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.

Outstanding Meetings | How groups drive improvement

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if.. Leaders strategically self-silenced themselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


ALSO What if…

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

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

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

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

What if.. I took some of this advice?

Dan Nicholls

April 2016

Delivering discernible difference

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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What if… we…

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


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

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

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

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

Dan Nicholls @DrDanNicholls

November 2015

How to make stuff happen… and deliver change

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slide2

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

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

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

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

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

seth-godin-the-dip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slide3

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


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

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

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

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November 2015

Dan Nicholls

Stretch and Challenge | CLF Conference

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

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

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

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


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

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

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What if… the ability to plan for and to challenge and stretch children is impossible without a depth of knowledge that encompasses…

  • subject/age-related understanding of standards and expectations – that enables appropriate pitch as well as igniting an interest and passion around specific and well-ordered content?
  • a deep understanding of the key concepts and importantly the key mis-conceptions that are built into the progression of a subject or area of learning?
  • knowledge of exam and age-related expectations to provide precise planning, task setting that ensure that children are stretched and challenged around the appropriate content?
  • Knowledge of pedagogy – how to plan to pitch learning, plan lessons, activities and other elements of pedagogy to secure progress.

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

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

What if… planning to stretch and challenge requires:

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

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

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What if… children were stretched and challenged to produce work that is skewed to the right, toward excellence and not left where it probably sits at present?

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What if… there is an ongoing and accessible record of a child’s best pieces of work so that there is an immediate benchmark to build from (perhaps at the front of each book).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What if… this seeks to…

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

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

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

What if… we pitch lessons in the proximal zone? and that the real challenge is to plan learning so that as many children are kept in their proximal zone for as long as possible, just beyond what the child is capable of, supported by a peer) … or in a state of FLOW (that area between boredom and anxiety)?

What if… good lessons stretch and challenge 80% of students, but that in great lessons this is a different 80% each lesson? seeking to pitch and stretch all children over time… an ability that should not be under-estimated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Dan Nicholls

October 2015

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

Ethic of Excellence | CLF Conference

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


It is probably true that:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

(from the film Pan, 2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

practice (is) intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for (a student’s) current skill level, (aimed at excellence), combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.” (Malcolm Gladwell)
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What if… children do not produce their best work often enough? It might be that although students are capable of excellence we rarely support students to produce their very best work and that much of the work produced falls in the bottom quartile of what is possible for that individual. It might be true then that the opportunity to enable students to see what is possible rarely happens as students simply tread water in the mediocre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Dan Nicholls

October 2015