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)

neuronas-cerebrales

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…

Slide6


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)

Slide9

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?

Slide13

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))

Slide1

“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…

Slide11

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.)

Slide2

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)

Slide16


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

Outstanding Meetings | How groups drive improvement

“Right at the heart of what makes humans unique is their social interaction and most importantly empathy… we are hardwired to connect social interaction with survival and that no connection can be more powerful; this is deep in our nature.” (Geoff Colvin, 2015)

It is probably true.. that we spend a significant amount of time in meetings and yet they vary greatly in terms of their impact. The way groups interact, their culture, structure, quality of interaction, expectations and the groupthink dynamics mean that meetings can be prone to encouraging poor decisions, wasting precious time, limiting progress and not delivering the ambition of the people attending.

and.. we are prone to accepting the norm and becoming conditioned to how meetings run  and teams interact in our organisation.

Jobs-quote

It is also probably true.. that there are some excellent teams who squeeze the very best out of their precious meeting time, planning and executing team/group interaction to ensure high impact that secures improvement. It is also probably true.. that highly effective groups, teams and meetings do not happen by chance – they are highly engineered, developed over-time and are based on a set of key principles that need to be developed…because details matter, it’s worth getting it right.


Which begs the question.. what are the key aspects of effective meetings/groups? How do we nudge and develop the quality of social interaction within groups/teams so that they deliver purposeful collaboration and drive improvement? In short, how do effective teams and groups collaborate to secure high performance and accelerate improvement?

(How do your meetings rate against the checklist in the Maybe then… section?)


What if.. we remembered why face-to-face meetings are so important to our culture and that they should be seen as an important vehicle for adding significant value over time and drive improvement? Seeking groups and working in teams is hard-wired into our brains – it taps deep into what makes us human and is far superior to electronic connection and phone conversations – are most important advances typically happen in person and in groups.

“…the number one factor in making a groups effective is (the depth of) human interaction. Social skills are the most important factor in group effectiveness because they encourage … “ideas flow” …how good the group members are at harvesting ideas from all of the participants and eliciting reactions to each new one.” (Colvin, 2015)

What if.. we understood that this is a workload issue. Efficient, effective, meaningful meetings reduce workload and use time efficiently to focus on the key priorities that will most benefit the team/organisation?

What if.. it is all in the preparation. Given that meetings use high amounts of collective time and significant sums of money, the planning and preparation should seek to maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of meetings? What if..

  • The agenda is published at least 48 hours prior to the meeting (7 days perhaps)?
  • The agenda is timed so that each item is given a clearly defined slot?
  • It is really not ok to not read pre-released materials prior to a meeting?

What if.. leaders take time to clarify each item and each person’s contribution to the meeting. Securing the key decisions to be made, considering the key questions and likely actions for each part of the agenda? What if.. leaders cancelled items where members have not prepared thoroughly or where the meeting will not add to the item or secure improvement in-line with the organisational aims?

What if.. there is a strategic focus for meetings. So that the focus is on the Why and a bit of the How, but largely avoids the What, which is to be owned and developed outside of the meeting and closer to the action? (Sinek and Maquett) (Interestingly: Different voices are heard in meetings depending on whether the discussion is on the Why, the How or the What.)

the-golden-circle

What if.. the actions identified in the previous meeting are always reviewed with the expectation that these would have been addressed (what if.. leaders did not let people off the hook for their actions) – What if.. this secured a motivating level of accountability to the group?

What if.. the leader/chair secured an appropriate level of urgency and drive to the meeting to reinforce its importance and reflect that time is precious. What if.. leaders took responsibility to reflect and improve the quality of meetings and team interactions?

What if.. we were committed to and are tenacious in keeping to the the pre-agreed timings – limiting discussion where required? What if.. groups were made to stick to the agenda and not go off on tangents?

What if.. we were aware of the dangers of groupthink? (taken from Sunstein and Hastie’s book Wiser (2015)) In particular..

  • Groups often amplify, rather than correct, individual errors in judgement.
  • Groups fall victim to cascade effects, as members follow what others say or do.
  • Groups become polarized, adopting more extreme positions than the ones they began with.
  • Groups can emphasise what everybody knows instead of focusing on critical information that only a few people know.

“Most managers are exceedingly busy…it is tempting for them to prefer employees who offer upbeat projections and whose essential message is that there is no need to worry (Happy Talk). Employees…(can be) reluctant to provide their bosses with bad news. No one likes to be anxious or spread anxiety, especially to those who have power over them.(Cosy Club)” (Sunstein and Hastie, in Wiser, 2015)

What if.. groups can be prone to “Happy Talk” – where it is easier for members to support the growing concensus and say things that will keep the leader/chair happy? … and feed the Cosy Club?

What if.. we are vulnerable to being pursuaded more by how an idea is delivered as opposed to the merits of the idea. What if.. we are knowingly or un-knowingly bias towards other members of the group and to their ideas – what if we reinforce this bias by finding the good in what our favoured people say and ignore the weaker parts?

What if.. meetings become hijacked by professional (and forceful) opinion givers and persuaders – more interested in serving their own ego than the overall good of the group?

“Conversational turn taking also made a big difference; groups dominated by a few talkers were less effective than those in which members took more equal turns.” (Colvin , 2015)

What if.. “social skills were the most important factor in group effectiveness because they encourage those patterns of “idea flow”. (Colvin, 2015) What if.. group performance depends upon how good the group members are at harvesting ideas from all participants and eliciting reactions to each new one.

What if.. the meetings are dominated by one or a few individuals? What if.. decisions are normally aligned to the bossiest individual? What if.. any benefit of groupthinking is removed by a dominant participant; essentially limiting the quality of output to the quality of that person?

What if.. Leaders strategically self-silenced themselves?

“…leaders and high status members can do the group a big service by indicating their willingness and their desire to hear uniquely held information…Leaders can also refuse to state a firm view from the outset and in that way all space for more information to emerge.”(Sunstein and Hastie, 2015)

What if.. all members of the meeting are obliged to provide a perspective (that self-silencing is actively discouraged)- so that the group can benefit from the widest viewpoint? This supports groups to benefit from insider-outsider viewpoints and reduces organisational blindness (Tett, 2015). What if.. the leaders actively brought individuals into discussions?

“If the group encourages disclosure of information – even if information opposes the group’s inclination – the self-silencing will be reduced significantly.” (Sunstein and Hastie, 2015)

What if.. it is not ok to be a bystander. What if.. “self-silencing” happens where the culture is not conducive to a range of ideas or is dominated by a few?

What if.. success is a majority agreement not full concesus – to provide the safety and support for divergent and opposing viewpoints to exist? What if.. we openly welcomed and rewarded opposing views and ideas?

What if.. silence was taken to mean that individuals agree with the item and that where they disagree or require further information that this is indicated at the time?

What if.. Adam Grant is right the most successful groups use a “giver culture“…helping others, sharing knowledge, offering mentoring, and making connections without expecting anything in return.” And perhaps this is the basis for the high collegiate, low ego culture required in meetings and teams to drive-up group success and organisational improvement?

What if.. group effectiveness depends on building up social capital of the team? (avoiding the dangers posed by Cosy Clubs) Colvin (2015) provides a good example of Steve Jobs who kept together the six top executives for 13 years until he stepped down as CEO of Apple in 2011.

What if.. we championed and rewarded divergent thinking so that when appropriate groups generated a large number of ideas in short contributions from all members of the group – seeking and promoting individual viewpoints. What if.. we actively dispatched and brought in outsiders to provide an insider-outsider viewpoint (Tett, 2015)

leaders are choice architects; determining the environment in which noticed and un-noticed features influence the decisions groups make. Leaders have the ability to influence behaviours and use “nudges” to influence individual and group behaviour. (influenced from, Thaler and Sunstein, 2008)

What if… the art of leadership and leading change is in the ability to priortise what is important and to stay on track? What if… meetings and groups discussion sought to prioritise, asking…

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

What if.. active listening is expected from all… and this meant eye-contact and small gestures to acknowledge the developing contributions. What if.. this meant all members were active note takers and (as reflected in research)…

“…engage…in ‘deep interactions,’  with group members constantly alternating between advancing their own ideas and responding to contributions of others with “good”,”right”, “what?”and other super-short comments that signaled concensus on ideas value, good or bad.” (Colvin, 2015)

What if.. we run scenarios of the future based on the decisions made by the group. What if.. these were considered in terms of possible and probable futures? What if.. we exercised high levels of empathy..changed perspective..and spent enough time thinking about how decision will be receieved by stakeholders and the likely level of adoption?

What if… we use roles to draw all into discussion and debate. Devil’s advocate, Black Hat (Thinking Hats approach) or set-up red teams, who construct a case against the proposed idea, change to test the quality and sustainability of a strategy or change. What if.. we tested whether each proposed change is likely to be there and sustaining improvement in 3 years time?

What if.. we realised the importance of execution and that we need to invest time in meetings ensuring that the execution of actions is fully timed, owned, evolved and reviewed?

Slide2

What if.. we ask “end of spectrum” questions to provoke debate, creativity and innovation?

  • If our lives depended on it what would we do?
  • If we were a new leadership team in this organisation what would we do?
  • If we had all the time and money we required what would we do?
  • If you had to argue against this course of action – what case would you build?
  • Are we answering the right question?

What if.. we use data to inform decisions – hard and soft information that allows for Black Box Thinking (Syed, 2015) and brings a key reality to the decision making and to measuring impact.

“Nothing seems to inject reality into a discussuin and banish wishful thinking and biased speculations as well as empirical evidence, especially in the form of data and numbers.” (Sunstein and Hastie, 2015)

What if.. the power of questioning creates better meetings and better decisions? … As Barber highlights…

“…our perception of what is possible is obstructed by historic assumptions about what is possible – they stop us considering game-changing innovations. Clever questioning has the ability to unlock possibilities previously not considered. Barber sets high targets to support ambition, urgency and to force a wide consideration of options. To drive change there needs to be a strict focus – “delivery never sleeps” (influenced by Michael Barber, 2015)

 


ALSO What if…

  • … it is not ok to allow the agenda to fill the time available – finishing an effective and efficient meeting early is a good thing.
  • … the expectation is that everyone is 5 minutes early to every meeting…(what if members are not allowed to attend after the start?)
  • … the chair was decisive and assured in maintaining both quality, timing and the momentum of the meeting?
  • … Steve Jobs was right and that only the very key people should be in a meeting making key decisions – do we get the group/meeting attendance right?
  • phones and laptops are banned? – the meeting is either worth the full attention of the members or it is not.
  • … side-conversations were not tolerated and that no one spoke over anyone else, ensuring a shared bouncing of ideas across the group.
  • only ideas and not their owners were examined or pulled apart? What if.. it should never be about taking sides?
  • … post-mortems, conducted well, are a key way for groups and teams to learn?
  • … within 24 hours the actions of a meeting are clearly circulated to all members – highlighting and driving accountability.

Maybe then.. we would use the following checklist to assess our meetings and the effectiveness of our groups and teams. Also Maybe then.. we would realise that this is hard to achieve and that it needs to be deliberately developed over-time to add real value to an organisation… the opportunity to improve our groups, teams and meetings is too important to ignore.

  1. Meticulusly plan each meeting – it occupies too much time and cost too much money not to be fully planned. Understanding and evaluating the intention of each item.
  2. Keep meetings tight – effective and efficient. Start on time, consider who really should be attending, no mobiles/laptops, keep to time, read pre-released information, keep to the agenda, no side conversations, seek clear actions, keep concise minutes and seek high accountability for agreed actions (always follow-up actions – avoid letting people of the hook) – finish on time.
  3. Delivery never sleeps – meetings should prioritise the most leveraging items for discussion and agreement. There sould be a level of urgency and drive delivered through the leader/chair – this is precious time.
  4. Beware of and share the dangers of group think (empowering groups to identify these dangers in meetings):
    1. Amplifying errors through a lack of critical discussion.
    2. Cascading initial or most forcfully delivered ideas
    3. becoming polarized based on allegance instead of the ideas
    4. Having a narrow view and limited development of ideas as the group only shares knowledge known by all  (or that of the most vocal) – lacking wider viewpoints and insider-outsider views.
  5. Find ways to support broad brainstorming, explore wide perspectives and encouage Divergent Thinking to solve problems, generate ideas and develop strategy. Effective groups seek and support “idea flow” from all participants.
  6. Avoid a culture that is dominated by “Happy Talk” within a “Cosy Club”. Seek majority agreement, by tolerating and exploring opposing positions – decisions to be supported by all outside of the meeting.
  7. Use data to inform decisions – hard and soft information that allows for Black Box Thinking and brings a key reality to decision making and to measuring impact. People need to feel something to change their views (Kotter).
  8. Beware the Bystander and the tendency for individuals to be self-silencing – create structures and an ethos that expect participation. Reward opposing viewpoints and critical comment – make it a safe environment to share critical views. Ensure silence is taken as agreement. Develop a “Givers culture” (Grant, 2015)
  9. Leaders and chairs need to take to opportunity to be self-silencing to avoid over-influencing decisions and draw a wider range of opinions out.
  10. Beware the Hijacker – generate cultures that champion group as opposed to individual success – counter act dominant individuals – make it about the groups/teams success not individual success.
  11. Provoke wider views and perspective through end-of-spectrum questions and scenario creation to test the impact and likely success of strategies.
  12. Use roles to draw all into discussion and debate. Devil’s advocate or Black Hat etc. or red teaming – set-up a team who construct a case against the proposed idea, strategy or change.
  13. Promote an ethos and culture of active listening and deep buy-in – enhance where meetings or team interaction are meaningful, effective and efficient.
  14. Execute all actions agreed in meetings – ensuring enough time is spent thinking-through delivery and execution over-time. Always return to the actions to secure accountability and the on-going effectiveness of he meeting.
  15. Why?, What if?, Have we thought?, What is the consequence of? – our meetings and group interactions need to be rich in clever and searching questions? Clever questioning has the ability to unlock possibilities previously not considered.

“…participating in co-operative group behaviour  – working for the success of the group without regard to potential personal rewards – makes us high.” (Colvin, 2015)

What if.. I took some of this advice?

Dan Nicholls

April 2016

How can MATs be more than the sum of their parts?…

How can Multi Academy Trusts realise their potential in a rapidly changing educational landscape so that they become more than the sum of their parts and make a contribution to system leadership that transforms education as we know it?

1 + 1 = 3

It is probably true that education is going through rapid change through Academisation and the growth of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs); the temporarily weak academies get sponsored, the perceived stronger ones seek to form and grow their MATs. What happens within MATs and in particular their effectiveness at driving and sustaining academy improvement will determine the success of this educational transformation. Will the system become self-improving?

It is also probably true that there are key strategies and opportunities afforded by the scale and connection within MATs that have real potential to transform leadership, teaching, professional development, assessment, learning, outcomes and ultimately the life chances of children in our communities.


 

What if.. the following provides a useful framework and description of the key approaches, mindsets and strategies that will enable MATs to add value and raise standards beyond what was possible when the individual partners in a MAT stood alone…

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In a changing educational landscape stand-alone Academies can become increasingly isolated, organisationally blind and vulnerable to dips in performance. At the same time there is increasing evidence of the significant benefits and security that comes with being part of a group of Academies within a Multi Academy Trust. The last half-decade has seen an acceleration in the establishment of new MATs as well as the rapid expansion of the pioneer MATs. Whilst this has fundamentally altered the educational landscape, most MATs are presently immature and rapidly exploring the potential benefits of deep collaboration and collegiality. Additionally, maturing MATs are beginning to exploit system leadership to secure a wider impact and are seeking MAT to MAT collaboration to secure greater provision, opportunity and outcomes for our young people.

“The new generation of campaigners must be collaborative in a way their predecessors were not, and had far less need to be.” (Hayman and Giles, 2015)

There is an urgent need to understand this new dynamic and exploit the opportunities that this evolving landscape is providing. This considers eight areas and approaches that have the potential to add significant value to Academies within a MAT and ensure MATs secure greater impact and improvement.

“System leaders focus on creating the conditions that can produce change and that can eventually cause change to be self-sustaining.” (Senge et al., 2015)


 

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What if.. there is a deepening of moral purpose and the motivating notion of improving the system, with other Academies; influencing and improving the educational provision for a greater number of individuals. Reinforcing this shared purpose, collective goal and deeper ambition provides the fuel for collaboration and system-focused altruism required to add greater value to the system.

The attraction of joint initiative and collaboration, carefully fostered within a MAT, exploits the useful tension between co-operation and competition. Supported through regular connection and transparent performance data, academies push and pull each other to achieve greater success against this shared purpose to uplift communities and have an impact and this generation and those that follow.

“There are many strategic benefits…from aligning joint effort, and for combining collective investment for competitive gain. Uplifting leaders know that these (collaboration and competition) are the yin and yang of enduring success.” (Hargreaves et al., 2014)

What if.. the development and use of data across a MAT provides a unique opportunity to compare and contrast performance?

Matthew Syed considers Black Box Thinking (2015) and the benefit of deeply understanding and investigating performance. Where quantitative and qualitative data across all functions of Academies within a MAT are compared there is an opportunity to identify bright spots and positively deviant behaviours that have impact (Dan and Chip Heath, 2010). Centralised, shared and transparent data trawling, scrutiny and analysis allows greater focus on what matters as well as deepening accountability. As Jim Collins (2001) states, you cannot do anything without first confronting the brutal facts of your reality. For MATs this is the basis of a self-improving system and for the identification of trails, both at MAT and individual Academy level. Black box thinking and transparency of key indicators is a key advantage of collaboration for individual Academies within MATs, particularly where they…

“…have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Collins, 2001)

What if.. well-connected Academies within MATs have a unique opportunity to reduce organisational blindness and to bust silos? Gillian Tett, considers the impact of working in Silos, suggesting that:

“If we become blind creatures of habit our lives are poorer as a result.” (Tett, 2015)

There is significant value gained from leaders, teachers and wider staff moving between Academies within a MAT (permanently, seconded, temporarily or for reviews) that supports improvement and is a tangible element of deep collaboration. Importantly this supports Academies to learn from, evaluate, assimilate and adopt practices that are shown to have had impact in other Academies. Where fluidity of movement is high there is increasing alignment of practices across the MAT that can reduce the need for direct standardisation or imposition of practices. As MATs mature, this movement is increasingly strategic and increasingly extends through the organisation to balance resources and intervene to accelerate improvement. In a fragmented educational landscape this connection and collaboration afforded within a MAT allows for the removal of organisational blindness and a widened view that better informs improvement.

“Collaboration occurs when people work with others … to achieve a clearly understood and mutually beneficial, shared set of goals and outcomes that they could not achieve working by themselves.” (Sanaghan and Lohndorf, 2015)

What if.. Collaboration with purpose within MATs, particularly within networks is a key element for driving improvement? Collaboration is often only effective where it achieves a clear commitment and triggers action. Whilst it is typical for Principals to meet regularly within a MAT, deeper networks have a greater impact on middle leadership, teaching and the wider work of Academies. This is supported by John Kotter who describes the need to create duel operating systems, that maintain the hierarchy, whilst maintaining, cross-organisation groups that connect and innovate.

“The real challenge is to combine strong leadership and strong management and use each to balance each other.” (Kotter, 2014)

Subject networks provide a good example, particularly where these go beyond the sharing of effective practice, which can ultimately either be adopted, or otherwise admired and left behind in the room. In a MAT scenario such networks develop a profundity that lead to staff sharing best practice and also syllabi, planning and resources, as well as having Mock Exams that are marked, moderated and followed with examiner style feedback. Adam Grant (2014) highlighted the advantages of propagating and rewarding strategic-altruism within these networks that need to support and generate a culture that rewards strategic givers and giving.

“If you share your best ideas with your competition, it will stimulate you to keep inventing new ones in order to stay on the leading edge of innovation.” (Hargreaves, 2014)

What if.. growing Leadership Capital is a key catalyst for Academy improvement and central to deriving impact within a MAT and across the system? Whilst getting the right leaders on the bus is key, either internally or externally sourced, it is also important that leaders are in the right seats, at the right time. MATs enable the strategic movement, training and development of leaders that support accelerated improvement. The ability to develop, promote and second leaders and middle leaders between Academies provides the opportunity to balance skills and experience to intervene for the good of the wider community. As Fullan (2010) describes these leaders become influential change agents within the MAT.

“The fact is, most effective leaders want to make a contribution beyond their own borders….they are humble. But they want to learn more, and they want to think that they have something to offer that will benefit others…they make perfect change agents, because they push upwards and laterally.” (Fullan, 2010)

What if.. securing a deep and unswerving focus on effective Pedagogical leadership as central to turning the key educational flywheel of Academy improvement? It is this aspect that Academies and MATs need to be the “best in the world (at)” (Collins, 2001). This is an unswerving mission and drive that has the greatest leverage on outcomes and increasing the life chances of children. This is the standing item for all cross-MAT networks and groups.

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What if.. strategic system leadership needs to intervene to secure improvement? In any MAT each Academy performs differently and will be progressing on their own improvement journey. Where performance is strong a level of earned autonomy provides a level of freedom to an Academy. However, where performance dips or where an Academy underperforms there is a need to impose strategies and approaches that are shown to be effective. With high trust within a MAT there is an opportunity for executive leadership, scrutiny, review and peer challenge to disrupt and provoke improvement. The best MATs use this to seek a self-improving system that delivers discernible difference.

“(when) Schools pull together and share their best ideas, while simultaneously employing peer pressure to achieve more for the sake of all students (and the whole community).” (Hargreaves et al. 2014)

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What if.. for the system to become self-improving there is a need to scrutinise, evaluate and to pursue discernible difference on the things that matter? This type of leadership seeks to execute change and tell narratives of improvement that propagate the shared moral purpose, grows bright spots and secures alignment and improvement that raises standards across the MAT.


Maybe then.. Taken together the eight areas interact to provide a description of system leadership within a MAT; a system that seeks to be self-improving and to add more value than its constituent parts. The Educational landscape has shifted through system-wide academisation to a point where MATs are forming and growing rapidly and with few parameters. Whilst this may require some rationalisation in the future there is presently a growing movement where MATs are collaborating and taking responsibility for their wider communities; forging MAT to MAT relationships which need to grow if we are to realise the potential of system leadership and to create a self-improving and self-regulating education system.

“The role of the leader is to enable, facilitate, and cause peers to interact in a focused manner…but still only a minority of systems employ the power of collective capacity.” (Fullan, 2010)

March 2016

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…

Slide3

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…

Slide2

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

Stretch and Challenge | CLF Conference

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It is probably true… that consistently, deliberately and purposefully pitching learning just beyond a child’s present ability, that point between confusion and boredom, is perhaps the hardest part of teaching. This requires a depth of awareness of where each child is and specifically what each individual needs to do next to learn and make progress.

It is also probably true… that good lessons have the ability to stretch and challenge 80+% of children, whereas a great set of lessons stretches and challenges a different 80% each lesson. This requires teachers to become expert coaches who have a depth of subject and age-related knowledge, formatively assesses and use effective feedback to know where each child is with their learning, has the ability to use this to plan for progress, has an in-built ethic of excellence and the in-lesson awareness to intervene with effective questioning, explanation and modelling. Effective coaching happens when there is a consistent application of these elements over time, so that…

“…success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities (provided by teachers and others).” (Malcolm Gladwell)

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


What if… Ofsted are right? that the stretch and challenge of all children should be based on having consistently high standards of what each pupil can achieve, including the most able and disadvantaged…and assessment that informs planning for pupils who are falling behind in their learning or who need additional support enabling pupils to make good progress and achieve well?

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…and that when looking at books… there is the level of challenge and evidence that pupils have to grapple appropriately with content, not necessarily “getting it right” first time the work is not too easy?

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What if… the ability to plan for and to challenge and stretch children is impossible without a depth of 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 planning, task setting that ensure that children are stretched and challenged around the appropriate content?
  • Knowledge of pedagogy – how to plan to pitch learning, plan lessons, activities and other elements of pedagogy to secure progress.

What if.. one of the key levers in stretching and challenging children is the subject passion from teachers who inspire young people to achieve more. Teachers have huge influence – and with that opportunity comes great responsibility:

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What if… this passion is particularly portrayed through the language we use? It is language that motivates and perhaps more importantly inspires interests that enhance young peoples lives. What if… we analysed our own use of language and identified phrases and approaches that automatically set limits (often unknowingly) on what children can achieve or indicate limits to what we believe is possible?

What if… planning to stretch and challenge requires:

  • lesson objectives that genuinely stretch children based on where they are in their learning.
  • feedback and previous progress is the basis for the planning of each lesson – teachers show the flexibility required to respond and pitch lessons by child.
  • flexibility within lessons enable learning, tasks, questioning to be altered to maintain challenge and pitch.
  • peer-to-peer learning is used to support and accelerate progress.
  • different tasks are required to stretch children who are at different points in their progression.
  • lessons and content need to increase in depth rather than breadth to support increased challenge and stretch.
  • absolute clarity around what the age-related or exam-expectations are to direct learning appropriately and stretch in the right areas.
  • have high expectations of what is possible and what children can achieve.
  • Build resilience in pupils who develop GRIT and a growth mindset to spend more time outside of their comfort zone.

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What if… children do not produce their best work often enough and tread water in the mediocre? It might be that we rarely stretch and challenge students to produce their very best work and that much of the work produced falls in the bottom quartile of what what they are capable of?

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What if… children were stretched and challenged to produce work that is skewed to the right, toward excellence 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 (perhaps at the front of each book).

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What if… children can fly if they truly believe they can? 

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The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” (from, Peter Pan)

What if… teachers always started from the position that all children can achieve their potential? and What if… this was portrayed in the manner, language, optimism and challenge that teachers have for their classes/children?

What if… we understood that a child’s beliefs can limit what they believe to be possible and worse still that as teachers and educators our beliefs can also limit what others believe that can achieve?

“Tread carefully on the dreams of children; they are fragile”

“…and release them to achieve their podium position…”

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What if… to stretch and challenge individuals practise needs to be …intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (their) current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.”  (Malcolm Gladwell) … enabling children to  over-perform.

What if… creating these conditions and the opportunity to stretch and challenge children requires teachers to be expert coaches who…

  1. Opportunity – creating the opportunity for children to learn and work just beyond their present ability.
  2. Competition from like-minded individuals – create a ethos and atmosphere of sharing and feedback that balances competition and co-operation.
  3. develop GRIT – supporting children to focus on long term goals, ignoring short-term distractions. Often re-doing and re-drafting for example.
  4. seek Deliberative practise – based on precise feedback support children to practise and apply understanding.

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What if… this seeks to…

“replace the patchwork of lucky breaks, context and arbitrary advantages that determine success…with a system (learning) that provides opportunities and the conditions for all to feel success.” (Malcolm Gladwell, adapted)

What if… planning, tasks and activities are informed by Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That these frameworks support children to be appropriately stretched and challenged.

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What if… we sought more often to escalate lessons and tasks from closed to open and (more often) to challenge children to apply, analyse, synthesis and evaluate their developing understanding. What if… too often children spend time doing what they can already do?

What if… we pitch lessons in the proximal zone? and that the real challenge is to plan learning so that as many children are kept in their proximal zone for as long as possible, 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 stretch and challenge 80% of students, but that in great lessons this is a different 80% each lesson? seeking to pitch and stretch all children over time… an ability that should not be under-estimated.

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What if… stretch and challenge also came from teaching to depth and seeking mastery around the key ideas and concepts.

More generally, in top performing education systems the curriculum is not mile-wide and inch-deep, but tends to be rigorous, with a few things taught well and in great depth.

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What if… we stretched and challenged children based on a development of a growth mindset (Dweck) – where an anything is possible. What if… it was the absolute expectation that children had to meet the standards. …ensuring, of course, that we do not set the bar too low.

What if… we are prone to underestimating what children are capable of and that this can be highlighted through modest lesson objectives. What if… by setting the bar high and seeking marginal gains we can expect more from children.

“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.”

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What if… teaching focused more on the journey; on stretching and challenging children to seek “near wins” (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)


Maybe then…  children will spend more time in their proximal zone thanks to the expertise and pedagogical understanding of the teacher. A teacher who consistently, deliberately and purposefully pitches learning just beyond a child’s present ability, that point between confusion and boredom, so that children are kept in flow more often. Teachers, as expert coaches, use assessment and formative feedback, strong subject and conceptual knowledge to use elements of pedagogy that stretch and challenge all children over time.

…and maybe then, as teachers, we can be the spark of numerous ignition stories that are born out of an unswerving desire to stretch and challenge pupils; increasing the chances of individuals to be inspired and fall helplessly in love with a future passion…

“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion.” Dan Coyle

Dan Nicholls

October 2015

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)
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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

Thunks | simple questions that prompt a new view

Thunks… beguiling questions about everyday things that stop you in your tracks and suggest new ways to look at the world… earthrise

Earthrise: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realise just what you have back there on Earth.” (Jim Lovell)

Thunks have the ability to change our view, our thinking, our behaviours, our habits and the way we lead and teach; just like seeing earth from space changes perspective and forces us to reflect. The following is a herd of thunks designed to add ideas and viewpoints that stop and force reflection…prompting improvement in our leadership and teaching…

All teaching and leadership blogs are here


Thunk #3 | What if… motivation needs to be ignited?

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“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion.” Dan Coyle

We all have them; the moments in our past that have shaped the present and will influence the future. It may be a teacher, a sportsperson, a hero, a film, a piece of work, art, riding a bike, running, a poem, essay, a realisation, a chance encounter. It can be like a lightning bolt that ignites something deep inside that motivates a lifetime of passion for something; it causes the heart to flutter and captures the imagination.

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

It is probably true that there are moments in our lives that create core memories that have disproportionate influence on who we are, what we do and who we become. The Disney Pixar film Inside Out is a great tale that revolves around those forming experiences that shape each of us.

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In the film each memory that Riley has is diligently stored in the short and long term memory, occasionally forgotten and removed (hoovered in the movie). There are however key core memories – it is these that shape Riley’s personality islands…those few things that define who  she is, what is important to her and what she is passionate about. The mind replays the key igniting memories that reinforce this passion and drives the intrinsic motivation for deep practice.

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“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)” Dan Coyle

The emerging thunk is that these moments are a lot like falling in love — we can’t force it, but we can increase the odds slightly by doing a few basic things. As teachers and leaders how do we create the conditions and the opportunities that are more likely to provoke these lightning bolt moments for children and our peers?

These moments are: (from Dan Coyle)

  1. Serendipitous. Happen by chance, and thus contain an inherent sense of noticing and discovery.
  2. They are joyful. Crazily, obsessively, privately joyful. As if a new, secret world is being opened.
  3. The discovery is followed directly by action. Not to just admire, but to act, do and practise.

One key lever in education is subject knowledge or rather subject passion from teachers who inspire. Teachers have huge influence – and with that opportunity comes great responsibility:

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The language we use is also extremely powerful. It is language that can create ignition points and perhaps more importantly can confirm and propagate these sparks into passions that drive the motivation to shape and enhance young peoples lives…

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“Tread carefully on the dreams of children; they are fragile”

So, create moments of joy, inspiring facts, details and experiences that ignite a passion, perhaps not seen or witnessed early but for ever changing the individual. After all…

“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 just might be that supporting children to achieve the best work they have ever done ignites the sort of motivation that creates a personality island and the deep passion to engage in the practice that enriches a lifetime.

How do we create core memories, lightning bolts, ignition moments or at least the conditions for them to happen more often?

How do we use language to support children’s dreams and passions?

We may not create olympic medalists, chess grandmasters or a world-class composers, but the fun is in the journey, in having a passion, an interest and generating the kind of joy that sparks an interest – Teachers have no idea the influence they have on others.

Go create ignition opportunities and sparks that will enrich and empower young people to be passionately interested about stuff… and reinforce these passions with your language.

you have the privilege of sparking remarkable futures.

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August 2015


Thunk #2 | What if… Mission + Campaigning = Momentum?

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Michael Hayman and Nick Giles identify: Mission: “A driving desire to change things, a higher purpose that drives (improvement).” (best expressed in 5 words) Campaigning: “Turning the mission into a powerful reality, the activist mentality.” Momentum: “The measure of success moving and growing faster than the competition.” Are you a campaigner, an activist, a disruptor? …on a mission to secure the momentum you require to change the piece of the world that you want to improve? This is a refreshing view of change (particularly the link to activism) and what it takes to move to action and secure the level of change that will make the difference. But what does it take to be an activist/campaigner? Hayman and Giles identify:

  1. Drive (or refusal to give in): Do you have the drive to keep going when it is easier to stop or when people tell you it will not work? Remember that there is a default movement against change and an inherent fear of new/different. Set your mission with care – it needs to be simply expressed and the focus of your drive.
  2. Self improvement: Do you build in enough time to reflect and learn? Treat experience and opportunity as stepping stones forward as part of the ups and downs of a campaign.
  3. Communication: Without communication there is no campaign. Reinforce the mission and the purpose often – drive the mission daily…this is the flywheel. If it is not simple and compelling there will be no followers.
  4. Disruption: To achieve change you need to disrupt the current status quo: If your mission is to address dissatisfaction or a need for change and this is multiplied by a Vision (Mission) and First Steps (Campaign) and this is greater than the Resistance you will achieve Momentum. (based on Gleicher formula)change-graphicOvercoming the Resistance of status quo requires a disruptive drive to succeed in achieving non-reversable change.
  5. Persuasion: You will not achieve your mission alone – persuasion is the key to securing followers – it is followers that transforms a lone nut into a leader. You need a tipping point to secure change – persuade through the strength of purpose, mission and ambition – people follow those with a deep and unshakable belief about what they seek to change. Unwavering commitment to change.
  6. Connection: Connect and network widely to secure support, seek feedback and make things happen.
  7. Optimism: To overcome the status quo activists and campaigners need to be optimistic. The vast majority of people will give up before they realise the change they seek. Develop the ability to bounce.

“Go big or go home. Because it’s true. What do you have to lose?” (Eliza Dushku)

Maybe then: As educators and leaders we should assume the role of activist and trigger campaigns to achieve missions. This language underlines the inertia of the status quo and that if we really want to trigger change and make a big difference – irreversible change – then activism and campaigning is more appropriate representation of the energy and commitment required to overcome the inherent resistance and secure the improvement we seek.

Go forth and disrupt, commit to a mission that you love, use ridiculous amounts of drive, communicate for buy-in, create a movement through persuasion and connect with others to achieve a level of momentum that makes the change stick and irreversible.

Go big or go home

Further Reading: (“Mission” by Michael Hayman and Nick Giles is excellent and very applicable to educational leadership)

and this blog: Great Leaders create movements that stick | Amazing is what spreads 

August 2015


Thunk #1 | What if… leading change and improvement is all about the nudge? Nudge “Nudges are ways of influencing choice” (Hausman & Welch 2010) …a fundamental aspect in education. The behavioural insights team, led by David Halpern, commonly known as the “nudge unit” was set up by David Cameron to “help people make better choices for themselves… (by gentle prompting or nudging).” The art of leadership, teaching and sparking change is often in the ability of “nudging” new ways of acting, learning and thinking in others. Nudges are similar in nature to other powerful change agents: butterflies (Brighouse), bright spots (Heaths) or positive deviants (Sternin)… those outliers present in any population that, when amplified, have the power to leverage change and improvement. Thaler et al. highlight that there are influential strategies (nudges) that leaders can use as choice architects to influence choice and behaviour. So 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), great leaders have an increased awareness of nudges and use them to spark change; clever, cheap and effective ways that change behaviours intrinsically – without forcing choices. Perhaps some obvious nudges are:

  • What is placed onto observation forms and is therefore rewarded.
  • Telling students how many marks they are away from the next grade and not their actual grade.
  • Shifting Satisfactory to Requires Improvement.
  • Removing levels.
  • Any new performance measure  – nudging by shifting the goal to where you want it and not wasting time supporting the how it can improve.
  • Any new category that classifies performance of Academies or MATs – nudges improvement toward set criteria.
  • Asking (not telling) others what they will contribute.
  • Warning bell moved earlier to nudge punctuality.
  • Accepting that change is the norm and not saying things like, “we just need stability”
  • Never talking negatively as a leader – nudging that positive ethos that is desired.
  • Being in every classroom everyday.
  • Providing enough seating at lunchtime.
  • Finding and promoting teaching bright spots.
  • Removing all graffiti immediately.
  • Using “we” and not “I” or “you” when collaborating.
  • Investing in signage/branding that describes the accepted behaviour.
  • Leading with Why and telling emotive stories of a compelling future.
  • Not talking about behaviour and only about learning.
  • Praising the good habits, only highlighting that which is desirable.

…you will have other nudges. As the choice architect of your organisation, team, classroom… 

  • do you recognise the nudges around you? …the nudges that influence you as well as the nudges that you use to influence others?
  • how do you use nudges? Do we think and plan long enough to seek softer ways (nudges) to achieve the changes we wish to see?
  • how can you nudge improvement?

(a Future Thunk: Do we understand and recognise the constraints that we have around us; constraints that control what we do, how we think and how we behave?)

 August 2015

Great Leaders create movements that stick | Amazing is what spreads

“The Tipping Point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.  Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate” (Gladwell, 2002).


It is probably true… that understanding how to “start a movement” is a key leadership quality at all levels within organisations. Why is it that somethings tip and others do not; why some approaches are adopted and become habitual and others not? It is also probably true that movements start when the conditions are right and you emotionally connect, tell stories, ignite action, reach the tipping point and propagate the conditions for contagion, so that ideas spread, are well adopted and become typical. 

Indeed it might be… that those organisations who create movements by seeking small but precisely targeted pushes turn the Flywheel (Collins), so that the organisation becomes and stays great. This is focused, deliberate change and improvement, based on an understanding of how to start and propagate movements and trigger change that sticks. Great organisations take bets where the odds suggest that change will be well adopted, aligned to core purpose, impactful and importantly … irreversible. Great organisations deliberately stay close to their flywheel and make a few well-placed bets on a few key irreversible strategies that matter and make the difference … it is around these that great leaders create, trigger, propagate and sustain movements.

Slide11

However…it is probably true that education is riddled with dead-end initiatives and unsustained changes – the consequence is either a wasteland of innovation or multiple initiatives; where a thousand flowers are allowed to bloom and wither often in rapid succession; all of which has a damaging impact on the credibility of the organisation’s leadership.


 Which beg the questions…  What are the conditions required for a movement to start? AND how, as leaders, can we start, propagate and embed a movement/change based on key leveraging strategies that stick and accelerate improvement?


The importance of the firsts followers, the lone nut and creating conditions for movements to thrive

What if… we understood how movements start and remind ourselves of this great clip and piece of observation from Derek Sivers … how to start a movementhqdefault

Derek Sivers: Blog: https://sivers.org/ff

“…remember the importance of nurturing your first few followers as equals, making everything clearly about the movement, not you. … be public. … be easy to follow! …remember leadership is over-glorified. … It was the first follower that transforms a lone nut into a leader. … there is no movement without the first follower. …the best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow. … so when you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.” (Derek Sivers)

What if…, as leaders, we…

“…take responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose.” (Sinek)

…understanding that by enabling others to achieve and by creating conditions for connection and collaboration we provide the opportunity for movements to start.

“What happens when you build an organisation that is flat and open? what happens when you expect a lot and trust the people you work with?” (Seth Godin)

What if… we were aware that great leadership is about creating a climate where movements happen; that these need to be well focused, but trust that it is amazing that spreads.f163eaa3b112c76e1f850c9a4ba57189 What if… we recognised that change and movements do not take hold where there is disorganisation; where an organisation is…

  • Passive
  • Divided
  • Drifting
  • Reactive
  • and prone to inaction

What if… sustained change and the conditions for movements to grow occur where an organisation is…

  • Motivated
  • United
  • Purposeful
  • Values initiative
  • Moves to action?

“The role of the leader is to enable, facilitate, and cause peers to interact in a focused manner…but still only a minority of systems employ the power of collective capacity.” (Fullan, 2010)


Igniting and propagating a movement that sticks…

What if… we understood that the spread of a new idea, strategy or approach is determined by the adoption patterns of this small group of ‘socially infectious’ early adopters and connectors in an organisation that enable the reaching of a tipping point (Malcolm Gladwell). Who are the Connectors in your organisation? or the sneezers…

What if… we knew who our “sneezers” are? After all it is the sneezers who “unleash the idea virus” (Seth Godin) These are the people who are listened to, who are respected and admired. If you can build up a core of evangelizers among these sneezers, Godin says, your idea is much more likely to spread. What if… we understood how ideas become adopted by a population…perhaps then we would be more successful at starting and creating movements…

F2_0

What if… it is about 16%?

Maloney’s 16% Rule:  Once you have reached 16% adoption of any innovation, you must change your messaging and media strategy from one based on scarcity, to one based on social proof, in order to accelerate through the chasm to the tipping point.

How many organisations fail to switch approach for new strategies and simply decide to re-invent or scrap it? Do we invest enough time in ‘social proof’ a demonstration of the effectiveness of the new strategy – measuring and communicating the impact? What if we understood that 16% is a significant tipping point; that point where the early adopters become interested – we then have a movement (if we seek and communicate ‘social proof’)

BUT…

What if… as senior leaders within organisations the actual tipping point is far beyond 16% – perhaps >80% after which the movement is embedded, change is sustained and habits become irreversible.

AND…

What if… we re-set our movements to ensure that there is on-going improvement that is fit for the time and focused on maximum effectiveness. An evolving, well positioned and aligned movement may require re-birth to maintain momentum of improvement and avoid plateauing:

types-of-innovation-s-curves

Diagram credit: Innovation-Management.org


Create the time, space and opportunity to connect and collaborate; creating the conditions for movement to trigger, propagate and become habitual.

What if … we understood the power of connection; actually the power of purposeful connection and collaboration. Remembering that connection means nothing without a commitment to move to action. Slide1 What if… we understood that an organisation cannot remain agile and innovative with a purely hierarchical structure (right side of diagram). That great organisations maintain a connected structure that supports innovation, grows its individuals and ensures that there is collective ownership and opportunity to drive the organisation forward (left side of diagram) (John Kotter). It is within this structure that your, connectors, sneezers, early adopters have the opportunity to follow and create a movement…remembering that it is the first followers that transform a lone nut into a leader and a fad into a movement.

What if… this also recognised that decision making is better done nearer to the action; that this is what empowers individuals to commit and convert into habit those things that make the greatest difference. (David Marquet) Slide1 What if… we understood that through connection and collaboration we grow resources and opportunity; we gain insight, ideas and innovation. This challenges that traditional assumption that change just costs time and money.


Getting out of the cave and inviting peers into our cave provides perspective and enables more deliberate focused innovation; we increase our odds of instigating the right movements around the things that matter…

What if… we get out of our cave and connect so that we create opportunity and increase our view of what is going to have the most impact; increasing our odds of success. What if this also involves inviting others into our cave to provide peer review.Deer_Cave_Mulu_National_Park_Borneo_Malaysia

Image Credit: wallpaperweb


Tell stories that connect emotionally and tell of a bright future, trigger movements and compel people to action?

Slide2

What if… we shared stories that motivate: Stories that are about SELF, are about NOW, are about US and are about the FUTURE. People respond to stories; how often do leaders use stories to  make an emotional connection? We are pre-disposed to responding to stories; we understand our world through story and strong leaders understand this; and will passionately link stories to the WHY and the moral purpose.

“The Story is everything.” (Spacey)

What makes a good story?… Kevin Spacey highlights the need for… CONFLICT, AUTHENTICITY and AUDIENCE. kevin-spacy-cmi Stories create emotional connection:

“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)

John West-Burnham highlights the importance of describing a preferred future.

“Successful and credible leaders are able to tell compelling and credible stories about the future – they are leaders to the extent that people accept and value the future they describe.” (John West-Burnham, 2012)

Stories bind movements together they give reasons to start movements, they tell of a worthwhile future and they connect emotionally; it is the story that moves people to action.

Inspired leaders, organisations and teams find their deepest purpose – their ‘why?’ – and attract followers through shared values, vision and belief.” “this has the ability to transform the fortunes of a group or enterprise – activating individuals, providing a cultural glue, guiding behaviours and creating an overall sense of purpose and personal connection.” (James Kerr, Legacy, 2013)


Movements are more likely to take hold and become habitual if we KISS and avoid complexity – Complexity unravels good ideas, diminishes adopters and stops ideas sticking.

What if… we understood that we needed to  “Keep it simple, stupid?” The KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated. Complexity is the enemy to creating a movement or implementing change. Where strategies mis-fire, or change is not adopted, or where there is limited consistency and low habit development, complexity is likely to be the cause. What of we… also recognised that:

Slide3

 What if.. we also understood that when a thousand flowers bloom we are not deliberate or focused enough on propagating and developing those ideas that really matter that really make a difference. Innovation and movements need to be few, deliberate, leveraging, focused, contagious, simple and compelling. 


Wide held and owned set of beliefs in what is possible maintain movements and make them stick. Great organisations have deep, clear and simple beliefs, that are widely held and applied. These underpin the success of any movement or change. Where change or a movement mis-aligns with the underlying belief it will mis-fire.

What if… there is a wide-held and embedded belief in the organisation that we can do things that are amazing? The type of belief that enables and levers success from deep within the organisation – a belief that lives and breaths –  it is felt, insidious and ubiquitous; it is in the air.

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” (Anatole France)

What if… we build this belief into great ambition, purpose and drive? Quotation-George-Akomas-Jr-decision-promise-belief-success-commitment-Meetville-Quotes-66977

“Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.” (Henry Ford)


 Making movements stick. “Fire bullets then cannonballs” (Collins)

What if… we sought stickability of change and movements? Not only does change or movement need to be compelling, it also needs to stick around. Creating a movement or instigating change should consider if it will stick, a year, two years, three years… if not, don’t launch or invest energy and time, it is futile. The stickiness and sustainability of change is key; it needs to have legs! Education is a wasteland of terminated, washed-up initiatives. This is a real problem, because where organisation are initiative rich and these rarely take hold, the leadership reputation is eroded and damaged; further innovation becomes less likely to stick.

What if… we fired bullets first to test the water and then fully back those ideas that have the potential to be sticky, by firing cannonballs.

““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… we understood how to make ideas stick? and we considered the six principles of sticky ideas (“Made to Stick”, Chip and Dan Heath).

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Stories

Maybe then…

  • we would understand the dynamics of how to start, propagate and sustain a movement (change) around the few things that matter; the few things that make the difference.
  • we would better understand that it is more about the followers than the lone nut leader. That moving from 16% to 80% is the measure of success as well as understanding that re-invigorating change is required to avoid plateauing and sustain a trajectory of improvement.
  • we would create the connection and conditions for movements to start, ensuring the checks and balances are in place so that we back those movements that are deliberate, effective and well targeted… avoiding a thousand flowers blooming and then wilting.
  • We would use story to emotionally connect and move people to action.
  • We would take bets on a few ideas and strategies that have a high chance of success. where success is measured in sustainability, adoption, impact and whether the change will become irreversible (or evolvable in the same direction) Will this be in place – consistently applied in 3 years time?
  • We understood the key components for making change stick; the stickability factor.
  • We would KISS and avoid complexity; because complexity kills movements.
  • We would get out of the cave and invite peers into our cave more to get perspective and better understand the movements we need to create; having that wider view.
  • we would align belief about what is possible .. about what the future could be .. and that this aligned to a deeply held moral purpose .. that recognise that everything is possible .. so long as we are willing to do whatever it takes.

“Great leadership is the ability to place bets on the few things that matter; that have impact – great leaders use a wide-view to create and propagate movements that reach tipping points, achieve irreversible change and lasting impact. This enables a metronomic and efficient turning of the flywheel.”

May 2015