under-privildge? What if Alex Quigley is right and that the hidden growth of vocabulary significantly determines success?…

“We know that a great deal of our vocabulary is learned incidentally and implicitly outside of those (school) gates. This largely subconscious, hidden growth is like a child’s physical development… By paying attention to vocabulary growth at the micro level, we can better understand it, we can go to cultivating it and in so doing every child will be gifted a wealth of words.” (Alex Quigley, 2018, Closing the Vocabulary Gap))

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“The accident of birth (context and upbringing) is the greatest source of inequality in the US” (James Heckman) … also true in the UK. 

What if the differences in schema and proximal zone is evident in presently lower, middle and higher attaining children…

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What if in a class of 30 children the structure, size, connections (architecture) of each child’s brain is different? What if pitching learning and meeting the cognitive needs of 30 children is the art and science of teaching? What if the Yellow dot represents a particular episode of learning and how just 3 individuals may be able to access this new knowledge, understanding or skill? What if this means that differentiation and pitch by child is the key to supporting more to work in their proximal zone? What if this is not about hitting the sweet spot for all children every lesson, but more often over time … perhaps a different 80% each lesson?

What if we need to “think differently” for presently high attaining children; who need to do different to ensure that they are challenged and stretched in their proximal zone more often?

What if progress is better described like this… (that connections form, erode, stabilise, become hard wired over time; accumulated connections afford the opportunity for new understanding and meaning)…

“Siegler’s image of surging and receding waves helps to explain the seemingly random retreats and swells we experience as we grapple with new skills and tricky concepts. Rather than feeling ashamed about ‘slipping back’ into the old ways of thinking and acting we thought we had outgrown, such episodes are better viewed as part of the natural ebb and flow of learning. Slipping back is part of the process of integrating new and troublesome concepts into our mental webs.” (David Didau, 2016)


What if story telling and narratives have the ability to draw learning together and connect schema in the brain that build greater understanding and bring meaning to the world? What if George Marshall is right and that…

“…stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the emotional brain makes sense of the information collected by the rational brain… beliefs about (information) are held entirely in the form of stories. When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts, but a consistent and comprehensible story.” (from Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot, 2017)

What if stories are uniquely powerful in securing new knowledge and understanding? What if these stories mirror the schemas developing and adapting in the heads of young people? What if stories tap into the narrative instinct that we all share; and use from birth to navigate and comprehend the world? What if this is deeply linked to human evolution and how humans have evolved to understand the world in story form; developing useful schemas about the world? What if stories tap into our emotions, attract our attention, and light up areas of the brain that allow us to secure change in our long term memory? (anyone who has delivered assemblies over time will immediately recognise that power of story, particularly when it is about you.)

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What if the curve of forgetting describes the need to consolidate connections and wrap myelin so that new knowledge is assimilated and committed to long term memory? What if interleaved curriculum and re-teaching and revisiting is key to securing changes in long term memory and supporting retrieval; allowing children to apply understanding from one area to seek meaning in another? What if connections break and erode over time if they are not revisited or significantly secured? (adding to the advance and retreat of progress over time)

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What if Dan Coyle is right and that greatness isn’t born it’s grown; talent is physically (and chemically) built through purposeful practice…deep practice?

“We all have the ability to profoundly change our levels of talent, our level of skill. Where clusters of great talent emerge there has been a culture created where individuals are constantly reaching and repeating, making mistakes, receiving feedback, building better brains, faster more fluent brains…inside the brain myelin acts like insulation on the pathways and connections in the brain – each time we reach and repeat we earn another layer – signal speeds in the brain start to increase from 2 mph to 200 mph – neuro broadband – (or the difference between normal and great).”

The challenge then is not to accept poor or wrong assumptions about what our children can achieve, but to develop culture, curriculum and teaching based on cognitive science. An enabling education system that does not limit what individuals are capable of – there is no magic involved in learning something new – it is about sparking connections in the brain, hard-wiring this understanding so that children build schema that allow them to understand the world and to seek meaning.

“From our first steps to our last words, we are what we learn.” (Alex Beard, 2018)

 


Maybe then we will…

  • …see learning as a physical (and chemical) process of sparking new connections in the brain and firming these connections with myelin that secure changes in long term memory so that learning can be applied over time and in different contexts.
  • …understand that only when knowledge, understanding and skills are stored in the long term memory as a permanent feature that children have genuinely made progress – recognising that even then these connections can erode over time.
  • …realise that learning happens when children work in their proximal zone, when there is desirable difficulty and when effort is required to overcome cognitive conflict to assimilate new knowledge, skills and understanding into schema.
  • …build progressive, knowledge (skills)-based (including application) and concept-sensitive curriculum. So that children are supported to systematically build knowledge and understanding over time and in-line with their growing schema. Each stage of education purposefully building the knowledge and conceptual understanding that readies individuals for the next stage.
  • …realise that the “learnt curriculum” is what matters when we consider the efficacy of teaching for securing learning and progress.
  • …realise that this is why teaching is so complicated as every child has schemas and brain architecture that is the result of their unique opportunities and experiences to date; so that each proximal zone and existing architecture will react differently to learning episodes.
  • …realise that disadvantaged children are not innately less able, but the product of lower opportunity and linguistic under privilege. Building knowledge, systematically and applying this knowledge will accelerate learning; vocabulary and heightened exposure to words over time is key.
  • …understand that the real impact of the 30 million word gap by age 3 is a connection deficit in the brain of maybe 60..90..120 million? On this basis it is unsurprising that early advantage and accumulated advantage is so strong in education and underpins the reasons why it is so hard to convert low attaining children age 11 to high attaining by age 16.
  • …stop seeing the gaps in attainment as being the result of differences in innate talent and open up a world of possibility for all children regardless of their start in life and opportunities to date. (the tendency for disadvantaged children to de-select themselves means that too often they do not create or sustain enough connections in long term memory to realise any appreciable progress)
  • …stop using the word “ability” and replace with “present level of attainment.”
  • …realise that it is what is planned between learning episodes based on formative assessment and the skill of teachers to respond in lessons to learning that will keep more children in the their proximal zone more often.
  • …create more specific feedback that seeks to spark and consolidate connections in the brain. Find time to recap, revisit and respond to feedback to build reinforced connections over time.
  • …seek response to feedback when children are in cognitive conflict.
  • …seek greater differentiation so that we can support more to work in their proximal zones over time. Seeking to support children to grapple with desirable difficulty, because we plan more specifically to meet of cognitive needs of children. Thinking different for presently high attaining to secure stretch and challenge in the proximal zone.
  • …use modelling to support schema development.
  • …understand that new connections are fragile and erode over time if they are not fired/used. We would build in to learning opportunities to spiral back to content and ideas with the intention of firming up long term memory.
  • …work harder to plan and create curriculum that is ordered and progressive over time so that concepts and misconceptions and knowledge are visited in an appropriate; supporting the growing schemas in children.
  • …tell stories and tap emotion in passages of learning that heighten both interest and emotion so that children fire across the areas of the brain increasing the chance that physical and chemical changes in the brain are solidified and committed to long term memory.
  • …understand why it is important to taking different approaches to explain new concepts, so that we can access and anchor new learning to different parts of a child’s schema.
  • …teach content and skills in a way that moves up and down through complexity. So that schemas are purposefully developed and consolidated over time and that new knowledge and understanding are introduced to lay the foundation for future learning.
  • …challenge children to seek meaning in their learning; taking risks and thriving in desirable difficulty to build knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • …ensure the highest expectations of attitudes to learning and focus in lessons. Committing learning to long term memory requires cognitive conflict and desirable difficulty; a significant level of focus. Dis-organised or disruptive classes will reduce focus and limit a child’s ability to convert learning to long term memory.

…there are many more implications for education when we consider learning and progress through this lens; but it would appear that Malcolm Gladwell might be right…

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities…” (…that spark connections, build schema and commit knowledge, understanding and skills to long term memory; that is the foundation for success(Malcolm Gladwell)

Dan Nicholls | May 2018 | Twitter: @DrDanNicholls

Delivering discernible difference

“If something is discernible, you can discern it – you can see it, smell it, taste it, or otherwise tell what it is.” (www.vocabulary.com)

It is probably true… that effective leaders and exceptional teachers have the ability to deliver discernible difference (improvement). It is this ability and awareness to focus in, move to action and deliver a discernible difference that stands these people out as great leaders and teachers. They have the ability to rationalise, prioritise, simplify, see the important, dismiss the clutter and move effortlessly and quickly to…

…secure meaningful improvement in areas that will leverage the most impact and improvement… triggering and delivering change that is both discernible and sticky…maybe even irreversible.

Perhaps… we should seek to tell stories and build narratives of improvement in identified areas or on trails where we deliberately place bets to transform practice and deliver discernible difference.

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Which begs the question… what does it take to deliver discernible difference? How can we be more deliberate and focused on singling out the key levers of improvement; executing these changes, building a story and telling a narrative of improvement around the few things that matter?


What if… achieving discernible difference requires prioritisation of what matters? and that this takes thinking time and a careful consideration of what will leverage the greatest improvement? What if… we considered the following phrase when identifying where to play and achieve the discernible difference that we seek…

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller)

What if… great leaders and teachers understood that what you do not do, what you de-prioitise (the omissions) are as important as what is actioned? …that ability to place bets only on what counts and the mindset that reduces  crippling complexity and workload?

What if… we realised that trails and areas requiring improvement are often obvious and rarely require deep evaluation to be understood?; seek the trails that matter…

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What if… we spend too much time evaluating and applying QA to the whole population or provision instead of moving more quickly to action on the areas that require improvement; seeking discernible difference?

What if… we also realised that in any population there are outliers, bright spots and positive deviants who have that answer or exhibit behaviours that have the ability transform? …achieving discernible difference and improvement will often be within the population… seek the wisdom and grow it…

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What if…we were more aware of the fact that we can get over-excited or be prone to complacency when we measure and weigh stuff? That feeling we get when we complete the SEF, a round of observations, work scrutiny, achievement meeting, re-writing our to-do-list etc. – often confuses us into thinking we have achieved impact or improvement?

What if…we are prone to believing that things will just improve, or that if we apply a strategy more, or if we weigh stuff more, that we will achieve a different end point?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Albert Einstein

What if… we only focused on the key trails and moved to action. What if… we are not quick enough to move to action (to start stories) and as a consequence rarely achieve the change that we desire and others need…

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What if… we do not continue to commit to action during the implementation dip or when it is easier to go off and measure something else or when we can duck the difficult conversation or action?

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What if… we were in the habit of telling stories; and building a narrative of improvement? … around those areas that we have prioritised, that will have the greatest impact and deliver discernible difference?

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What if… a self-improving education system or academy or teacher has the ability to understand the brutal truths of the situation and embark on a set of deliberate actions that together tell a story and provide a narrative of improvement?

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What if… these stories always have a start, a middle and an end…

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What if… we are good at opening up stories, but much weaker at building plot and poor at writing great endings (happy or tragic)? What if… we do not stick around long enough on a story or move to action quick enough to realise the twist or truths or barriers to improvement that exist?

…stories motivate people to achieve more. They show what is possible and trigger other unintended improvement.

What if… milestones are a key aspect of delivering discernible difference? That these chart progress, point to the desired destination and importantly provide ongoing motivation to overcome implementation dips and secure discernible difference … perhaps even irreversibility (Barber).

 

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What if…this ability to place bets on the stuff that matters is born out of an acute awareness and a lack of organisational blindness achieved from beyond our present context (Academy, classroom, MAT, region…)

What if… delivering discernible difference has everything to do with execution, execution, execution… only this delivers transformation… and possibly irreversibility…

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What if… we…

…ensure that the choice architecture, nudges and culture provokes and rewards individuals and teams to chase their own narratives of improvement, growing the ability to tell stories of discernible difference.


Maybe then… leaders would have pride in telling their narrative of improvement – their motivating stories of the difference that they have made. Maybe then… leaders and teachers can point to examples of  discernible difference as evidence of impact on others and students.

Maybe then… leaders and teachers would move to action more quickly on the few things that matter – placing bets on the one thing(s) that make a discernible difference. Maybe this… level of focused action has the ability to add far greater value than blunt, catch-all, self-evalution.

What are your trails? where is your discernible difference? what stories of improvement can you tell – where have you achieved irreversibility? Has this become the lens through which you seek future improvement?

After all… the measure of our own impact should be judged through the stories of discernible difference that we can tell.

Dan Nicholls @DrDanNicholls

November 2015

How to make stuff happen… and deliver change

It is probably true that… in education change often fails to stick. That academies and schools are full of initiatives and good intentions; strategy and initiative-rich environment that drives up complexity and confusion.

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It is also probably true… that education and schools would be more effective if we understood the dynamics and nature of change; understanding how to deliver change that sticks, is sustained and irreversible.

“Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities” (Malcolm Gladwell)

Which begs that question… how can leaders and teachers execute change that becomes irreversible. How can leaders seek simple, single and focused change that alters habits and behaviours, such that change becomes irreversible and leverages improvement in the long term … or, put simply, how do we make stuff happen and change stick?


What if… we understood that coerced, sustainable and irreversible change delivers different outcomes?…

  • coerced change: a continuous effort is required to coerce and direct behaviours to secure change; when effort reduces, change reverses.
  • sustainable change: a level of effort and commitment is required by individuals to sustain the change. This is not coerced, it is likely to be well understood and supported, but because there is a continual requirement of effort it falls short of being irreversible; old strategies and
  • irreversible change: a change that has been well-executed so that it alters habits and behaviours, the choice architecture and the culture/ethos – such that the change becomes normal – it becomes irreversible.

…considering executed change in schools it is easy to find examples of each.

What if… change is pointless unless it achieves improvement – too much change gets to the same point, but wastes both time and effort… and worse damages the credibility of leadership, increasing the likely resistance to future change.

What if… successful change in schools secures changes in behaviours and habits so that change become habitually delivered and irreversible.

What if… Stephen Tierney is right in his recent blog that leaders and teachers make better decisions when they think slow and not fast?…

“Too many people are working and in some cases essentially living in an organisation where busyness, for its own sake, is seen as a virtue.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains his theory about two modes of thought; System 1 (fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious) and System 2 (slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious).  While System 1 helps us survive in the jungle it is System 2 which is likely to be of greater benefit in addressing complex issues.” (Stephen Tierney, blog)

What if… most of the change instigated in schools (and education) has not had enough thought? What if most change fails to consider…

  • what the change will feel like to those who will deliver the change?
  • whether this change will stick for at least 3 years
  • whether this change has the genuine potential to improve on what exists.
  • whether there is unnecessary complexity built into the change
  • whether we consider the WHY has been fully considered; as Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do they but WHY you do it.” … how to communicate for buy-in.
  • what the change will feel like to those who will deliver the change?
  • if timescales for implementation is timed, specific and focused…with good recognition of the implementation dip.
  • Whether key milestones are used and evaluated.
  • Whether there is a focus on celebrating, measuring and growing where there is discernible difference?

What if… we really understood that the real success of any change lies in the execution? And that regardless of the boldness of the desired change this is what makes change stick and be successful?

What if… the delivery of change is best shown of Micheal Barber’s matrix of execution…

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What if… we altered the matrix to consider the inter-play between the level of energy and impact of change – highlighting the difference between coerced, sustained and irreversible change… the amount of energy required for irreversible change declines after initial execution due to shift in habits and behaviours.

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What if… KISS (keep it simple stupid) was a key driver to ensure that change is always targeted, simple and focused. What if we used members of the team to wear de Bono’s Black Hat, identifying and challenging complexity.

What if… some individuals and organisations suffer from initiativitis – the disorder that compels, otherwise good people, to launch initiative after initiative. It is all on the slow thinking, deliberate execution and persistence cubed that secures successful change. No one benefits from a thousand flowers blooming.

What if… the best leaders place bets on the changes that are most likely to deliver effective and irreversible change

What if… John Collins is right, we should fire bullets before cannonballs? Testing first, or piloting change before scaling?

What if… Seth Godin is right and that we should beware the implementation dip of change? How often do schools change direction or abandon in the dip only to initiate a new approach.

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What if… we recognised when to stick and when to twist – that one requires maintenance of faith that the thinking and execution will yield results and the other a realism and calculation of future effectiveness to identify where there is futility of effort?…

“Persistent people are able to visualize the idea of light at the end of the tunnel when others can’t see it.  At the same time, the smartest people are realistic about not imagining light when there isn’t any.”  (Seth Godin)

What if… we also recognise that it is important to evolve and adapt approaches before the rate of improvement declines…

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What if… too often we launch change with one or more of these missing?… (VISION, SKILLS, INCENTIVES (understanding the WHY), RESOURCES, ACTION PLAN)

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What if… launching change after change is the same as crying wolf? That initiative fatigue sets in quickly where individuals realise that this is just one of those band-wagons that continually pass?

What if… we do not fully consider the choice architecture of any change? and fail to see, understand and use nudges to secure irreversible change?

leaders are choice architects; determining the environment in which noticed and un-noticed features influence the decisions that staff and students make. Leaders have the ability to influence behaviours, create social epidemics and use “nudges” to influence individual and group behaviour. We are surrounded by nudges; good leaders see them, look for them and use them (often automatically)

What if… the art of leadership and leading change is in the ability to de-priortise what is important? What if… we used this phrase regularly to focus the ONE thing.

“What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller)

What if…successful change taps the emotions? and has a stickiness factor?…

“People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking, than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” (Kotter)

““the stickiness factor”, is a unique quality that compels a phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of people and influences their future behaviour.”

What if… Jim Collins is right that great organisation focus their time and energy on turning the flywheel. What if… this means that in schools we actually only need to get a surprisingly few things right to drive improvement. – placing bets on the few things that leverage improvement. A function of conscious choice and discipline (…to execute)

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What if… time and context are also important. What if we recognise that some change is “right for the time” and some change is “right for the context.” AND that both of these perspectives are useful for assessing previous strategies and changes.


Maybe then… we would have a deeper understanding of change. We would not drive initiative after initiative that fail to stick. We would recognise that less is more and that the success of any change is linked to making conscious choices through slow thinking, using deliberate discipline to execute and the persistence to secure the change.

Maybe then… leaders and senior teams will employ slow thinking to place bets on a few changes or approaches that leverage the greatest improvement. That we would be more professional and intelligent whenever we seek change so that we more often deliver sustained and irreversible change.

… all of this will remove complexity and allow leaders and teachers to deliver change and improvement in a focused and deliberate way… bringing a structure and an intelligence to academy improvement so that we can make stuff happen. 

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November 2015

Dan Nicholls

Questioning (explanation and modelling) | CLF Conference

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It is probably true… that questioning is an incredibly powerful way to drive learning and accelerate progress – particularly those questions or explanations that unlock light bulb moments of personal discovery. When questioning is used in concert with quality explanation and modelling children get a new view of the world, increased access to knowledge, greater opportunity to understand and develop skills. It is perhaps these aspects of pedagogy that have the greatest ability to intervene, inject and steer greater gains in learning.

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It is also probably true… that questioning is often the period in a learning episode where the true talent, ability and awareness of the teacher is shown. It reveals much about:

  • the on-going depth of planning to secure and intervene along the learning journey…an expert element of pedagogy – deliberately delivered, precise and targeted within a lesson and across a series of lessons.
  • the level of formative assessment based on effective feedback so that teaching is based on an the awareness of where children are, what they can do and precisely what is required to secure the next steps, the key concept or breakdown a misconception.
  • the depth of subject/age-related knowledge and passion they bring to the discussion.
  • the ability to intervene or change direction with impact to secure key concepts or tackle misconceptions.
  • the ability to build knowledge and understanding in a logical, spiralled and progressive way that support all children to make progress (or a different 80% each time)
  • the ability to differentiate through language, conscription and questioning, including the ability to judge and time, a question, an explanation or use modelling to close gaps.
  • the ability to stand back enough and facilitate to draw the knowledge and understanding that already exists in the room…provoking good discussion, debate and argument.

When it is at its best it is an awesome thing to witness and be a part of – a crafts-person tweaking, tinkering, picking, choosing, being precise and super-aware of student progress … using questioning, explanation and modelling expertly to enable children to feel the exhilaration of learning and the motivating feeling of progress.

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This begs the question… what are the key aspects to developing great questioning and discussion as well as explanation and modelling to allow children to thrive, engage and make connections in learning and trigger sustained progress? How is this blended into an effective pedagogical approach?

The following reflects some of the best practices across the Federation and identifies the key aspects for securing questioning (explanation and modelling) in all classrooms…


What if… questioning, explanation and modelling can only have impact on learners and learning when it is based on a strong foundation of knowledge? Knowledge that encompasses…

  • subject/age-related understanding of standards and expectations – that enables appropriate pitch as well as igniting an interest and passion around specific and well-ordered content?
  • a deep understanding of the key concepts and importantly the key mis-conceptions that are built into the progression of a subject or area of learning?
  • Knowledge of exam and age-related expectations to provide precise questioning, explanation and modelling – with the end in mind?
  • Knowledge of pedagogy – how to blend questioning, explanation and modelling within and across lessons.

What if… we see passages of questioning/discussion and explanation as key aspects to stick around on as opposed to a part of the lesson to move through – it drives the learning as opposed to marking points in lessons or being purely a transition. These…

  • drive passion and intrigue for the subject or area of learning. Passion that can be contagious and demands interest to accelerate learning.
  • unlock mis-conceptions, particularly where children can hear others wrestle with cognitive conflict. Consolidates learning and enables key concepts to be grasped.
  • Seek to create and resolve (over time) cognitive conflict.
  • build learning deliberately and precisely and move to application and synthesis.
  • model discussion and the elements of enquiry.

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What if… these are the key areas of questioning…

  • Wait time: so that we allow children the time to think and consider answers
  • Not to allow children an opt-out of thinking – carefully conscripting and demanding wide response – no-opt out policy.
  • What if we go to pairs sometimes to support more interaction and thinking about questions.
  • Build on answers – basketball questioning or asking children to build on or from what has just been offered. agree and build | disagree and explain | offer new idea. or pose | poise | ponce | bounce.
  • Encourage debate – step-back to allow genuine argument and debate. Using provocative questioning where appropriate.
  • Take time to dwell to depth on topics and ideas.
  • Be flight of foot – shifting discussion to address misconceptions.

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What if… we too often stifle, control and close down genuine debate and discussion? Just at the moment when children get inspired, passionate and even angry in debate we choose to close discussion down – concerned that there is a lack of control.

What if… we need to be more explicit about what children are aiming for; using modelling to de-mystify the purpose or aim of the learning? Too often children are spending too long discovering knowledge and not enough on application.

What if… we sat children in mixed gender pairs? So that girls who typically describe and explain are closer to risk taking and boys who typically describe and take risks are closer to greater explanation. Perhaps this would encourage more balanced discussion and learner-driven explanations (to class or pair).

What if… this is tightly woven into an Ethic of Excellence? the purpose, precision, rigour and timing of questioning immediately reveals the teachers desire to seek excellence, maintains a high bar and expects much from answers and discussion – expertly steering and intervening to maintain standards and encourage depth of pupil involvement? …the deliberate inclusion of explanation and modelling supports children in their quest for and understanding of excellence.

What if… questioning, explaining, modelling and planning was informed by Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That these frameworks supported questioning that systematically supported children to understand more …and that this provides the framework for explanation, modelling and questioning etc.

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What if… we sought more often to ask questions that moved from closed to open, but that also moved children (more often) to apply, analyse, synthesis and evaluate their developing understanding.

What if… questioning and explanation (and modelling) needs to be in the proximal zone? and that the real challenge is to pitch discussion and explanation so that as many children are kept in their proximal zone for as long as possible (discussing, explaining and applying knowledge just beyond what the child is capable of, supported by a peer) … or in a state of FLOW (that area between boredom and anxiety)?

What if… good lessons used questioning and explanation that is pitched and challenging for 80% of students, but that in great lessons this is a different 80% each lesson? Great teachers use effective formative feedback to build on prior learning and pitch questions and explanations in the proximal zone, whilst modelling the desired end point (or next near win)... an ability that should not be under-estimated.

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What if… great questioning replicates the connections in the brain? understanding that learning is a physical process – that the development of myelin in the brain (layers in picture below) enables neurons to fire and for things to be remembered or skills to be hard-wired … such that questioning, explanation and modelling engages children in deliberate practise and repetition to physically create connections in the brain that allow them to remember and master…developed, consolidated and practised (hardwired) through questioning (explanation and  modelling).

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What if…questioning and explanation reflected the curve of forgetting? so that it returned and repeated episodes to consolidate understanding within an interleaved, layered, escalating spiral curriculum where children repeat and return to build on learning.

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What if… we understood that practise has to be deliberate to be effective and that this is accelerated where children are in the presence of an expert coach who exploits, questions, explanation and modelling; so that the teacher…

  • maximises reachfulness in the presence of an expert.
  • supports children to embrace the struggle – “You will become clever through your mistakes.”
  • and encourages theft – using questioning and discussion to support peer assisted performance.

What if… this is tightly woven into Effective Feedback and the need to Stretch and Challenge each child?

What if… questioning, explanation and modeling was “… intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (a student’s) current skill level, (aimed at excellence), combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if… explanation is best delivered in different ways to support all children to access the new knowledge, understanding and skills. Using VAK, but more importantly a variety of angles and approaches…as well as using other children in the class to explain new gains in learning – not only consolidating learning for the explainer, but offering a different explanation in peer-friendly language to the receiving child.


Maybe then… questioning (explanation and modelling) will trigger greater depth of learning, allow new ways of seeing and drive progress. The precision and deliberate delivery of these aspects of pedagogy will be based on strong formative assessment and feedback that enables appropriate pitch, stretch and challenge of children. An ethic of excellence will expect much of children their thinking, response, discussion and quality of answer … that happens in their proximal zone.

Maybe then… this aspect of pedagogy will provide the engine room of learning – where teachers tweak, tinker, pick, choose, are precise and super-aware of student progress … using questioning, explanation and modelling expertly to intervene and provoke response that enables children to feel the exhilaration of learning and the motivating feeling of progress.

Dan Nicholls

October 2015

Ethic of Excellence | CLF Conference

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The following supports the “ethic of excellence” workshop at the CLF Conference, 2 November 2015…


It is probably true that:

“Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence.” (Ron Berger)

It is also probably true that where an ethic of excellence runs through teaching and learning a child’s progress is accelerated and they outperform their peers. This maybe the most important aspect for driving up standards, accelerating progress, securing unusually good outcomes and giving all children a new sense of possibility; enhancing their life chances for the long term.

The following reflects some of the best practices across the Federation and identifies the key aspects for securing an ethic of excellence in all classrooms…


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What if… an ethic of excellence is measurable and tangible? That it can be judged from a short triangulation of teaching, books and student voice…and that where teachers have a strong ethic of excellence this is likely to be reflective of strong habits and a personal commitment to excellence.

What if… the ethic of excellence is revealed in the attitude of children toward their learning – that low-level disruption is not a feature – it is, in fact, socially unacceptable to not engage and seek to make progress in lessons.

“What if I fail to be the prophecy?” (Peter Pan)

“What if you fail to try?” (Tiger Lily)

(from the film Pan, 2015)

What if… the ethic of excellence is sought through the way the teacher and others inspire and inject passion around content (subject or age related) and learning; using language and praise to reinforce the expectation of excellence. (praise is not cheap).

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What if… the ethic of excellence is supported by the challenge and stretch that is evident in lessons supports children to reach beyond what they can do now, expecting students to work in their top 10% excellence zone.

What if… the ethic of excellence is seen in the quality of work and books; showing an  an attention to detail in the…

  • care and precision of presentation
  • quality and depth of writing and working
  • continuity and progression in the work over time that reflects a layered curriculum

What if Ofsted are right and that some of the key evidence of an ethic of excellence is seen in books.

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What if… the ethic of excellence is shown in a focus on depth rather than breadth and in routinely re-doing and re-drafting; seeking excellence. That teaching uses deliberate practice to inform teaching, so that:

practice (is) intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (a student’s) current skill level, (aimed at excellence), combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.” (Malcolm Gladwell)
excellence

What if… children do not produce their best work often enough? It might be that although students are capable of excellence we rarely support students to produce their very best work and that much of the work produced falls in the bottom quartile of what is possible for that individual. It might be true then that the opportunity to enable students to see what is possible rarely happens as students simply tread water in the mediocre.

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What if… students skewed their work right toward excellence (and teaching prioritised and supported this) and not left where it probably sits at present?

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What if… there is an ongoing and accessible record of a child’s best pieces of work so that there is an immediate benchmark to build from.

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What if… the ethic of excellence is seen in the feedback that is built into tasks/lessons and is specifically targeted at securing concepts and unravelling mis-conceptions…expecting much and targeting specifically where chidden can improve?

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What if… the ethic of excellence supported by assessment (all forms) that is a coherent element of teaching – formatively driving progress and improvement toward excellence? Using mastery to support all children to secure the foundations and core knowledge, skills and understanding that will allow them to be academically and personally successful in and beyond education.

What if… the ethic of excellence is supported where teachers are persistent, and unswerving in raising standards (pass marks etc.) and deliberate in lessons and over-time in catching-up and closing gaps for those students who fall behind?; making a discernible difference to those that fall behind. 

What if… the ethic of excellence is embedded through teacher passion, subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, exam or age-related understanding and an insightful understanding of concepts and mis-concepts that are the foundation for driving children toward excellence? This is also evident in the schemes of work – progression of lessons – and within the layered/spiralled/escalating curriculum. Avoiding the skimming of content and the shallow learning.

What if… the ethic of excellence is shown in questioning that immediately reveals the teachers desire to seek excellence, maintain a high bar and expect much from answers and discussion – expertly steering and intervening to maintain standards and encourage depth of pupil involvement? …the deliberate inclusion of explanation and modelling supports children in their quest for excellence.

What if… in seeking an ethic of excellence we borrowed much from Dan Coyle’s insights and establish the conditions for ignition, (moments that inspire an ignition of internal motivation) and provide the feedback of an expert coach from within tasks to breakdown tasks and specifically remove misconceptions and seek accelerated improvement.

“we are often taught that talent begins with genetic gifts – that the talented are effortlessly able to perform feats that the rest of us just dream of. This is false. Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that – in fact look at my best work… my near wins).” (Dan Coyle)

What if… the ethic of excellence was reinforced by teachers and others who have an  unswerving ambition for all children and expecting much from all children, every lesson.

What if… the ethic of excellence is reflected across the Academy in all that we do – in our day-to-day expectations? (from uniform to ‘finishing conversations’ to politeness).

What if… an ethic of excellence was allied to growth mindset that sets the conditions and ethos for a class, cohort or Academy to stretch for excellence? (Dweck)

“People with Growth Mindsets and who show GRIT achieve more when they engage in deliberative practice … it is this practice that achieve marginal gains (Steve Peters), inching toward excellence.”

What if… we focused more on the journey; on the “near win”?(Sarah Evans)

“The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” … “Grit is not just simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again.”(Sarah Evans)

What if… the ethic of excellence is exemplified by the classroom environment that reflects learning, progress and supports excellence? Display is inspired, the walls are useful, all areas are tidy and reflective of excellence… boards (and IWB) reflect organised and logical presentation of information that is timely and focused on the key learning for the lesson?

What if… the ethic of excellence is seen in the routines that are shared and owned by all – they are systematic and reflects the desire to make progress and learn?


Maybe then…children would see that they are capable of excellence, that this would change them forever and raise their personal benchmark. They would have a new self-image, a new notion of possibility and an appetite for excellence. Maybe observation and education would value the outcome, the quality, the closeness to excellence and be less fixated on observed practice.

“If you’re going to do something, I believe, you should do it well. You should sweat over it and make sure it’s strong and accurate and beautiful and you should be proud of it” (Ron Berger)

Dan Nicholls

October 2015

A culture of continuous improvement…

“Seek marginal gains to outperform – small steps that create a contagious environment, where a philosophy of continuous improvement engages everyone.” (adapted from Sir David Brailsford, 2015)

Sir David Brailsford eloquently and concisely outlines the key characteristics of high performing teams in this great 2 minute video…click the photo belowIt is probably true that there are some key principles that are at the heart of high performing teams that enable outperformance .. all of which are highly applicable and relevant to education.

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Sir David Brailsford identifies a number of key principles that allow teams and organisations to over-perform or out-perform others. These are explored below…

1. “Recruit the best people that you can find”. What if we are really fussy over recruitment; ensuring that we recruit the very best to the team? What if we were also focused on this being a good behavioural fit … given that attitude is the key aspect in creating an over-performing culture?  There are a number of organisation who largely recruit based on attitude – often gaps in core skills can be closed. What if we started with First Who Then What?…

g2g-first-who“Good to great companies first got the right people on the bus (and in the right seats) –and the wrong people off the bus –and then figured out where to drive it.”

(Jim Collins)

What if these were the superheroes, linchpins, mavericks or Freds whose connectivity and altruistic collaboration enabled the organisation to fly?


2. Seek out the “Podium people – ask, who is the best in the world?” What if organisations identified the best in the world? What if we then understood where they were, how and what they achieve? What if we then work out precisely where we are and then plot to close the gap? By setting direction for the “Podium People” in our field we set the expectation high. What if we habitually faced the brutal truths of our own performance?…

“have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Collins)

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By aspiring to reach and exceed Podium People we commit to do “whatever it takes” and embark on a journey, an accumulation of steps…

“What we can do and what the best schools do already – is ask where they would like to be in five years time (aiming for the podium) and what steps they will take to get there” … ” the best schools accumulate these small steps and describe themselves as being on a journey.” (Tim Brighouse)

What if we time limit the drive for improvement?…

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough-time.” (Leonard Bernstein)


3. Seek Marginal Gains, because small improvements in a number of aspects that we do can have a huge impact to the overall performance of the team.

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What if we realised that impact, stickability and the effectiveness of any change is in the detail and that where change is planned, simple and purposeful big change and impact can follow? … often with unexpected benefits…

“We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly!” (Malcolm Gladwell)

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What if we understood greatness was about the choices we make and the discipline to see them through?…

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.” (Jim Collins)


“Leaders are only truly in charge when they inspire others to take charge.” (Simon Sinek, 2012)

4. Give Ownership, because with ownership comes motivation. What if we trusted that because we have set the destination … on exceeding our podium people/organisations and  that we have the right people on the bus … then these people are best placed to lead and make decisions? That by giving ownership we increase autonomy and this drives-up motivation and performance that is widely owned and more likely to be sustained. – “pushing decision making to the action” (David Marquett)

What if this ownership was allied to responsibility and accountability – a measuring stick and evaluation that rewards and supports motivation? … so that individuals know they are doing a remarkable job.

What if we connected individuals to collaborate? … Seth Godin reminds that groups/teams need a clarity of destination and an ability to connect and communicate … collaboration and improvement follows…

“…groups of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group only needs two things to become a tribe: a shared interest (vision) and a way to connect and communicate.” (Seth Godin)

What if, as John Kotter identifies, we create and facilitate connection and collaboration (right hand side) alongside hierarchy that challenges, supports and delivers accountability (the left hand side)? It is balancing these that create a successful, agile team/organisation.

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5. Absolute clarity of role – People need to own and absolutely accept the role they have, but importantly they need to believe it is the right thing to do. What if we understood that Individuals perform well when there is absolute clarity on what is expected of them? Too often leaders complain of poor performance only to realises that they have never been clear in the first place as to what was expected.

What if we also identify the standards and insisted on the highest of expectations – in all that you do? What if we create a positive, risk-embracing environment and culture so that we face the brutal truths and seek feedback and understanding to maintain continuous improvement?


Maybe then we would build teams in education from middle to senior to executive leadership that understand outperformance, borrow from other professions, sports and organisations to realise the leadership potential that exists.

Maybe then by asking…

  • …do we have the right people on the bus and in the right seats?
  • …do we know who the podium organisations are? – and how we close the gap?
  • …do we find marginal gains for continuous improvement?
  • …do we give and facilitate ownership for improvement and balance with accountability?
  • …do we have absolute clarity on roles and responsibilities and ensure that the standards and expectations are set high … within a feedback and risk-taking culture?

we would would better understand our organisation and how we create the conditions for great teams to grow, succeed and out-perform. After all, in academies/schools leadership and the extent that leadership creates high performing teams directly relates to the success or otherwise of the organisation.

“Delivery never sleeps.” (Barber)

March 2015

Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown | thinking differently about success

CoyleDan Coyle, Billie Beane, Myelin, Oakland As

 “You will become clever through your mistakes.” German proverb

Background and parental influence count FOUR times more than the school attended for achievement at 16; experience and opportunity up to age 4 would appear to be the most influential factor on academic success and Ofsted give many more outstanding judgments to schools with low FSM and high KS2 performance. What does this mean? Well, it is True … But it is also Useless that context is important (TBU, Jerry Sternin, in “Switch”, Dan and Chip Heath). None of this is or should be surprising. When faced with the inertia of context and entrenched assumptions about success, it pays to seek anomalies; examples of where individuals and groups excel and under what conditions – it is this insight that may allow Schools to think differently and win an unfair game.

The first example highlights that winning an unfair game is about innovation, not accepting historical assumptions and using rigour to seek an advantage…

The Oakland Athletics Baseball Team: The year, 2002, Oakland As had a budget of $40 million compared to the $130million budget of the New York Yankees. Another true but useless fact. The assumption: money determines success – it is impossible for Oakland, through the drafting system, to afford a team that can compete – performance is pre-determined, hope lost. None of this surprised Oakland, but it took an individual, Billie Beane to find an innovative way to buck the trend… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiAHlZVgXjk (3 min)

Through rigorous statistical analysis he demonstrated that on-base and slugging percentage were better indicators of offensive success, and that these qualities were cheaper to obtain on the open market than more historically valued qualities such as speed and contact. By re-evaluating the strategies that produce wins on the field, the Athletics made the playoffs in 2002 and 2003, despite ranking 28/30 of the Major League Baseball Teams…an amazing achievement.

Where in education do we see similar gains in performance? Where is the next game-changer? What innovation, change of view or change in approach could create game-changing conditions for our students? Do we think long enough about our long held assumptions and create innovative approaches that buck trends?

Billie Beane’s different view dissolved long held assumptions and created success. Similar anomalies are also present across that globe where unbelievable clusters of success are achieved by growing cultures of greatness…

Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code”: Greatness isn’t born it’s Grown. Dan Coyle has visited and researched “hot-beds of talent” around the globe, music school in Dallas, tennis academy near Moscow, baseball players from the Dominican Republic etc… He argues that talent is grown through purposeful practice…deep practice.

“We all have the ability to profoundly change our levels of talent, our level of skill. Where clusters of great talent emerge there has been a culture created where individuals are constantly reaching and repeating, making mistakes, receiving feedback, building better brains, faster more fluent brains…inside the brain myelin acts like insulation on the pathways and connections in the brain – each time we reach and repeat we earn another layer – signal speeds in the brain start to increase from 2 mph to 200 mph – neuro broadband – (or the difference between normal and great).”

Dan Coyle identifies three important conditions that support this brain development :

  • Maximise reachfulness in the presence of an expert– illuminate passive learning
  • Embrace the struggle – “You will become clever through your mistakes.”
  • Encourage theft – use feedback and copy others.

How do we create these conditions? Is it possible that short intervention that maximises reachfulness and embraces the struggle can accelerate a student’s progress? This clearly links to Angela Duckworth’s GRIT and the need to move to action, Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and his insight that practise must be intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for your current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious. All of this challenges the way we teach and intervene – how often do we maximize reachfulness and embrace the struggle? Dan Coyle’s excellent Talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq0pHpNy6bs (17 mins)

The challenge then is not to accept poor or wrong assumptions about what our students can achieve, but to develop a culture that generates the conditions for over-performance. We create this culture whilst we seek innovative ways of changing-the-game; subtle or outrageous approaches that deliver an advantage presently hidden by our long held assumptions.

By thinking differently and innovating to find game-changing approaches like Billie Beane’s depth of analysis at the Oakland As and if we seek to create the conditions in lessons and across the Academy where progress is grown like in the Moscow tennis academy – we may build deep practice into what we do and ignite a culture that overturns the power of context and releases students into greatness.

“Excellence is a habit” (Aristotle)…one that is reaching and repeated, makes mistakes, uses feedback to build a better, faster and more fluent brain. (adapted, Dan Coyle, 2009)