What if this is how we learn?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What if Daisy Christodoulou is right?…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father: You don’t mean elbows do you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Maybe then we will…

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

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

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

Dan Nicholls | May 2018 | Twitter: @DrDanNicholls

Is there Life after levels? – an approach using Age Related Expectations..

“We have.. come to believe that an individual’s rank on narrow metrics of attainment can be used to judge their talent ..and ability.. and potential.” (adapted from Rose, 2106, “The end of Average”)

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“Typing and ranking (against the average) have come to seem so elementary, natural, and right that we are no longer conscious of the fact that every such judgement always erases the individuality of the person being judged.” (Rose, 2016)

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It is probably true that the removal of levels and Ofsted’s “no prescribed or preferred method” presents an enormous opportunity for teachers and leaders at KS3 (likely to refer to Year 7 and 8 for most – with the preference for three year KS4)  to own the curriculum, develop assessment, improve pedagogy and inspire students to learn and progress into rounded, successful individuals (who also achieve well at GCSE and A-level).

This opportunity is likely to be enhanced in Multi Academy Trusts where scale provides a unique chance to drive-up standards and create world-class, shared, moderated approaches to curriculum, assessment, reporting and teaching in an area of the curriculum without external benchmarks. A chance to define specifically and focus on what students need to know, understand and do as the foundation for being and feeling successful.

It is also probably true that it is hard to avoid recreating a levelled system or to simply drop GCSE grades (or numbers) down through Key Stage 3.

“There are no ladders (progress is not linear), instead, each one of us has our own web of development, where each step we take opens up a whole range of new possibilities that unfold according to our own individuality.” (Fischer quoted in Rose, 2016)

It is also true.. that to move from levels at KS3 requires a shift in what is valued; a letting go of reassuring and convenient level descriptors, ladders of progress and grades. There is also an inherent danger that we will drift into a time of mediocrity and low expectation as schools and academies introduce non-standardised approaches across KS3 – an area that is presently riddled with  underachievement, dips in progress and firmly in the shadow of performance measures at KS4. And.. there is additional danger that where KS3 is inept this will have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged learners and those on the margins; widening gaps already open on entry to KS3.

And it is importantly true.. that primary colleagues have already moved to an age related / mastery approach. The 2016 results show 53% of students achieving the Age Related Expectations (AREs) in Reading, Maths and Writing (with the percentage achieving ARE in Reading (66%), Maths (70%), Writing (72% (TA)) and SPAG (72%)). Children entering secondary in September understand their attainment and to a lesser extent their progress against Age Related Expectations.

It is also true.. that the time for stalling on a life after levels approach at KS3 is over; not least because of the extraordinary opportunity that it provides. Almost half of all schools have dropped GCSE grades (or numbers) down through to Year 7 and 8 from GCSE (some dropping Progress 8 measures through the five years). Whilst this is both reassuring and convenient it offers no continuity with Primary approaches and essentially replaces levels with grades – particularly where these are fine graded and flipped to the new number grades… (replacing 4c with 4c, but less useful than the previous level because it relates to an equivalent performance projected to a distant summative exam, inherently narrowing the curriculum and experience of children)

However.. in a world without levels there is still a need to measure both the relative attainment and progress of students against a clearly defined age-related standards or expectations to measure the efficacy of the curriculum, teaching and to identify groups and individuals who fall behind, as well as ensuring that all students who need to deepen are stretched and challenged. And.. as Ofsted rightly identify there is a need to secure progress across all Years, in all subjects and across all groups and that where students fall behind they are caught up.

“When we are able to appreciate the jaggedness of other peoples talents – the jagged profile of our children – we are more likely to recognise their untapped potential, to show them how to use their strengths, and to identify and help them improve their weaknesses.” (Rose, 2016)


Which begs the question, what should an approach to life after levels seek to achieve at KS3?

What if.. we developed an approach that used well defined and rigorous Age Related Expectations across each subject and an assessment approach that measured both progress and attainment of children against these AREs and an approach to teaching and learning that inspired, deepened learning and brought the curriculum alive? What if.. was all enhanced through collaboration within a Multi Academy Trust?

What could that look like?..

What if.. this approach to KS3 had a fundamental influence on:

  • The curriculum – so that it becomes absolutely transparent what every child should know, understand and be able to do. As well as affording the space and time to support teaching that deepens and stretches all children within Age Related Expectations. Building a curriculum that inspires children to enjoy and find life long passions across a broad and balanced curriculum – that answers, “what do we want young people to become, how can we give them wings and purpose in life?” as opposed to, “how can we prepare children to achieve an A grade (or 9) in 5 years time on a narrow summative exam testing areas that do not translate well to success in life?”
  • Assessment – common summative assessments that test students against Age Related Expectations (requiring teachers and leaders to develop, create and moderate assessments, enhanced within a MAT or a Collaborative). Using  formative assessment to close gaps, accelerate progress as well as catching-up those short of or falling behind the Age  Related Expectations. Broadening our use of formative and summative assessment to include teacher assessment, coursework, book scrutiny, oral presentations, group working – to assess and support children to work at and deepen within ARE.
  • Teaching and learning: Secure learning and progress of all children against the age Related Expectations of knowledge, understanding and skills. But, and here is the real opportunity, inspire and stretch children so that they deepen within the Age Related Expectations within a flexible, broad and balanced curriculum. Built in Formative feedback that has a strong influence on lesson planning and closing gaps to and beyond the Age Related Expectations.

What if.. we no longer equate speed of learning with ability? (Rose, 2016) What if.. we stopped labelling children as less able or more able; recognising that the key thing is that all have potential to attain well, regardless of their present level of attainment? The present level of attainment of a child is much more likely the result of background, chance, opportunity, linguistic privilege, context etc. than innate talent or ability. What if.. Age Related Expectations made explicitly clear how to close attainment gaps? And that.. the assessment and feedback woven into (and not bolted onto) the curriculum celebrates the jaggedness of children’s abilities and talents?

What if.. this new approach championed all subjects; Art, Music, Drama, PE, writing, poetry, sculpture, design, craft, reading, languages … because when students are enthused in their learning and they value increasing parts of it, they will also progress in literacy and numeracy as the vehicles for them to pursue their passions?

“Good Schools get on and do things: dance, drama, music, art, using the outdoors, speaking in other languages, finding out about the past and other places, growing things, cooking, going places, using ICT and paint brushes, making things, experimenting, learning about their own bodies, working out how to get on with others in the real world. Above all, they use all these experiences as vehicles to do amazing English and Mathematics to support the structured literacy and numeracy programmes at the same time bring purpose to learning for pupils.” (Mick Waters, 2013)

What if.. this extended to extra-curricular opportunities, not least because this does can unpick disadvantage and has been shown to have a significant impact on grades and progress. As Angela Duckworth describes extra curricular activities are, the playing fields of Grit. (When we talk of curriculum at KS3 we should retain “curriculum” in its broadest sense).

“When kids are playing sports or music or rehearsing for the school play, they’re both challenged and having fun.” … “There are countless research studies showing that kids who are more involved in extracurriculars fare better on just about every conceivable metric – they earn better grades, have higher self esteem, are less likely to get in to trouble and so forth. … more participation in activities predicts better outcomes.” (Angel Duckworth, in Grit,2016)

“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)

What if.. the present Year 7 and 8 Curriculum is so opaque, directionless and random that it actually works to enhance accumulated disadvantage? What if.. there was real clarity and consistency for all about the Age Related Expectations so that.. only motivation is the limiting factor for a child’s attainment. What if.. this disrupted the loop of unequal opportunity for students at the margins?

What if.. all of this had the ability to tackle workload through:

  • The sharing of resources, SOW and curriculum planning.
  • We did not seek breadth and focused on quality and depth of learning; reducing the burden on teachers; freeing them from the need to skim and teach at pace. Reassuringly clear clear about the key concepts and misconceptions, as well as the required Knowledge, Understanding and Skills.
  • Centralised assessments and reporting to generate real clarity of expectation.
  • Curriculum groups and CPD to have clear direction around, for example, the key Year 7 concepts and misconceptions. This will bring shared purpose to departments across Academies.
  • Establishing shared exemplars for the Age Related knowledge, understanding and skills in Year 7 and 8 to support modelling and acquisition of AREs.

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What if.. the very first question that we ask is, “what should students at the end of Year 7 (and 8) know, understand and be able to do?” ..in each subject? (and across the full curriculum?)

“Our task is to educate their whole being so they can face the future. We may not see the future, but they will and our job is to help them make something of it.” (Ken Robinson)

What if.. it is much more about developing successful individuals, historians, geographers, musicians, artist, sportspeople, scientist, writers, innovators, dreamers, mothers, fathers, positive citizens.. and that KS3 is about this grounding across all of these areas within a broad, balanced, inspiring, motivating curriculum … Then the question is what do we, as professional teachers, subject specialist and leaders, want our Year 7 (8, 9) children to know, understand and do? Ensuring that we set our expectations high enough.. (and on from Expectations at KS2)..

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” (Michelangelo)

What if.. we also realised that there should be only one set of expectations – the Year 7 Age-related standard – And we avoided describing any sort of level on the way to this standard or beyond. We became comfortable that the Age Related Expectation is just that. And in a similar way to Ofsted who provide no descriptors for Requiring Improvement (it is not yet good) .. students are  “working towards age related expectations” (Of course it may well be helpful to use departing levels, KS2 Age Related Expectations and even GCSE descriptors to inform and support shared construction of the Year 7 Age Related Expectations and the Year 8 AREs … BUT we should resist on-going comparisons and remove levels and grades from assessment – there is no life after levels if levels or grades or a proxy still exist – AREs are single statements of what is expected by age, no ladder through them just distance from ARE and deepening within ARE)

What if.. it is also unhelpful to try to align the Age Related Expectations to GCSE grades or numbers. Whilst you would expect a child working at Age Related Expectations to go on and achieve at least a “good pass” (at least a 5 (1-9)) and that through deepening and pursuing excellence will access 6-9 at GCSE, we should resist placing age related expectations on a graduated scale or flight path across 7-11. Not least because KS3 should be about progress and preparation for life across a broad and balanced curriculum, that learning should spiral and interleave and that assigning a child as an F, G, H in Year 7 is a non-sensical descriptor of their attainment that ignores progression in learning. We should tread carefully if we try to force-fit summative GCSE grading down through to Year 7, even if there is a level of convenience in drawing on GCSE descriptors, questions, mark schemes etc. What if.. a better fit is to base all types of assessment to percentages or standardised scores of 100 and then determine percentage of performance that relates to working at Age Related Expectations? – (banding that can to planned into tests or derived through moderation post-assessment).

What if.. Knowledge is Power and that this should be a key focus for a Age Related Curriculum? What if.. the acquisition of knowledge allows the proximal zone of development to  widen so that progress accelerates as students are more able to assimilate new information/understanding/skill with their existing ability. What if.. this is more important from disadvantaged students who age 3 have half the words of children from professional families? (553 words v 1100 words) What if.. therefore, our KS3 curriculum and Age Related Expectations emphasised the required knowledge and this was made accessible, transparent and secured through quality first teaching .. so that effort (motivation) was the only barrier to acquiring the required age related knowledge?


What if.. instead of levels or grades we were only interested in children working towards Age Related Expectations at KS3 (following the primary model), achieving the AREs and importantly being given the freedom to deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills within these Age Related Expectations? We might describe a child as..

  • Deepening (D): child has reached the year group expectation and is now taking this deeper into more abstract work – following their passion within a broad curriculum that inspires the full range of talent and interest.
  • On track (O) / Working At current age related expectation. Child is working at the age related expectation for the Year group.
  • Yet to be on track (Y): the child shows some working at age related expectations but is not on track to achieve them.
  • At an earlier stage (A) in their learning journey. The child is short of the age related expectation.

(…and we resisted trying to describe any stages before or beyond age related expectations, which would recreate levels)

What if.. these tracked onto the national criteria at KS2?..

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What if.. we tracked both attainment and progress against age related expectations (ARE) using the following?.. for whole cohort (Year group or MAT Year group), groups, subjects, classes etc. … enabling inter and intra Academy and subject and group comparisons.

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What if.. this shows where students enter year 7.. using the KS2 scaled score. (where >100 reflects “Working at Expected Standard” on the x-axis? That in-line with Progress 8 this is the average of Reading and Maths. (53% of students achieved >100 (scaled score) in Reading, Writing and Maths. (SPAG being the fourth area measured at the end of KS2.

What if.. we used blue to identify non-PP, orange to identify PP children, triangles for female and circles for male and that an SEND child is shown by a black border?..AND what if.. as you rolled over each symbol the name and class of the child popped up?

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What if.. we used the y-axis as a 100-scale – most likely to be linked to a summative assessment (percentage) that identified children’s present attainment against Age Related Expectations.. What if.. the measure of a child’s attainment against Age Related Expectations could be given through teacher assessment, practical scores, oral presentation against set criteria?

What if.. the child’s vertical position identified their present attainment or distance from, on or beyond Age Related Expectation? AND that vertical movement up or down is a reflection of progress toward or away from the Age Related Expectation..

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What if.. we could plot over 1000 students against these Age Related Expectations (a benefit afforded by being part of a Multi Academy Trust)? What if.. this created a unique opportunity to moderate and standardise performance against a significant sample of children in each year (n.>1000), in each subject across all classes and groups? What if.. this was a significant nudge that raised standards at KS3?

What if.. we presented this data for each subject? ..or group? ..or class? So that..

  • We were able to track cohort percentages of the attainment of students – e.g. 63% at or above ARE
  • We were able to track the progress of students – e.g. of those starting at ARE and above at the start of Year 7, 40% are gaining ground against ARE, 52% are falling behind
  • We can visually and directly see who is falling behind … and intervene.
  • We can compare the attainment and progress of groups, particularly focused on groups.
  • We can measure the progress of students by class – a class that is moderated across a number of schools – in a student cohort of >1000, across 8 Academies.

What if.. we described progress over time against Age Related Expectations as:

  • Accelerating progress against Age Related Expectations
  • Gaining ground against Age Related Expectations
  • Maintaining progress against Age Related Expectations
  • Falling behind against Age Related Expectations
  • Falling further behind against Age Related Expectations

And.. these could be used with the attainment against Age Related Expectations: Deepening ARE, At ARE, Yet to be at ARE or At an Earlier stage (as above).

What if.. this allowed very clear identification of the children who are falling behind from where they were against the clearly defined Age Related Expectations?.. what if.. this told us about PP or SEND or gender or academy or department or individual? what if.. we did a work scrutiny and student voice for those students falling behind, and actively caught them up?

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AND.. those that are gaining ground from where they were against the clearly defined Age Related Expectations.. so that we can grow bright spots, celebrate and share practice that accelerates the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills..

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What if.. our job as educators just became very straight forward … all children regardless of present attainment need to be supported to reach the Age Related Expectations and for those who are secure to deepen and further bring alive and broaden the curriculum. So that the standard deviation shrinks and attainment rises (or deepens!)… seeking this…

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OR more simply.. to get all up to the standard and to deepen within the curriculum to inspire the next generation of mathematicians, writers, readers, sculptors, actors, artists, play writes, composers, biologists, astronauts, comedians and so on? against deepened AREs … and without levels and/or grades.

AND What if.. this just required:

  • a set of rigorous and well crafted Age Related Expectations – cleverly described and accessible…(to students, teachers, leaders and parents) Expectations that develop over time (through moderation and the professional dialogue of subject specialists) to articulate ever more clearly the expected knowledge, understanding and skills?
  • a set of common assessments that are 2/3 times a year sat across all Academies., as well as a suite of other summative and formative assessment techniques?

BUT we need to.. remember that we can also measure whether children are working at age related expectation through teacher assessment, through the quality of books, practicals, presentations, group working etc. After all this should really focus on the quality of formative feedback and importantly how this informs and shapes teacher’s planning.

What if.. the real benefit is that children, teachers, leaders, parents etc. will know much more precisely what they know, what they do not know, understand or can do … and importantly how they can close gaps in their learning. This may help to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks…

“(KS3 needs to…) replace the patchwork of lucky breaks, context and arbitrary advantages that determine success…with a system (curriculum and teaching) that provides opportunities and the conditions for all to feel success.” (Malcolm Gladwell, adapted)

What if.. ALL OF THIS is compromised if we do not invest time in establishing outstanding Age Related Expectations. AND what if.. even with this we need to support the development of teaching to secure deepening of ARE, the quality go feedback for planning lessons, feedback for children and the ability to broaden the curriculum to inspire and secure a passion for deeper learning.

What if.. we need to become excellent at setting ARE summative Assessments? as well as teacher assessment, coursework, practical assessments etc. to judge children against Age Related Expectations. Where Multi Academy Trusts have scale they become their own Exam Board for KS3 with paper setting, expectation setting, moderation, reporting and feedback. The moderation, CPD, sampling, ARE reporting, ARE data will grow our understanding of ARE over time; clarifying and improving the Age Related Expectations and the quality of Assessment (and feedback).

What if.. the age related expectations are clearly communicated on single sheets that show the specific gaps in what children know, understand and can do? – not dissimilar to PiXL Covey tables or PLC grids…a DTT approach. What if.. deliberate practice approach is then used in lessons, at parents evenings, in reports and through intervention to close gaps.

What if.. this allowed reporting and parents evenings to have the structure of…

  • Your child is gaining ground (or falling behind) in their learning towards age related expectations. (progress)
  • She is presently short of Age Related Expectations (Attainment)
  • What she specifically needs to do to secure Age Related Expectations is … and this … and that … (Targets)
  • And here is the specific Age Related Expectations that I have colour coded to show you where there are gaps and these link to specifically how you (and we) can support your child to go beyond ARE and deepen in these areas…
  • For every subject at KS3.

What if.. this enabled us to plan, teach and intervene to: catch-up those who fall behind, ensuring all achieve ARE, deepen children’s knowledge, understanding and skills within the Age Related Expectations and stretch and challenge all to release their passion for learning within a deep and challenging curriculum – inspiring excellence


What if.. all of this required great teaching … perhaps most importantly emphasising..

  • Feedback that inform planning of lessons against ARE and specifically what students can and cannot yet do. (More reading/marking for planning over marking to the individual)
  • Questioning that secures and deepens key concepts and challenges mis-concepts by age. Focusing on the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and application.
  • Deepening and challenging lessons that bring the curriculum to life and to depth to challenge all learners to ARE and to deepen beyond.

What if we then further embed ideas around Blooms and SOLO taxonomy? That “by age” we were very clear about what is expected (what competences children need to have or be able to do?)…and that this provides the framework for depth, teaching, questioning etc. as it already does in many classrooms.

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What if we taught to depth around these age related expectations because the necessity to cover lots of content is removed. What if there was a real stickiness around redrafting and re-doing, such that children were challenged to do their best work and this enabled students to spend more time working at Age Related Expectations?

“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 all of this also sought the ethic of excellence, because…

“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)

What if.. this seeking excellence required an unswerving expectation that all teachers were  purposeful, deliberate and precise around formative feedback and that this was within tasks and lessons and not bolted on. What if.. we judged the quality of feedback much more on the quality of what students produce and less on ticks or comments or forced dialogue in books.

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What if.. the curriculum was interleaved so that the Age Related Expectations are re-visited to embed and secure new knowledge and understanding? What if.. we developed a spiral nature to the curriculum?

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Maybe then we would have an approach to life after levels that..

  • was focused on developing successful individuals, historians, geographers, musicians, artist, sportspeople, scientist, writers, innovators, dreamers, mothers, fathers, positive citizens.. as identified by subject specialists in our Academies.
  • took control of the curriculum, assessment and teaching against a clear set of Age Related Expectations that importantly allow teaching to deepen and inspire within the expectations.
  • built on the Primary experience of Ager Related Expectations and Mastery and provided a strong foundation across a broad curriculum – including
  • was able to measure attainment and progress to identify those that fall behind.
  • was clear about the precise Age Related Expectations for Year 7 and 8 – so that children understood the knowledge, understanding and skills that they can and cannot do and importantly the gaps in their learning and importantly how to close them.
  • did not recreate levels in a new format or simply use GCSE grades or numbers down through to Year 7. It did not seek to provide any other descriptors other than one set at Year 7 and one at Year 8 – the child is either at an earlier stage, yet to be at ARE, working at ARE, deepening within ARE.
  • took full advantage of Multi Academy Trusts and Collaboratives to own and develop standardised approaches that sought to raise the bar. That charged subject specialists with developing AREs and Common assessments (summative and other) that brought real ownership of what and how knowledge, understanding and skills are secured in our young people.
  • had a sophisticated way of visually showing the attainment and progress of all children, by year, group, class … Academy, department etc. So that progress of a child is identified as accelerating progress, gaining ground, maintaining progress, falling behind or falling further behind.
  • never forgot that it is still the quality of teaching in each lesson every day that is the transformative engine of education regardless of the curriculum.
  • had at its heart a drive to close gaps for the disadvantaged and children on the margins. In fact catching-up all those who are and fall behind.

“An individual is a high-dimensional system evolving over place and time.” (Molenaar, in Rose 2016) “…if we demand that social institutions value individuality over the average, then not only will we have greater individual opportunity, we will change the way we think about success – not on terms of our deviation from average, but on the terms we set for ourselves.” (Rose, 2016)

What if.. it was precisely this opportunity to take control of the curriculum, assessment and teaching that inspired us all to enter Education and seek to make a difference?

Dan Nicholls | August 2016

Thoughts and ideas largely my own and do not necessarily reflect that of the Cabot Learning Federation.

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

Middle Leadership | CLF Conference

It is probably true that Middle Leadership is the key role in an Academy for driving improvement. At its best it inspires children and staff to bring new light to what might be, improves quality of teaching, champions an enabling curriculum, drives up outcomes to deliver improved life chances for all (including the team members).

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It is also probably true that Middle Leadership is most effective when those concerned can be considered to be true experts in their field, when they lead by example with an ethic of excellence, and when they act in concert with their senior colleagues, supporting whole school improvement through highly effective day to day management…owning their curriculum, championing knowledge and learning, actively improving teaching and being clinical about improving outcomes.


Which begs the question: what are the key elements of middle leadership that makes the difference? The following What ifs… are inspired by the strong middle leadership that exist across the Federation.


What if middle leaders consistently created a culture within their team where risks could be taken and individual talents recognised, without losing the ability to challenge, to support, to direct and to critique? …a culture that creates the conditions where team members inspire and are inspired by their colleagues.

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What if middle leaders were respected and trusted in equal measure, so that their team members knew beyond all doubt that they would be receiving the best possible coaching and support to achieve outstanding outcomes through effective lessons? …where middle leaders are the champion of their team and subject/area.

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What if middle leaders were the first people in the organisation to offer feedback to their staff members, and the first to offer coaching to ensure the craft of teaching was honed and nurtured for each individual in their team? They are the agents of change who shift the quality of teaching.

What if middle leaders fully understood the crucial nature of their role in an Ofsted inspection, where the question on the Inspector’s lips might be ‘how is teaching more effective because of what this leader knows about achievement in this school?’

What if middle leaders championed the one chance that children have. Understanding the deep moral purpose that exists and generating urgency so that all children fulfil and reach their potential…taking seriously the need to reverse accumulated disadvantage for our disadvantaged children.

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What if Middle Leaders understood that the key strategy for accelerating a child’s progress and enhancing life chances was the consistent delivery of quality first teaching every lesson, every day.

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What if middle leaders secured delivery of key elements of the signature pedagogy; where a depth of knowledge, an ethos of excellence, along with teaching that stretches and challenges, that questions to unlock understanding and delivers effective feedback, accelerates learning?

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What if Middle Leaders were champions of their curriculum; understanding the need to develop a layered/spiralled curriculum that explores and revisits areas to depth and assesses knowledge, skills and understanding against age related expectations?

What if Middle Leaders were champions of their subject and pedagogy? Understanding the need to ensure a depth of knowledge inspires, understands the key concepts and mis-concepts and how pedagogy can be applied to accelerate knowledge, skills and understanding?

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What if middle leaders knew about the performance of different student groups not only over the course of the year, but building on previous years in the same school, charting their progress and matching it to departmental interventions and foci over time? …targeting those children that fall behind and accelerating progress to close gaps in attainment.

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What if middle leaders walked the line between the ‘statesman-like’ approach of the senior leader and that of a supportive family member to those in their team? …supporting and challenging improvements in performance overtime, both deliberately and compassionately.

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What if middle leaders prepared each meeting as they might a lesson, taking into account the learning experience for their colleagues, their diverse needs, the best way to structure the experience, to have seamless transitions, and a judicious mix of action, discussion, reflection, and imparting of information?

What if middle leaders had the confidence and competence to highlight areas of strength and weakness within the course of a school year or term, without waiting for external validation but seeking to collaborate with others to improve at an accelerated rate?

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What if middle leaders sought to achieve a discernible difference in areas that they identify for improvement?

What if middle leaders were at once confident enough to deal with emerging issues, and humble enough to ask for perspective, support, even validation from their senior colleagues?

What if middle leaders understood that they start to become organisationally blind after six weeks? What if because of this understanding middle leaders connected and collaborated deeply within and beyond their own Academy?

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What if middle leaders were able to ask for feedback not only from their line managers but from their own team and from their peers, knowing that feedback enables growth?


Maybe then individual subjects would develop at a fast pace, with outcomes for all students exceeding national expectations, and reducing achievement gaps between groups.

Maybe then teaching, our core business, would be consistently outstanding within each department and across each school. Set within an owned and inspiring curriculum.

Maybe then a generation of leaders would emerge that would have impact and influence well beyond their role.

…and Maybe then we would have the deepest job satisfaction, knowing we have performed unusually well and that our students are the real winners.

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Sally Apps and 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

Disadvantaged children | think low attainment not low ability

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“What if… we view disadvantaged children as low attaining and not as low ability, instil a deep and widely held belief in what is possible and then set eye-watering targets that underline our ambition to overcome the inertia of context.”

It is probably true that… Primary and Secondary schools need to do more to close the gap in attainment between disadvantaged and advantaged children; perhaps seeing it more as low attainment and not low ability or delayed progress and not that there is a limit to a child’s potential. We know that gaps appear early (ages 0-4) and widen through a child’s education. All of which has a deep impact on the child’s life chance and success that ultimately leads to generational cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

Which begs the question… what does it take to close these gaps and disrupt the loop of unequal opportunity and outcomes?

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What if… education reinforces early advantage and accumulated advantage for advantaged students and inadvertently creates conditions where early attainment gaps widen?… do we disadvantage the disadvantaged?

Malcolm Gladwell identifies in Outliers that we often perpetuate early advantage. He exemplifies through the Canadian Ice Hockey League where those children selected at 4 and 5 years old, are generally the oldest and largest children; having their birthdays in Jan, Feb and March. These children enter the hockey Academies, experience great coaching, many hours of practise (largely deliberate in nature) and of course they thrive, out-strip their slightly younger peers and go on to be professionals. Not because they are more gifted or talented than those children born later in the year, but because they were a quarter to fifth older and larger than their peers when selected…what happened next just served to prove the selectors and scouts right.

“Autumn born students showed higher attainment and made more academic progress over KS3.” (DfE, 2012)

What if… as educators and teachers we are complicit in the widening of gaps and perpetuating the early advantage of students from advantaged backgrounds?

“Within the complex landscape of differential attainment, socio- economic disadvantage appears to be the most consistent predictor of attainment, particularly for children and young people from white ethnic groups.” (Ofsted)

What if… we recognise that low attaining disadvantaged children on entry to Primary and Secondary school are actually low attaining and not low ability. What if we are actually see “delayed progress” and not fixed ability or limit our belief in what disadvantaged children can achieve.

What if… there is a wide-held and embedded belief in the ability of all disadvantaged to achieve and attain – life enhancing qualifications and skills that will break the generational cycle of poverty? What if… we did not assume that this belief exists? The type of belief that enables and levers success for disadvantaged students needs to be to depth and has to live and breath in the organisation – it has to be felt and ubiquitous in all that happens.

What if… we build in greater ambition for disadvantaged students? At the start of secondary why do we not set low attaining disadvantaged children a full level of progress each year?

What if… we understand that this higher ambition and action seeks to close early gaps in literacy and numeracy for example – because these gaps disenfranchise children from their education and maintain the loop of poor outcomes, with each generation.

What if… we understood that disadvantaged students are prone to “self de-selection”. They are more likely to see an opportunity, chance or activity as not for them and de-select themselves. What if we had a policy of “meeting them there” – to ensure that disadvantaged children attend extra-curricular events and attend trips etc. … and to deliberately plan lift the cultural capital for each child.

What if… we understand that disadvantaged students are more likely to have an external locus of control and more likely to assume that their experiences and opportunities in life are determined by others and that they are not in control of their own destiny (internal locus of control). All of which links to the self-esteem and self-confidence that is more prevalent in advantaged households, where there is an assumed progression and a greater internal locus that expects individuals to take control of their future; making things happen.

What if… we understood that not all disadvantaged students are disadvantaged and that there are many advantaged students who are disadvantaged? Do we use our own understanding and soft intelligence to identify our actual disadvantaged cohort?

What if… we sense-checked our pupil premium spending to ensure that the strategies we are using are not in fact enabling advantaged students to flourish further,(obviously no bad thing) but that they targeted at enabling disadvantaged to close the gap and achieve. This can only be born out of a deep understanding of what being disadvantaged really means.

What if… we realise that pupils premium spending should be proportionate to the numbers of disadvantaged and that only by measuring impact can we truly understand what and how we close the attainment gaps?

What if… we gained a deeper understanding of what it means to be disadvantaged – not because we intend to mis-understand the complexity of socio-economic disadvantage by creating unhelpful generalisations, but so we can find a language, approaches, strategies and teaching that unlocks and reverses the disadvantaged inertia that slows/delays progress.

Key factors can include: worklessness, low parental education, lower ambition, less well informed choices, poor home study routines, poor diet, overcrowding, alcoholism, violence, chaotic homes, lower access to books, tables, further resources, reduced cultural capital, visits, newspapers, discussion, debate… (obviously these are generalisations – there are many disadvantaged backgrounds that support and provide conditions for children to thrive and achieve beyond that achieved in advantaged households.)

“Students’ academic attainment and progress are strongly influenced by the education level of their parents. Influence of Fathers’ qualification levels only half as strong as mothers. Positive parenting experiences, especially the early years Home Learning Environment (HLE) helps to promote better longer term outcomes.” (DfE, 2012)

By understanding context we can inform the quality of provision that enables all children to exploit their one chance.

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What if… we understood that gaps in attainment happen early ages 0-4 and that these gaps typically widen through Primary and Secondary education. “Success is what sociologist would call accumulative advantage.” (Gladwell, 2008)

“Overall, attainment gaps are present from the early stages of education and progressively worsen during transition and through each phase.” (Ofsted)

What if… we understood that these gaps widen because of the Matthew Effect: “it is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.” (Gladwell, 2008)

Differences in academic attainment and social-behavioural development related to background emerged early (at age 3) and remained fairly stable to age 14. (DfE, 2012)

What if…  the quality of Nursery education is a key determining factor. It is not uncommon for gaps to be significant at Reception and that this often directly relates to whether the child has attended Nursery and then whether this is of good quality.

What if… we understood that the summer holiday break (in this instance in the US) has a greater impact on disadvantaged children than advantaged children exemplify the home-advantage of advantaged children…

“The wealthiest kids come back in September and their reading scores have jumped more than 15 points. The poorest kids come back from their holidays and their reading scores have dropped almost four points. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind.” … “Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way that privileged kids learn while they are not in school.” (Gladwell, Outliers, 2008)

What if… we took seriously our collective system leadership responsibility for supporting families and by extension all children to make strong progress between 0 and 4. Fully exploiting the potential offered by all-through Academies. This connects the dots and works to remove/improve damaging transitions.

What if… all leaders and teachers are leaders of learning? And that this is never divorced from an on-going and deep dialogue about how we best-teach and support all children to close gaps. Indeed we have a moral obligation as leaders to close these gaps, because only then do we enhance life chances, break the generational cycle of poverty and leave a legacy that we can be proud of.

“Disrupt the loop of unequal outcomes.” (Ofsted)

What if… targets for disadvantaged students were set to close gaps (not to maintain them)? Too often we set targets that simply maintain the gap (for example 4 levels progress for all). And in this moment we limit what is possible and set our ambition for disadvantaged students – we are confirming previous disadvantage – we are seeing disadvantaged students attainment as their potential and limiting our ambition for them. Disadvantaged students need the opposite of this … to be offered a deep belief in them and their ability and that with the appropriate provision delayed progress can be reversed – not least because we should see low attainment not ability and that progress is delayed not a reflection on the child’s ability or potential.

What if… we understand that quality first teaching is what matters for exploiting potential and enabling accelerated progress of disadvantaged students? Indeed quality teaching has a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged children (and in contrast to summer holiday progress, above)…

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…underlining that disadvantaged students make greater progress than advantaged students when they receive quality teaching – perhaps highlighting the appetite of disadvantaged children to learn, again reflecting delayed progress not innate ability.

“The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, such pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers … For poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher can result in a deficit of a whole year’s learning.” (Ofsted)

What if… we realised that where Academies only go as far as identifying disadvantaged students on seating plans (or similar) that this could be limiting potential of disadvantaged students; as teachers make unhelpful assumptions about the child’s potential and become content that this child is keeping pace (or slightly behind the progress of advantaged children!)? Quite the opposite is required; disadvantaged children need to outstrip the progress of advantaged children – targets need to reflect greater gains in progress.

What if… we enabled a continuous discussion and strategy-sharing between teachers and pastoral staff to identify strategies and approaches that specifically support disadvantaged children – and that these are made explicit and employed to support students to make accelerated progress.

What if… we recognised that it is the quality of feedback (built-in, not after the event – that is particularly important for disadvantaged children) and what is done with it as well as the quality of differentiation that has the strongest opportunity to accelerate the progress of disadvantaged students.

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success–the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history–with a society that provides opportunities for all.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if… we considered the language that we use in lessons and across the Academy when talking about children with low attainment or delayed progress? How often do we talk about ability as if it is fixed or imply that there are limits and ceilings for some children. How far do we employ a growth mindset approach and a language of effort and opportunity?

What if… we remember that effort and opportunity are the greatest determinant on success in almost every area of life? Dweck, Coyle and Gladwell provide compelling evidence that learning and progress is achieved through effort, deliberate practice and the development of myelin within the brain. Disadvantaged students are not wired differently or born less clever…all of which demonstrates that (almost) all gaps can be closed and rates of progress increased. (Accepting that extreme neglect in early childhood can create physical changes in the brain).

Perhaps all of this will help to disrupt the loop of unequal opportunity that hold disadvantaged children back; reversing the cycle of poverty.

“Children experiencing poverty face multiple disadvantages that often continue throughout their lives and all too often continue on to the next generation.” (Child Poverty Strategy 2014-17)


Maybe then…

  • There would be a deep and wide-held belief in the possibility of closing all gaps. That there is eye-watering ambition for all students.
  • We would not equate low attainment as low ability. Such that our targets should reflect an acknowledgement that this is delayed progress.
  • We would develop  a greater understanding of what it means to be disadvantaged.
  • We understand that the educational system actually reinforces and perpetuates gaps, because cultural capital and early advantage enables advantaged students flourish.
  • We use system leadership and connections to equalise access to early advantage when children are 0-4 and through Primary into Secondary.
  • We no longer set targets for disadvantaged that simply maintain or worse open gaps wider for disadvantaged students.
  • We would realise that we often put into place strategies and approaches (perhaps through pupil premium funding) that simply enable advantaged students to continue their “accumulated advantage.”
  • We continue to invest in quality first teaching (particularly feedback and differentiation) so that disadvantaged children are freed and supported to make progress.
  • We remind and promote that ability is not fixed and that through effort and deliberate practise everything is possible.

“Education and organisations should be judged by how well it supports its most vulnerable and disadvantaged to achieve and feel success.”

May 2015

Failure is not an option… attitude matters…

“Leaders (and teachers) who know what they are doing will aim for the heart. They connect to the deepest values of their people and inspire them to greatness. They make the business case come alive with human experience; they engage the senses, create messages that are simple and imaginative, and call people to aspire.” John Kotter

It is probably true that attitude matters…possibly the most. It is also probably true that this determines our belief in what is possible, determines the questions we ask and the quests that we embark upon. Attitude is everywhere; it determines our limits and those that we expect of others…it is the underlying attitudes that determine the outcomes and progress of students in classrooms and schools/academies.  It is also probably true that urgency, purpose, emotional connection and ownership are key for developing, fostering and motivating positive and focused attitudes that are aligned to the ambitions of the individual, class or organisation.


…Urgency is often the key to aligning and propagating attitudes – attitudes that can transform and create unusually positive outcomes. The compelling urgency for the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts is a neat example of how attitude sets the challenge unwaveringly and achieves what appeared to be a miraculous return to Earth… taken from the script of Apollo 13 (edited)…(click picture for the video clip)… maxresdefault

GENE KRANTZ (FLIGHT DIRECTOR) – So you’re telling me you can only give our guys 45 hours. It brings them to about there… Gentlemen, that’s not an option.

(the use of the visual on the blackboard here is key – people need to see and feel a problem  – only then are they likely to be moved to action.) 

MOCR ENGINEER – Gene, Gene. We gotta talk about power here… 

CONTROL – Without it they don’t talk to us, they don’t correct their trajectory, they don’t turn the heatshield around… we gotta turn everything off. Now. They’re not gonna make it to re-entry…With everything on the LM draws 60 amps. At that rate in sixteen hours the batteries are dead, not 45. And so is the crew. We gotta get them down to 12 amps. 

MOCR ENGINEER – Whoa. 12 amps! – How many? – You can’t run a vacuum cleaner on 12 amps, John. 

GENE KRANTZ (FLIGHT DIRECTOR) – Well, we’re gonna have to figure it out. I want people in our simulators working re-entry scenarios. I want you guys to find every engineer who designed, every switch, every circuit, every transistor and every light bulb that’s up there. Then I want you to talk to the guy in the assembly line who had actually built the thing. Find out how to squeeze every amp out of both of these goddamn machines. I want this mark all the way back to Earth with time to spare. We never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch!. Failure is not an option!

(the attitude here compels action, it expects much and takes a “whatever it takes” approached to a well defined and clear, compellingly urgent problem. How far does this type of attitude permeate our classrooms and academies?)

…and from Star Wars… (the importance of certainty and purpose of moving to action –  committing to a key internal decision to do something..)

Luke: All right, I’ll give it a try. Yoda: No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try. 

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Luke: I don’t, I don’t believe it.  Yoda: That is why you fail.


All of which begs to question how do we recognise, use and provoke great attitudes, that make everything possible and does whatever it takes in our academies and classrooms?


What if we understood how our attitude and that of others around us interact to achieve our ambitions or hold us back? Consider your colleagues and students … are they drains (takers of energy) or radiators (givers of energy)? Street_Drain_w_Double_Yellas_by_BewildaBeast8radiator What if we also considered Adam Grant’s great book, “Give and Take,” which provides greater insight and highlights that there are three types of people: Givers, Matchers and Takers. Takers only seek to gain from others, these add little or hold organisations back. Matchers, match what they give with what they have received. However, he argues that the Givers are the most and least successful…

“This is what I find most magnetic about successful givers: they get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them. Whereas success is zero-sum in a group of takers, in groups of givers, it may be true that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” ― (Adam Grant)

Question: how do we create the conditions in our organisations that reward and support Givers?

What if we realised that establishing the WHY (Sinek), the PURPOSE (Pink) and aiming for the heart (Kotter) is key to motivating and harnessing buy-in. This has a direct impact on attitude and on mobilising the inner drive to improve and succeed. It is interesting how these ideas line-up. Simon Sinek argues that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it … Dan Pink identifies three things that are important for people to feel/achieve success – a motivating purpose and the autonomy to seek mastery. Allied to John Kotter’s thoughts around aiming for the heart, we have the recipe to secure and maintain individuals attitudes and for keeping these aligned to the organisational, class or individual ambitions.

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What if we realised that as teachers and leaders in addition to securing the why, we must also give autonomy and ownership of the how? This is important because to maintain a “whatever it takes attitude” there needs to be ownership and a freedom to determine the what and the search for mastery. This must also involve pushing the decision making closer to the action (David Marquet). What if we understood the motivating power there is in ensuring the attitudes and approaches value the near-win and the journey toward mastery? How do we reward the near win with our colleagues and students? As Sarah Lewis discusses, those seeking mastery have an attitude that drives them to strive and feel success in the near wins…

Mastery is in the reaching, not the arriving. It’s in constantly wanting to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. …. We see it … in the life of the indomitable Arctic explorer Ben Saunders, who tells me that his triumphs are not merely the result of a grand achievement, but of the propulsion of a lineage of near wins.

We thrive when we stay at our own leading edge. It’s a wisdom understood by Duke Ellington, who said that his favorite song out of his repertoire was always the next one, always the one he had yet to compose. Part of the reason that the near win is inbuilt to mastery is because the greater our proficiency, the more clearly we might see that we don’t know all that we thought we did. It’s called the Dunning–Kruger effect… “You learn how little you know.” (Sarah Lewis)

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Click picture to see Sarah Lewis: Embrace the near win

What if we realised that by keeping the moral purpose at the centre, investing time on the why, reaffirming the purpose and by appealing to the emotional drivers we maintain high urgency in the system – be it at individual or organisational level. It is this owned inner drive, the intrinsic motivation that will compel toward action and keep attitudes aligned with the ambition. Chip and Dan Heath highlight the key is to motivate the elephant as well as the rider…

  • Find the feeling (WHY/Purpose) – make people feel something
  • Shrink the change (How) – shrink change so that it does not spook the elephant
  • Grow your people – instil a growth mindset – attitude

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(taken from Switch, Chip and Dan Heath)

What if attitude is about feelings and that stories are uniquely placed to motivate and develop attitudes that align with the ambition? As John Kotter highlights…(how often do we use stories … particularly those that tell of a preferred future?)

“Neurologists say that our brains are programmed much more for stories than for abstract ideas. Tales with a little drama are remembered far longer than any slide crammed with analytics.” (John Kotter)

What if we also understood that positive attitudes stem from a growth mindset? (Carol Dweck)

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What if we also understood that we need to develop attitudes in line with being deliberate? (Malcolm Gladwell) Leaders, teachers and students whose attitude drive them to…

1. …be motivated and exert effort to improve their performance.

2. …engage in tasks that take into account their pre-existing knowledge.

3. …seek and receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of the results of their performance.

4. …repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks towards near wins…mastery.

“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.” (Malcolm Gladwell)

What if attitude is dependent on ignition? and we should seek to increase students and colleagues opportunities to be ignited by an experience, thought, fact, opportunity etc…

“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)

For Albert Einstein, that moment happened when his father brought him a compass.

“Einstein later recalled being so excited as he examined its mysterious powers that he trembled and grew cold…. [Einstein wrote] “I can still remember – or at least I believe I can remember—that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”

What if we recruited much more on attitude, understanding that skills and knowledge gaps are easier to close?  Particularly because getting the right people on the bus is the key to great organisations (Jim Collins).

What if we realise that asking challenging questions and setting expectations high can  instil desired attitudes? If we ask ridiculous questions we prompt different possibilities and perspectives. (Questions must be based on the brutal truth of the present reality.)

  • “If your life depended on it what would you do?”
  • “What would we do if the target was 100%?”
  • “What do we need to do now, such that everything else is either easier or no longer required?” (Keller)

It is often the second question that really makes the difference – having attitudes and approaches that dig deep to understand problems and to find solutions that aren’t immediately apparent. What if we also realised that this is about getting the right people in the room – those best placed to ask the right question and not so many to complicate the answer. Steve Jobs only met with 3-4 people – any additions were removed.


Maybe then we would pay much more attention to the attitude of leaders, teachers, staff and students …and seek to create the conditions that foster positive and aligned attitudes.

Maybe then we would also look to other examples like the Apollo 13 mission and learn that attitude rarely exists without purpose and urgency – it does not happen in a vacuum. We might work harder to engage the emotions to drive attitudes and approaches.

Maybe then we would work harder to create the conditions necessary to ensure healthy and positive attitudes.

Maybe then we would work harder to generate or communicate urgency and that this needs to be born out of a clear moral purpose and that this is best aimed at the heart.

Maybe then we would find more ways to reward attitudes that drive us toward success.

Maybe then we would be more attuned to understanding the importance of and the need to create conditions for ignition … to ignite a passion in a colleague or our students … that will propagate attitudes than align with our ambition.

Maybe then we would recognise the importance of attitude and stance when recruiting – getting the right people on the bus.

Maybe then we would understand that autonomy and ownership of the how and what are key to generating the motivation required to propagate great attitudes

Maybe then we would create organisations and classrooms where attitude is understood, fostered and grown – because attitude matters and failure is not an option.

“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  (Samuel Beckett)


April 2015