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.

 

 

10 steps to turn the ship

tanker

In his book “Turning the ship around” L. David Marquet uses his experience as the captain of the nuclear submarine the Santa Fe, to redefine a different kind of leadership style. Being confronted with the worst performing submarine in the US fleet he watched at first hand as those he led blindly followed poor orders rather than using their own thinking to improve. He urges us to move away from the traditional leader-follower model and instead encourage an intent-based leadership style where people feel more valued and are proud to become part of something bigger than themselves.

Here are my 10 reflections on school turnarounds:

Step 1: Learning from great peers – Working in federation enables much more than networking.  I have seen the days before this era when Local Authorities did not effectively improve hard-to-move schools, often failed to equip leaders to enact change and where consultants came and went, some effective, some less so. As a Principal my CEO holds me to account in a way which means things have to change rapidly for my children, but also provides me with the tools and feet-on-the-ground support to make this happen. “This helps accelerate student progress faster than if you do it alone, someone has already thought about the problem you are trying to solve”, says Claire Carter, the WHF Professional Development leader, talking to the second group of cross-phase Middle Leaders in Gloucester completing their 6 week programme this week. We are striving to develop leaders at all levels to build capacity in our schools.

Step 2: Start by pointing the camera back at us – what do standards really look like? Being a new Principal allows you that privilege of turning the camera back at the children and staff. The first thing I did in a previous school was to take a running series of photos of the route into school for children, behind fencing which at the time resembled Guantanamo Bay, compared with the sleepy walk for staff down the drive into the calm, staff-only reception. And why was it like this? Because some of the children could not be trusted to be in reception in front of visitors. Capturing this screaming polarity on camera was powerful and meant that reversing this mindset with staff was so much easier.

Step 3: How good is your teaching team? Have a set of photos of all staff in reception, or your office, and study it regularly. This is the team you are creating, building and fine-tuning and who will change lives. When you stand and look does it fill you with pleasure and purpose? They will bring joy and hope and life-changing difference. Or they won’t. Do you revel with joy about the team surrounding you who will bring sparkle and pleasure, strength and rigour to our childrens’ lessons and lives? Are they a team of life changers who keep you on your toes?  “While school structures and organisations have changed, the two essential components at the heart of real shift is the way that we assess and the fundamental question: How do we increase teacher quality?” Dylan Wiliam– Embedded Formative Assessment). One of the most significant ways to model your leadership of teaching, both to your commitment to the learning process and to the fact that you practice what you preach, is to be in the classes where you need to see a big shift. It supports teachers with the progress of those children working below par by sitting next to them, showing and modelling, and it shows to children that the quality of teaching and learning on a daily basis is what you most care about. Done positively and with discernment, it improves teachers confidence and we all teach better!

Step 4: Forge brilliant relationships in and out of the school – these are the meat and drink of a great leader – that blend of excellent professional engagement, developing serious rigour with governors, warm but strong parental contact and a rapport with students which blends great expectations with that palpable privilege of working together. These relationships are our metier. Without these essentials the best-laid improvement plans will fall flat; will be the science without the art. That said, there is an inevitable tension in trying to develop strong positive outward-facing professional relationships while being relentlessly concerned with urgently needing to drive standards in your own school, and making sure that you are a trusted, steadying presence for staff and students.

Step 5: Create routines of delivery which will work and listen – Michael Barber describes brilliantly how it is the dull, repetitive, mundane routines which drive improvement at government and at school level. From the perspective of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in Tony Blair’s second term, where the purpose was to deliver on the promises Blair made but failed to deliver in the first term, Barber manages to make dull attractive. Once the new systems have been introduced, then the next phase of embedding the system and driving change is fundamental. Don’t keep changing: just make it work for teachers and students!

Step 6: Gauge the tipping point – There are certain key moments of the turnaround there are threshold points. Perhaps the new behaviour system we introduce causes a necessary squeeze which children like at first because of improvement but then there reaches a point when the minority infringing the new rules becomes a critical mass. The staff and students begin to disbelieve the system. The teaching is rapidly improving but because the legacy of practice and routine has not been good, learners are fragile, have unstable routines and lack the resilience for the necessary in-class challenge before they resent the changes and give up. At the same time school leaders and Ofsted demand more challenge.  Getting past this tipping point means a clear strategy. Sometimes it means understanding on both sides, sometimes it means stickability. Always it means retaining strong principles that underpin what we are trying to do and creating the conditions for teachers to be successful.

Step 7Disarming humility – every day you will see people who do things better, spot ideas quicker, work smarter, teach with more impact, connect with children more sharply. Our job is of course to celebrate these paragons of our profession, even as we wonder whether we have lost our own powers! We will look at challenges that we missed, difficult conversations we could have had six months ago and which haven’t gone away. Times when we should have stuck to our principles to hold standards, and times when what was required was a touch of humanity and care to reconsider workload or to bring out the best in our team. The leaders that I have found the most attractive and ultimately the most effective in the long term are those who are transparent in their own humanity while retaining the essential drive and moral purpose to deliver better standards for children.

 Step 8: Precision about what, when – “I’ve inspected a few schools recently and they are doing the wrong things really well” described a friend of mine last week. Surgery is sometimes needed. More often it is real precision. A precise teaching document, or precision around behaviour policy and culture so that we all know where we stand. What are you rewarded for as a student? Is there real precision around marking. Are we really sharp about what we value? Our front of school will tell every visitor all they need to know about our values. This means the way in which we structure reception, whether you allow children in, how your reception team are supported, trained and celebrated. Be precise about what is needed in the different phases of improvement – a great deal has been written about this for any organisation. Phase 1 may get you out of Special Measures or into the Good territory, but you may need to consider changing people and systems at the very time that you are celebrating your first stage of the journey. The courage to do this will be part of the story when you look back.

Step 9: Focus on effort – it is in the control of children to change this – and not much else. I have yet to find a school which doesn’t try to celebrate effort with integrity, but many struggle to articulate how they describe effort. We may use Claxton’s ‘learning habits’, the work of Dweck to develop learning habits or Art Costa’s ‘ habits of mind’. Whichever we choose we know that, throughout the use of strong CPD and incremental shifts in practice in the classroom, we grow and develop learners with the right personal attributes and learning dispositions. At the end of 15 years of education in our schools we want learners to emerge inquisitive and resilient and with a craftsman-like approach to high quality work. If we put this alongside the ideas of Matthew Syed (Bounce) we could create a revolution in our school in what we value. Talk about who are the ‘best practisers’ whatever the starting point, and cancel G&T work? 

Step 10: ExcellencePart of challenging and changing the dominant culture around us is our role in creating schools which value the ability to peer deep into the well of knowledge, dig deeper and develop time-taking excellence. Daisy Christodoulou argues that we have lost the joy of facts and the learning of stuff which is still exciting, not something to shy away from and not something that google has a monopoly on. When flow is happening and where beautiful work is being produced and where children are intensely proud of their work then there is a sense of awe, the enjoyment of autonomy and pride in the final assignment, the finished article, the fourth draft of the poem, the completed DT model, the perfectly-topped pizza, the dance performance honed for the parents coming in. There is a sense of “I couldn’t possibly do better than this”. This is what we need to create. Not much leadership time is spent sitting with children to praise and challenge them around what quality looks like, to ask where their finest work is and where they need to redouble their efforts. Let’s prioritise leadership & teaching strategies towards what will craft towards excellence as a product. Exam results, university entrance and our position in PISA tables matter, but these are part of the ‘back end’ of our educational processes (Michael Fullan). Excellence and mastery is the front end, and more attention needs to be focused there by us all.