The Slingshot – talent or practise?

slingshots

Jack Morris is a good friend of my son and plays cricket in Gloucester Academy sports hall on a Thursday night with the County squad. He says it is the bounciest surface he’s ever played on. He is only 16, but has strong arms and shoulders, a steady eye and his timing of the ball is sensational. He hits it a very long way and when he hits it, it stays hit. Jack plays against my son and they play for rival teams. Sam bowls and Jack bats. Jack’s master plan is to completely dominate Sam’s bowling and intimidate him so he wilts, bowls a loose delivery and then Jack crashes everything to the boundary. Sam’s tactic is to bowl an in-swinging yorker which ducks into his crease, catches him unawares and smashes the stumps out of the ground. Despite this competitive edge, strangely they still like each other. But in my mind Jack is currently ahead. I have heard spectators watch Jack and say things like “Wow, what a talented lad, I wish I had that gift”. They don’t know what I have seen over the last few years.

1.
Deliberate Practice: 
Jack’s Dad has a kind of dog-ballthrower designed for rock-hard cricket balls, and for the last 9 years he has used it to hurl these at his beloved son at ridiculous speeds. This piece of kit is actually called a sidearm. I call it a slingshot because when they bowl it at me at 80mph it may as well be little shepherd David firing a slingshot at hairy Goliath’s forehead. You hold the slingshot high above your head and whip it down the pitch towards the batsman, who wears all the protective gear (including helmet) you could imagine. Cricket is a dangerous game. In some practice sessions Jack’s Dad hurls down 200 balls down at his son. Using the sidearm means that the delivery is near perfect, and as a batsman you can predict where it will come and practice that specific shot. The on-drive. The hook. The cut. Each one repeated over and over again. 20 or 30 times each.  All of which means when you are out in the middle of a real match when that ball comes down from the real bowler into that same position, your eye adjusts, your shoulders rock into position and then you cannot fail.

 slingshot 2

2.
Ration of praise and feedback: 
I watched the first 20 minutes of their training with a coaching company called Gecko this Friday. I wanted to learn what it was about the coaching that the boys were enjoying so much and learning from. After all, it’s not school – they don’t have to be there. There must be something magical happening. I counted 95 balls hurled from the bowling machine at 65 mph in the first 15 minutes. I listened to what the coaches actually said. This was what I heard: “Good shape Jack, nice drive Sam, good head position Jack, nice upright body position Sam, well left Jack, lovely cover drive Jack, nice shot, solid defence Sam, great shot Jack, top shot, good leave Sam, don’t play that one it’s too far away from your body, shot! Wrong shot for the ball, good straight drive Jack, great drive Sam, beautiful hit Jack, keep watching the ball, OK come over here we need to look at this one together”. So the first 18 shots yielded verbal feedback each time, 16 specific praise, 2 general praise. 15 specific positive praise and 3 specific feedback to improve. That’s about a five to one ratio, but it is the focus of the feedback which strikes me as part of the real success. Also notice the use of names almost every time and finally physically changing positions which leads to the individual summing up element of coaching. I wonder how much of my own teaching and my parenting reflects this level of specific positivity.

slingshot 3

3.
Accelerate the progress: 
65mph on a full size pitch is one thing at the age of 15 or 16. When I watched I did a double take: both boys were asked to bat one third of the way up a 22 yard wicket, but with the same bowling speed. This dramatically reduced reaction time, meaning it was great practice for much quicker bowling. The boys quickly adapted to these new conditions although they played and missed more often. When they returned to full length pitch they were so much more controlled and relaxed in the shape of their shots, because they had more time. By changing the rules, they will become better, more proficient batsmen. In teaching we often create an artificial environment which controls some variables but allows students to focus on others. Allowing less time for a practice exam answer paring down our response-time until we can do it, and then building time back in should help students to relax in the way they respond

4.
Know the language: 
It really helps. Too many of our students lack the basic terminology to build confidence in their subjects. Boys especially, which is ironic when you listen to their knowledge and articulation of Match of the Day, Play Station, bikes, new kit and technology. When I showed a photo of one of the boys playing a defensive shot to a friend Ruth who is herself a brilliant teacher and a Head of English, she showed her husband whose response showed typical male economy of (but precision with) language: “textbook orthodox defence” was all he said. Her response: “Ian, I have no idea what that means!”

5.
Surround yourself with a peer group of winners: 
Friday night means best night of the week for Sam who goes off with his mates Jack, Joel and Tom. They are all good players, having a great time and playing serious cricket with adults. They are surrounded with high quality coaching and this combination – friends and great teaching is a toxic mixture. The best schools are unashamedly aspirational for their children and through role-modelling and close focus on areas to improve, this develops over time a special culture. What is that culture? It is not complicated: what gets results is commitment, great coaching and responding to clear feedback. Schools who articulate exactly what it is that they value and what they focus on will always get the right outcome: happy youngsters who come back for more.

slingshot 6

6.
Eat, sleep and breathe it: 
Becoming obsessive can be good! Great players sleep with their bats when they are young! They cruise through youtube clips of great shots and coaching tips. They are preoccupied with new kit.  Jack is a little like this, and part of me thinks he should be really good. Anybody who spends that amount of time on their passion deserves to be brilliant. It is the embodiment of the 10 000 hours routine.

slingshot 7

7.
Know the season: This is winter nets season. In schools it is the season when the graft is done. It is when teachers really begin to understand students’ strengths and weaknesses and plan tasks accordingly. It is when students apply themselves to developing great note-taking skills, building great books and folders. There will come a time when the nets, sports halls and kit-bags are substituted for summer outdoors and in each match there is one chance to transfer what you have inwardly learnt, what has become second nature over the winter, out into the middle. Then the focus of the coaching will change, there will be an adjustment toward fine-tuning the effectiveness of shots, of looking more closely at the fielding positions and seeking out the gaps. In school this looks like exam-technique, the importance of spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar, using quotes more effectively to develop your argument, or just the sheer physical mechanism of writing practice, handwriting and pen-grip. However, these finishing school techniques are no substitute for the winter-slog. Although no-one can guarantee success in terms of big runs, there will always be a direct correlation between the regularity and intensity of winter nets practice and the scores under the sun in June and July. Likewise with summer exams and results.

slinsghot 11 

 8. 
Gegenpressing: While the rest of the world were enjoying England collapse in the rugby world cup, I’ve been tracking the two sports we in England can actually play. A few weeks ago the England skipper Alistair Cook scored 263 against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. He beat Sir Len Hutton’s record-longest innings for England of 797 minutes during his 364 against Australia at The Oval, 1938. Cook’s knock is now the third-longest in Test history, behind Gary Kirsten and Hanif Mohammad, who occupies top spot. It was a long innings, no great guns, no big shots. Lots of sweat under a tropical sun. Meticulous application and the reward of years of hard practice. And then there is the introduction of Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s new German manager. He arrived with feverish adulation from proud Liverpool fans, on the back of his reputation at Borussia Dortmund. And not because he plans to buy a silver purse of strikers. He is best known for ‘gegenpressing’, a sort of relentless chasing down the ball, a never-giving-up grit and determination. It is not pretty. Neither Cook’s innings nor Klopp’s managerial style will win prizes for flair. But this gutsy, gritty, don’t give up approach is a model of the ingredients to success, in sport or in school.

9.
So for students and parents:
 
It’s the winter nets season – time for getting your books and notes in order. Every after school session is another hurdle towards the finish line. Its not hoping that you will get the grades…it is getting to a place (through practice and more practice) where you cannot possibly fail.

Parents let’s think about our feedback. Play the long game – every conversation is an investment in the next conversation – keep it positive! Gegenpressing isn’t pretty – sometimes parenting is just about making sure your child is in the right place to learn!

10.
And finally for teachers/support staff: 
Let’s think about our feedback. The Ruth I mentioned is one of the best teachers I have worked with. She inspires, she works really hard to prepare well-crafted lessons and gives her students brilliant, focused feedback. But what distinguishes her from many really strong teachers is that when she senses one of her students beginning to fall behind, that is when she steps up and ensures that everyone in the building knows that we all need to support and challenge that child. She is a terrier with a heart. She will not let children fall behind. This is our challenge.

 

 

Kindness – Why phones don’t work, and why disruption-free classrooms do

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“What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Gary Keller – The One Thing)

Some of the reading I have been doing recently and some of the visits to schools over the past few months (Nova Hreod in Swindon; Magna in Poole and Hayes School in Bromley) have helped me to simplify things and strip back. It may seem counter-intuitive to be writing about kindness while simultaneously introducing tougher rules around disruption and mobile phones. But it feels right. Less ‘cruel to be kind’, and more ‘tough love’. The next step of the improvement curve.

School leaders want to create happy schools, where young children and older students are entirely comfortable and happy knowing they will work hard, be treated well and not have their learning disrupted. Where they will not be constantly reminded of the pernicious presence of phones in their lives. We want teachers to know that they will be able to deliver the most stimulating lessons, and be able to enjoy teaching, instead of spending time and energy managing distracting behaviour, or the impact of mobile phones. We want to see middle & senior leaders able to focus on supporting students making more progress and not waste time on distraction. We want all of us as parents to be able to have absolute confidence that we send our child to a disruption-free school. And ideally we want that school to feel kind. Where adults are focused, helpful, hard-working, get the best out of our children. Where they and the school feel ‘kind’.

Two things are clear to me: Firstly, even the smallest number of students who affect the learning of others is not on, and secondly, however you dress it up, mobile phones have a negative impact on concentration and learning, for children, young people and often for adults. For this reason we have developed our rules to address this.

One of the first concepts to consider is that however things have improved, we have not reached our destination. However good we are, it’s probably not good enough yet:

We have arrived at the conclusion that if we wish to fulfil our potential as individuals and organisations, we must redefine failure. Failure is a means – sometimes the only means – of learning, progressing and becoming more creative. This is a hallmark of science, where errors point to how theories can be reformed: of sport where practice could be defined as the willingness to clock up well-calibrated mistakes; of aviation where every accident is harnessed as a means of driving system safety. Failure is rich in learning opportunities. It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.” Matthew Syed: Black Box Thinking

So let’s assume that some things are not correct and let’s improve them. Start with intentional design – with the end in mind. If we want a school which embodies ‘kindness’ for instance, and where ‘quieter’ students receive more attention – then we need to create the conditions which will achieve that. We need a behaviour system which is unambiguous so that more gentle characters can benefit from more attention in our schools, instead of louder or more challenging students attracting teacher attention. Where teachers can demonstrate greater kindness (because the ethos is so strong) and where students are taught how to model kindness – for instance through teachers giving students more opportunities to show appreciation and gratitude.

‘Black Box Thinking’ begins with the premise that in the past we have got things wrong. Looking at how a growing number of schools are now successfully eliminating disruption, it feels as if for years we have been watching schools allow poor behaviour get in the way of developing a great culture and ethos. By being blindly ‘inclusive’ schools have erred on the side of the disrupters and failed to stand up for the rights of the silent, cowed majority. Through a more robust approach (backed by an ambitious curriculum and principled leadership) students appreciate that adults should be in charge, that authority is not inherently bad, and the result can be a superb experience for children. 

No excuses discipline changes lives. The story of educating Essex and educating Yorkshire is often the same. One charming but unruly pupil, often from a troubled home, disrupting the learning of the other 30. You can’t help but sympathise. However we must also sympathise with the other 30, who listen attentively in lessons, who do their homework and who really just want to get on and learn. They are the silent majority in Britain schools. To compound matters further the effects of poor behaviour are probably most damaging in schools whether pupils are poor. These children are doubly disadvantaged.” The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers – The Michaela Way

 Challenging and inspiring stuff from the Michaela mob. They are of course not alone (although some of their evangelical writing may seem to suggest so). Many schools are now taking a clear and unequivocal approach to getting poor behaviour out of the classroom. This ‘binary’ approach, sometimes known as ‘Ready to Learn’ is being used to great effect in schools across the country, often accompanied with rapid improvement. In order to eliminate disruption to learning at GA, we have introduced a very simple ‘one warning’ system in class. When reprimanding a student about a disruption to the learning of others, the teacher will write their name on the board and briefly explain the reason. Any further disruption will result in the student moving to work in isolation, with no arguments. Students will have to meet the teacher to restore at the end of the day, which is part of our restorative ethos, and of course students who need greater ‘inclusion’ support to manage the new system will get it. But clearly this will mean that all of our classrooms will be calm, positive and disruption-free. It has already had a massive impact.

Our approach to mobile phones & wires is similarly straightforward – as soon as students are in the school building these are to be switched off and kept away in bags or jackets, and they are not to be seen or heard at any time in school. We have discussed with students the reasons we are changing our rule, and they include:

The myth of multitasking:

multitaks

(image: from Gary Keller – The One Thing)

We believe that removing phones will help students concentrate, & will boost academic performance. According to many studies here and in the USA, when schools ban students from using phones in school, grades improve. Most of the highest performing schools (and therefore many of the highest performing students) work in schools where phones must not be seen or heard. Because students are more attentive in class, their work quality and exam scores ultimately improve. There is no temptation to always check for messages, or indulge in silent, off-task conversations. It cuts down on screen time – which as a parent is always good. It reduces cyberbullying – while social networking is great, there is a wide and grey area which can quickly descend into online bullying. Teenagers complain to staff in all schools across the country about receiving hurtful online messages. Policing such behaviour in the evenings is tough enough for parents, so let’s reduce this by preventing students from using social media during the school day. The consequences of this kind of bullying take up the time of pastoral team up and down the country, who should be focused on helping young people overcome barriers to achieve. The main reason that parents advocate for their children having phones, is that they want to be able to reach them in case of an emergency, but all schools have key staff who can act on emergency calls during the school day. Finally, at any time there can be circa £500K worth of phones and contracts swilling in our school systems, which can be lost, get broken or may even be stolen. Schools cannot take responsibility for this and dealing with all of this takes up huge amounts of time for senior leaders in schools, which should be directed to helping children make better progress.

Like all thoughtful and rational changes, this has taken place over a period of weeks, where we have talked to students in assemblies and listened to them in groups, and considered together how to make this work and who it will help. What has been fantastic has been the enormously positive response from young people towards both changes within the first two weeks.  The first bit of feedback I received was from a tutor whose class had received a record number of outstanding behaviour scores on the first day of the new system. Now that speaks for itself! Feedback from teaching assistants is a sense of real calm. Feedback from children has been that they like it. Guess what: classrooms where you cannot disrupt or argue and where phones are not a concentration-menace are great, peaceful, positive places in which to learn. Funny that. And one of the best bits has been seeing children talking, making proper eye contact at break and lunch. Smiling.

We believe that these kind of positive, restorative changes will bring attention to more of the students who have missed it in the past. They will also probably encourage teachers to enjoy their job even more, stay in the profession and remain full of the passion that brought them into the job. Which has to be great for our kids. Ultimately the purpose is to allow us to bring greater kindness, calmness and more focused help to our children who really need and deserve it. Which is exactly what we want as parents or as teachers ‘in loco parentis’.