Part Two | urgent action required, addressing disadvantage

As educationalists we still have an urgent, deeper problem; one that may already be irreversibly entrenched by a pandemic whose impact has not been felt evenly. It is more important than ever for us to work together to deliberately and systematically address deep-seated inequality and act now to slow the growing gulf between advantaged and disadvantaged children; so that children are not permanently defined by the pandemic, because they have the tools to choose what they become…

To give the power of choice is deeply embedded in our values as educators, but we will require the bravery to step into the light of the new normal and be the change that is needed, if only we’re brave enough to be it…

When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” (Amanda Gorman, 2021)

Ten months after writing Urgent Action Required | addressing disadvantage we find ourselves still in the midst of a Pandemic, one which has touched our lives. The sad truth is that the stark asymmetry of society, education and opportunity, embarrassingly revealed by the pandemic, still dominates, condemns and limits the lives of disadvantaged children. It is very hard to under-play the steepness of the challenge that we as educators face.

“We must have a bold and comprehensive plan … a long-term strategy, fully funded, planned by educationalists with cross party consensus, that looks forward for the next five years to support those most impacted by COVID-19 over their educational lifetime.” (Sammy Wright, Social Mobility Commissioner, 2021)

There is increasing hope as we extricate ourselves from the pandemic, but the sickening reality remains, the impact of the pandemic and the deep economic and social cost will burden communities and individuals into the middle of this century. This piece of writing, however, is born out of optimism not pessimism, hope not futility. It offers a framework for understanding how we can support all individual disadvantaged children to thrive in our increasingly asymmetric society and acceleratingly complex future.


Accumulating disadvantage, the past, present and future | the asymmetry of life

“…what future?” (Enola Holmes) “There are two paths that you can take Enola, yours or the path others choose for you…” (Eudoria Holmes) “Our future is up to us!” (Enola Holmes, Film, 2020)

Accumulating disadvantage and advantage is founded in early life and is perpetuated through education to fundamentally influence and determine the opportunities that are available through adulthood. This accumulation cements and calcifies the asymmetries that are hard wired into our society and education system. The interaction and compounding impact of the factors that accumulate disadvantage and advantage are detailed below: (the table contrasts key factors that influence disadvantaged and advantaged children in the past and into their future)

Accumulating advantaged and disadvantage in the past and future: self-perpetuating and reinforcing

“…with each new thing you learn, the better you’re able to absorb the next related fact.” (David Eagleman, 2020)


Life as a series of opportunities | those that we take and those we miss

Between life and death there are opportunities that we play going forwards through childhood and adulthood. For some this is a a joyous stroll through a land full of possibility for others it is a world that happens to them, a life that limits their opportunity to try another life…

“Between life and death there is a library,” she said. “And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices. Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?” (Matt Haig, The Midnight Library, 2020)

Considering life as a one way journey along routes punctuated by opportunities helps our understanding of disadvantage by pushing us to look forward and not just backwards to support disadvantaged children.

“…you possess only a single life, what you devote yourself to (or the experiences you have) send you down a particular roads, while the other paths will forever remain untrodden by you.” (David Eagleman, 2020)

Early experience and opportunity lay the ground (load the deck, build the foundation) for the future. Some individuals accumulate knowledge, understanding, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-belief, a set of tools that open doors and routes in their future (not initially foreseeable); the foundation for self-agency; picking and choosing and playing with opportunities as they present themselves.

The reverse is also true, if we consider life as a set of opportunities, disadvantaged children and individuals have had fewer opportunities in the past, now and in their future. Disadvantaged are, therefore, more likely to…

  • … have fewer opportunities (recognised or not) now and in the future, those that appear and those that are self-created.
  • … are far less likely to step forward when opportunities present; more likely to self-de-select themselves and step back.
  • … and have fewer tools to use, previous experiences or self-belief to exploit each opportunity. 

Tackling our disadvantaged problem forwards (as well as backwards)

We remain very uncomfortable with the truth that…. however effective we believe our present education system is, it fails, year after year to address the disadvantaged gap; there is very limited evidence of attainment mobility in our schools; disadvantaged children at age 16 are 18.1 months behind their more affluent peers, and worse still “…we could be at a turning point .. we could soon enter a period where the gap starts to widen.” (EPI, 2019)

Whilst we need to assess the deficits in learning of disadvantaged children by looking back at what is missed or insecure (literacy, language being key levers), we should also look forward into their future and consider how we can load their dice and increase their (life) chances. Increasing the child’s chance of recognising, creating, stepping into opportunities in their future with a set of personal and academic tools and keys that will exploit the opportunities that life throws up.

How far do we consider the future and the specific tools that individuals need to thrive and make the most of opportunities that present themselves within the enigmatic variation of life (Michael Blastland, 2020)? Whilst academic qualifications act as a passport through future doorways, what else allows individuals to thrive? What is the balance of competence and character that supports progression? What secures a good quality of life? To be able to make their own choices? To be able to influence the world around them (directly and distantly)? How do we best support disadvantaged to be competitive?

A personalised approach that may also consider how best we build specialisms, areas of competence to accumulate advantage so that they are competitive with their more advantaged peers may prove a useful enablers for individuals. Essentially accumulating advantage for disadvantaged children (and in specific areas), to create character and competence so that their, “Childhood is not a destiny.” (Robert Sampson)

“… lives are lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Though life is shaped by various forces, as we know, it is also shaped by living, by particular experience as it unfolds.” (Michael Blastland, 2019)


Present level of attainment, delayed attainment and attainment mobility

We must work harder to recognise a child’s present level of attainment as just that the present level of attainment. This understanding of attainment removes assumptions, language (either conscious or unconscious) that attainment or ability is fixed. It usefully opens the door to discussions about delayed attainment (particularly pertinent now) and to attainment mobility the ability for children to progress from low to high attaining compared to peers (something that education does not achieve well). In this sense learning is a way of creating abilities; how far can we support disadvantaged to create their own potential...

“Learning now becomes a new way of creating abilities rather than bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones … People are not born with fixed reserves of potential; instead potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.” (Anders Eriksson)

… it is also helpful not to be fooled into believing disadvantaged children are less ambitious and aspirational. This maybe how they present, but often the opposite is true, not having the means and being deeply influenced by our lived experience may tell a different story.


Talent identified in hindsight as the consequence of effort and practice over time

Creating the opportunity to bring innate talent to the surface for all individuals. Creating the opportunity for individuals to be inspired by, experience and persist long enough with something so that they become better than average; triggering something in their self identity that allows them to continue to develop confidence and competence in something over time that then in hindsight appears to be talent.

What we see as talent is almost always the product of practice (deliberate) over time. How then do we support disadvantage to develop competence that might in the future be deemed to be a talent?


Life chances turn on small things, moments and chance | an opportunity to sow seeds and load the dice for the future

“..we are each made up of numerous possibilities.. “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” (Herminia Ibarra, quoted by David Epstein, 2019)

The thing with disadvantage is that regardless of the present level of disadvantage we can accumulate advantage over time, at anytime, it is not something that starts when disadvantage is removed and it may well turn on small things as well as complex things, in seconds or years. How do we support children to fall helplessly in love with their future passion, perhaps in brief powerful encounters?

“Beneath every big talent lies an ignition story – the famously potent moment when a young person falls helplessly in love with their future passion. … Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that)” (Dan Coyle)

The path we take through life is influenced in complex ways as a journey of loaded chance and opportunity. How accessible the opportunities are depends on the level of advantage or disadvantage. The way that opportunities playout over a lifetime, in often unpredictable ways, means that increasing the future chances of success and accumulating advantage can arise in even the smallest conversation, some praise, meeting them there, asking how things went, building confidence, knowledge and understanding all have the ability to build a can-do identity and increase agency that unlocks opportunities. As educators we cannot see the future, but we can increase the chances of disadvantaged by creating a broader toolbox for these future opportunities and experimentation:

“… mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power, and head starts are overrated.” (David Epstein , 2019)


We are all responsible, there is no opt out | It is everyone’s problem

As educators we have significant influence on all individuals that we interact with; we leak our expectations and attitudes. Some of these will be inconsequential, but others may be life changing.

“Every day, we make each other smarter or stupider, stronger or weaker, faster or slower. We can’t help leaking expectations, through our gazes, our body language and our voices. My expectations about you define my attitude towards you.” (Rutger Bregman, 2020)

The good and the bad news is that every interaction along life’s journey has an impact on us and informs our sense of self and our self identity. The good is that everyday there are multiple ways to influence those around us. The impact can be fundamental and is likely to bear little relation to the amount of time or investment it takes. Because we live life forwards there is no telling the impact the educators have on children on their journey through childhood into adulthood. Applying this underlines the importance of culture, the importance that it is everyone’s job, that we should not partition our disadvantaged work into time-limited strategies – it is an all the time thing. And we are all responsible.

“…who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era – all of it.” (David Eagleman, 2020)

The bad is that everyday in every interaction between educator and child we will consciously or unconsciously do one (or a mix) of the following. Underlining the complexity of addressing disadvantage we need to consider how far our culture, curriculum, teaching, culture, rules, routines, language, our assumptions, bias – condemns, confers, colludes, mitigates, or removes disadvantage?

  • Condemn: to assume fixed attainment and capability making disadvantage the defining feature of an individual. “That child’s disadvantage is permanent.”
  • Confer: to give someone the identity of disadvantaged. Applying all of the damaging stereotypes and generalities of disadvantage. “Yes, you are disadvantaged”
  • Collude: to act together in order to deceive through agreeing the extent and on going impact of disadvantage. “Yes, life is difficult because you are disadvantaged”
  • Mitigate: to support and reduce the impact of disadvantage “No, you have agency over what you do and where you go”
  • Remove: to undo disadvantage by accumulating advantage “This does not define you or pre-determine your future.” (could have been ‘reverse‘, but this does not fit with choices made going forward, and may inadvertently suggest unpicking the past, rather than adding to a character and competence toolbox that takes advantage of opportunities in the future, further this might be better termed as ‘adding advantage or accumulating advantage

Educators are not consciously the creators of disadvantage, but we do make choices, minute by minute, that can limit the impact of disadvantage on a child’s future, so that collectively, consciously, together, we enable our disadvantaged children to write their own stories, to grasp, shape and wrestle with their own future. Giving them access to the game and the rules and the tactics and the confidence and self-identity to have agency.

“It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college, but it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future … believing the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart …and that will make all the difference.” (Steve Jobs)


Keeping the main thing the main thing | Teaching as the key lever for accumulating advantage

One of the biggest levers for accumulating advantage for disadvantaged is to invest deeply in supporting and developing professionals to teach well; professional development that focuses on:

  • the key spine of what matters most in the curriculum, delivered with purpose and passion; making it unavoidable and compelling. Build curiosity and questioning in all children to secure their ability to make decisions, take chances and have agency now and in the future.
  • direct instruction, explanation, modelling. Investing deeply in explanation so that we scaffold understanding, based on a progression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of the most relevant and compelling knowledge. Building schema that provides the foundation and touch points that will come easier to advantaged children.
  • deliberate practice. To build confidence and success on meaningful and challenging tasks.
  • diagnostic assessment, high quality feedback. The biggest advantage that advantaged children have had and have are rapid, high quality feedback loops. From a young age advantaged children are corrected and encouraged; this matures into a self-directed search for feedback as a positive mechanism for growth and improvement. For disadvantaged it can be something that exposes, humiliates or offers confirmation that the world happens to them. Feedback has the potential to be transformational and comes in all forms, a glance, a smile, a comment, conversation, caring, valuing the person, simply repeating what has been said, questioning, pausing, motivating, (written feedback), comparison, modelling… again revealing the importance of human connection
  • Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage. All teachers and wider colleagues have a role in both literacy (all aspects) and language (including vocabulary). Particular focus on oracy is leveraging for disadvantaged; again this is precisely what happens in the homes of the advantaged from an early age.

Teaching that has a strong narrative that is conceptually strong, relevant and feels important so that learning is irresistible supports the likelihood that we will accumulate advantage in disadvantaged students. Particularly where we are able to cumulatively support and expect individuals to complete meaningful and challenging work; building self-belief, self esteem and igniting the curiosity present in us all.

“This change-only-when-relevant feature reminds us that the brain is not simply a blank slate upon which the world scrawls all its stories. .. Experiences turn into memories when they are germane (to our lives).” (David Eagleman, 2020)

Teachers who, “foster rethinking cycles by instilling intellectual humility, disseminating doubt and cultivating curiosity,” (Adam Grant, 2021) are more likely to equip students for their future; to know what to do when they do not know what to do.

“Collecting a teacher’s knowledge may help us solve the challenges of the day, but understanding how a teacher thinks can help us navigate the challenges of a lifetime. Ultimately education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads.” (Adam Grant, 2021)


What if our connection with Education is elasticated to the point of failure?

In middle and long distance races athletes describe the rubber band that exists between themselves and the runner(s) in front. Once this extends too far there is a point of no return, the band snaps and it is impossible to catch-up.

Sadly this may also be true for disadvantaged children over time (and accelerated during the pandemic). There is a point when disadvantaged children increasingly self-deselect themselves from engaging, attending and trying; they become disenfranchised from education. The elastic snapping and the checking-out of education may sadly be the case for an eye-wateringly high number of disadvantaged children. Our challenge, for these individuals, will not be simply to close gaps, but to prove to those who are no longer in the game that education, itself, is worthwhile.


What you have (or have not) in your locker counts (you in or counts you out)

When advantaged children get good at something they stack their internal locker with evidence of success (their sense of identity or self). Numerous affirmations build up in their locker to reaffirm their ability and alter, enhance their self belief and agency. The number of affirmations and the amount of evidence is not compromised by odd failures or negative comments; their sense of self (worth) is unwounded and their agency undiminished.

The reinforced, affirmation and evidence rich locker of advantaged individuals

For disadvantage, their lived experience can leave their locker for a range of aspects of their life sparse. This leads to a propensity to not try again and risk further weakening the locker that may lower self-agency and give a suffocating sense that the world happens to them. The downward spiral of which leads to on-going self de-selection from trying, risking failure, (that their locker will not resist). New opportunities are not seen as such (in fact the opposite) and the disadvantaged step back, not forward, further accumulating disadvantage.


The disproportionate impact of achieving meaningful and challenging work

Disadvantaged individuals (and all children) need to have the opportunity to wrestle with and succeed at meaningful and challenging work. This speaks directly to their identity as a learner. It gives a new sense of achievement, alters the self identity, contributes to their self-belief locker, accumulates advantage, loads the dice for the future, decreases the likelihood of self de-selection and strengthens agency. Bit by bit the more we, as educators, build these opportunities the more we mitigate disadvantage and accumulate advantage.

“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)


For a disadvantaged strategy, look within as much as out for answers, think in years not terms, reject initiatives, think systemic change, build culture not working groups

The scale of our disadvantaged problem is too big for short term strategy, initiative and short term interventions, it requires something deeper and systemic; our approach needs to become what we do (without trying), because it is in the culture, in the approach, owned by all. So…

  • … do look outside for inspiration, but build your approach on what you learn about disadvantage in your context; the answers and approach lie within you and your community; strategies do not travel well. Thinking deeply about disadvantage and context and ownership with strong execution matters.
  • … do not seek initiatives and short term interventions. Systemic change is required that is irreversible (not least because disadvantage holds on to individuals over time).
  • … plan to address disadvantage in the long term, think 3 to 5 to 10 years in terms of timeline. Resist the one year plan punctuated by short term interventions.
  • … do not think of disadvantage as one homogenous group; this issue is only understood by fully understanding each individual disadvantaged child and how best to accumulate advantage for them.
  • … do not just fixate on the past and gaps that exist, also consider the future for disadvantaged students, what do they need to thrive?
  • … do invest in teaching (the every lesson, everyday lever) and culture to accumulate advantage through the lens of competence and character (particularly self-belief and self-esteem) to give self-agency.

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


This is personal | the need for human to human contact | post-pandemic rocket fuel

Children typically think in the now. Emphasising human contact and quality interaction between and adult and learner in the magical places we call schools may well be the best recovery from the pandemic. Dwelling and colluding on the impact may not serve children well; keeping the Main Event, every lesson, everyday as the focus will likely best serve disadvantaged children.

“It is difficult for us to realise how much information is socially transmitted. because the amount is staggering and the process is largely transparent.” (Pascal Boyer, 2018)

Human connection is perhaps the most important contributor to accumulating advantage; it is perhaps the key ingredient in early advantage before the age of 4. The pandemic significantly reduced socialisation and human connection; reducing the staggering amount of information that is socially transmitted. We all bear this responsibility, that young people watch, imitate and learn from us and that this shapes them over time. This human connection may be the biggest loss during the pandemic, but may well prove our greatest super power in the post pandemic.

“We have to see to be able to do. … You play a role in passing on cultural norms and nuances. …people who we connect with, who we trust and who we are exposed to. These are the three fundamental factors that underpin who we learn from or imitate … shaping us at each and every moment of our lives.” (Fiona Murden, 2020)


Seeking equity | giving disadvantaged what they need

“Fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing, it means giving every child what they need.” (Rick Lavoie)

We should not consider disadvantaged as a single homogenous group; considering them as a group has significant negative consequences and troublesome stereotypes that will mis-serve disadvantaged children. We must maintain the view that disadvantaged children are individuals and as such we should not confer or label as disadvantage, but understand each child and give them what they need; seek equity give individuals what they need.


But what about the post-pandemic? | gifts for disadvantage from the pandemic?

  • The advancement of and use of technology to support learning has the opportunity to supplement the main event (every lesson, everyday) to support learning and to deepen learning. There is also significant opportunity to democratise learning and increase accessibility to teaching and learning 24/7. Securing accessibility to technology needs to remain a key priority post pandemic.
  • Starker understanding of the role of assessment in leaning and the need for feedback to support progress; the significantly weakened or limited in distance learning.
  • Disadvantaged individuals are likely to have weakened their present level of attainment relative to more affluent, advantaged peers. We should avoid demoting disadvantaged down set or to allow the new attainment level to limit our expectation of them. Before our situational blindness kicks in and the new level becomes defining; we need to seek equity alongside teaching the Main Event (every lesson, everyday)
  • We need to understand the impact of the pandemic on the self-identity/self-esteem locker of each child. Actively encourage and secure early success on meaningful and challenging work; building self-esteem, filling their lockers and ensuring they increasingly step forward, not back.
  • The deeper connections with family that have developed through the pandemic provide a significant opportunity to support disadvantaged children: whilst children spend c.950 hours in classroom and well over c.1200 hours in school each year, accounting for sleeping, they spend closer to 4000 hours per year with parents and carers.

The So What? | How far are we meeting the following challenges?

The following is offered as a set of challenging questions for us to consider how we are accumulating advantage for individual disadvantaged children, so that they feel and are more successful now and in adulthood; how best do we gift each child with the self-agency that allow them to make choices, seize opportunities and thrive in life.

  1. How far do we know, at an individual level, the nature of disadvantage in our context: how it accumulates over time to limit opportunity generally and specifically in our community?
  2. How far are we able to recognise “present level of attainment” and “delayed attainment” so that we do not inadvertently assume fixed ability and reduce attainment mobility?
  3. How far is addressing our disadvantaged problem everyone’s business? Understanding that we are all responsible and leak our expectations all of the time.
    • do we condemn, confer, collude, mitigate or remove disadvantage?
    • do we focus on our language, actual and body language?
  4. How far do we believe and invest in human connection as the key to accumulating advantage. The lack of human connection may have done the most damage in the pandemic, by contrast it is likely to be our superpower to influence and gift choice to our disadvantaged children in the post-pandemic.
  5. How far do we know that this needs to be an investment over the longer term, aimed at system change (teaching and culture). Initiatives and intervention are poor substitutes for systemic, irreversible change that influences how we educate over time to accumulate advantage?
  6. How far do we focus on the main thing as the main thing for accumulating advantage: teaching well? How far is this focused on:
    • what matters most, building curiosity and questioning in all children,
    • direct instruction, explanation, modelling; progression of key organising concepts and ideas brought alive by judicious selection of compelling knowledge.
    • deliberate practice, building success on meaningful and challenging tasks.
    • diagnostic assessment, high quality feedback: rapid, high quality feedback loops.
    • Literacy and Language: the cornerstones of unlocking disadvantage.
  7. How far are we looking not to just to fill the past gaps for disadvantaged, but equally seek to load the dice for disadvantaged children by looking into the future and equipping them with the tools required to recognise and step forward for opportunities with competence and character that allow them to thrive and influence their world (building self agency)?
  8. How well do we prepare disadvantaged students to:
    • recognise and create opportunities for themselves? (including being curious and asking question)
    • have the agency to step forward for opportunities?
    • have the tools to be able to exploit their opportunities?
  9. How far have we really considered what it is that allows individuals to thrive now and in the future? How far does the present education system set individuals up for success? How do we tip the balance, load the dice to give disadvantaged access to life and the rules?
  10. How far do we understand that an individual’s self identity and motivation to continue is determined by their sense of self and what they have in the locker? How far do we build in affirmations and evidence of success for children to actively build this confidence?
  11. How far are we exploiting the opportunities afforded by our deeper connection with families and communities and our use of technology to democratise learning?
  12. How far would addressing the above make everything else in education either less important or not required?

We should remain optimistic and hopeful for the future; we have remarkable educators in all areas of our sector; with the right focus we can help all children to make something of their lives in a future that is unlikely to be dull.

“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)


Dr Dan Nicholls

February 2021

Outstanding Meetings | How groups drive improvement

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

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

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

Jobs-quote

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the-golden-circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if.. Leaders strategically self-silenced themselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Middle Leadership | CLF Conference

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Sally Apps and Dan Nicholls

October 2015

Thunks | simple questions that prompt a new view

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

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

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

All teaching and leadership blogs are here


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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Talent begins with brief powerful encounters that spark motivation (ignition) by linking your identity to a high performing person or group (or self image). This is called ignition, and it consists of a tiny, world shifting thought lighting up your unconscious mind: I could be them (or do that, or achieve that)” Dan Coyle

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

These moments are: (from Dan Coyle)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

you have the privilege of sparking remarkable futures.

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August 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

Go big or go home

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

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

August 2015


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

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

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

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

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

 August 2015

Seeing the wood for the trees: beware organisational blindness

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Can’t see the wood for the trees: the whole situation is not clear, because you’re looking too closely at small details, or you’re too closely involved.

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It is probably true that the longer we lead, teach or support within an organisation the blinder, more conditioned we become to accepting how things are. Our organisational blindness restricts our ability to be shocked or provoked into action; our ability to see the ‘brutal truths’ (Collins) of our situation decreases with time (and surprisingly quickly). We are less able to see the reality of our present situation and less able to seek the required improvement.

“Organisational blindness inhibits individuals and teams from seeing the brutal truth of their reality; leading to missed opportunities, an inability to not see what really matters or be agile enough to strategically move to a brighter future.”


Which begs the question, how do we correct our organisational blindness; overcome our biases and conceptions that grow through time and be alive to the brutal truths so that we can focus on the things that matter; those things that will address the reality and not our perception of the reality? So how do we provoke fresh thinking and fresh perspectives?

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“You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts.” (Collins)


What if we fully understood that we learn to live with and accept things over time. That over time we become organisationally blind to our reality. The story goes that if you place a frog in water and gradually boil the water, the frog sits happily until death, but throw a frog into boiling water and it will jump straight out…the difference between becoming conditioned and normalised to our organisation and seeing it through fresh eyes and from a new, wider perspective.

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What if we understood that when we move organisations we have our sharpest understanding and insight during the first 6 weeks and after that we gradually become part of the system (Dr Patrick Dixon). What if we worked harder to find ways of re-creating this opportunity; to more often see through fresh eyes?

What if we realised that our institutional blindness is our greatest risk? As the future becomes increasingly uncertain and the educational landscape shifts often, an organisation that is sleepy and fog ridden with organisational blindness is very vulnerable to “wildcard” events as well as to normal rates of change. There are a number of island Academies who have required reinvention; a significant contributing factor being organisational blindness and a poor perspective on what matters now.

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What if we recognise that decisions, strategies and approaches are often only appropriate and right for a point in time? Great organisations are able to be agile and evolve practices so that they stay on the leading edge. Our vulnerability increases where organisational blindness is deep and widely shared such that we are unable to see what is right for now.

What if we realised a key strength of being part of a collaborative network or Multi Academy Trust (MAT) is the ability to connect, compare, contrast and have the wider view that improves our organisational blindness, enabling a greater identification of the brutal truths. What if we accelerated our connectivity, because together Academies in firm and soft collaborations can raise standards and overcome the blindness and vulnerability caused through isolation?

What if the most dangerous institutional blindness is when it occurs at the top. If the Head/Principal is the most significant leader then blindness at this level can cripple an organisation. More than ever we need all leaders to be system leaders…

“All leaders, South West leaders.” (Sir David Carter, RSC)

What if the fragmented nature and isolation of some academies increases organisational blindness? Where island organisations exist and/or there is significant blindness there is significant danger that the organisation becomes less attuned to reality and less successful.

“We still have an education system that is fragmented and unstandardised (adapted from Lord Nash); one where there are too many island schools/academies whose viewpoint is unavoidably organisationally blind.”

What if we recognised that much of what we see and think is hugely vulnerable to selective perception: seeing only the things that fit with our own preconceptions or prior beliefs? Whilst we rely on internal scrutiny these perceptions will limit our notion of performance and this worsens over time.

“Selective perception is the tendency to not notice and more quickly forget stimuli that causes emotional discomfort and contradicts our prior beliefs.”

What if we accept that the people within organisations are least likely to be able to evaluate its quality? What if we fully exploited, embraced and sought external scrutiny, because as leaders we understand that this perspective will be truer, more balanced and less open to bias than our own?

What if we grew more system leaders to horizon scan and have a wide perspective that can correct blindness… to find coherence, to light the way, to reduce blindness so that the system as a whole saw more of the light; lifting our young people and communities up?

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What if system leaders connected the dots and collaborated; being strategically altruistic. Recognising that where we strategically give and collaborate we reduce our institutional blindness and contribute to correcting institutional blindness in others. By connecting the dots and by being a deliberately altruistic system leaders we reduce blindness in ourselves and others.

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What if we spent more time out of our organisation? What if we actively supported leaders and teachers to spend time in other Academies? So that we eased and removed organisational blindness, provided perspective and shifted the frame of reference such that we were better able to see the brutal truths and plot improvement. Fresh eyes provide a new perspective; in the land of the blind the one-eyed person is king…

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“Complacency in leadership limits our ability to notice the unacceptable and maintain high expectations. Leaders need to welcome and proactively seek challenge and peer review.”
(adapted from Steve Munby)
What if we recognise inhibiting hubris. Jim Collins in “How the Mighty Fall” identifies the dangers of hubris, the excessive pride that brings down a hero – following success, leaders often become arrogant about their success and almost view it as an entitlement.  As a result, they become complacent and lose sight of (become blind to) what caused/s their success.  Organisations that were perceived to be successful can be vulnerable to disruptive changes (occasionally dramatically)…

There is no danger that Titanic will sink. The boat is unsinkable and nothing but inconvenience will be suffered by the passengers.” -Phillip Franklin, White Star Line Vice-President

Der Untergang der Titanic

What if by recognising the problems caused by organisational blindness that we are better able to avoid catastrophes and to find an appropriately risk-aware approach based on the true realities of our performance and provision?

What if we protected ourselves from this false sense of security, the false notion of being able to control situations or understand present performance. It is this that compromises our ability to cope and evolve to meet the demands of the present and the future. Perhaps this is about remaining students of our work and seeking external opinion and thoughts; taking every opportunity to vacuum the brains of others for insight and perspective…

“Like inquisitive scientists, the best leaders remain students of their work, relentlessly asking questions–why, why, why?–and have an incurable compulsion to vacuum the brains of people they meet.” Jim Collins.
What if we sought peer review and scrutiny as the best way to avoid both complacency and organisational blindness? Even if this makes us feel uncomfortable and exposed to the truth… perhaps a humbling truth, but with this comes new understanding, insight and perspective to enable improvement.
 “What makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful.” (Brene Brown)
“What do we see when leaders are at their best. – a balance between confidence and humility.” (Steve Munby)
What if Ofsted valued system leadership more? Valued the system contributions made to other organisations and the wider community? After all Ofsted wields significant power to nudge the education system in the direction it chooses.
What if we also recognised that unless leaders, teachers and staff go beyond the organisation there is significant danger of Cabin Fever; becoming conditioned (negatively) to everyday experience, with little ability to measure quality or what is normal? It is healthy and desirable to offer and ensure that all staff gain wide perspectives – as organisational blindness can be damaging and provide a warped sense of performance or quality…(often selectively perceiving the organisation based on low amounts of evidence or restricted perspectives).
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Maybe then we would recognise the prevalence and harm of organisational blindness…understanding that our ability to see with fresh eyes lasts around six weeks, after which, without corrective approaches, we become increasingly blind to the brutal truths of our reality, less able to identify improvement and actions that are right for now.

Maybe then we would have far less complacency within the system; the sort of complacency born out of hubris and organisational blindness.

Maybe then we would see the brutal truths in ourselves and our organisations. Enabling our organisation to avoid dangers and to be agile enough to cope and thrive despite the present pace of change.

Maybe then we would see the huge opportunity that presently exists for shifting our fragmented island system of Academies into local hubs and multi Academy Trusts to reduce blindness, create coherence and shift the quality of education for whole communities.

Maybe then we would connect and collaborate not just to see again, but so that we could treat blindness in others and be system leaders.

Maybe then we would welcome scrutiny and peer review as a way to reduce blindness, bring better perspective and focus and to therefore accelerate improvement.

Maybe then we would seek opportunities for staff and ourselves to “get out more often” to improve our blindness and that of others? … as well as reduce cabin fever and the dangers of selective perception.

Maybe then we would connect more and be strategically altruistic to improve the wider system; playing our part in removing organisational blindness. After all great organisations don’t settle and achieve greatness through conscious choice…

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.” (Collins)  (A choice that needs to be seen through the fog of organisational blindness)

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April 2015

A culture of continuous improvement…

“Seek marginal gains to outperform – small steps that create a contagious environment, where a philosophy of continuous improvement engages everyone.” (adapted from Sir David Brailsford, 2015)

Sir David Brailsford eloquently and concisely outlines the key characteristics of high performing teams in this great 2 minute video…click the photo belowIt is probably true that there are some key principles that are at the heart of high performing teams that enable outperformance .. all of which are highly applicable and relevant to education.

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Sir David Brailsford identifies a number of key principles that allow teams and organisations to over-perform or out-perform others. These are explored below…

1. “Recruit the best people that you can find”. What if we are really fussy over recruitment; ensuring that we recruit the very best to the team? What if we were also focused on this being a good behavioural fit … given that attitude is the key aspect in creating an over-performing culture?  There are a number of organisation who largely recruit based on attitude – often gaps in core skills can be closed. What if we started with First Who Then What?…

g2g-first-who“Good to great companies first got the right people on the bus (and in the right seats) –and the wrong people off the bus –and then figured out where to drive it.”

(Jim Collins)

What if these were the superheroes, linchpins, mavericks or Freds whose connectivity and altruistic collaboration enabled the organisation to fly?


2. Seek out the “Podium people – ask, who is the best in the world?” What if organisations identified the best in the world? What if we then understood where they were, how and what they achieve? What if we then work out precisely where we are and then plot to close the gap? By setting direction for the “Podium People” in our field we set the expectation high. What if we habitually faced the brutal truths of our own performance?…

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

podium

By aspiring to reach and exceed Podium People we commit to do “whatever it takes” and embark on a journey, an accumulation of steps…

“What we can do and what the best schools do already – is ask where they would like to be in five years time (aiming for the podium) and what steps they will take to get there” … ” the best schools accumulate these small steps and describe themselves as being on a journey.” (Tim Brighouse)

What if we time limit the drive for improvement?…

“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough-time.” (Leonard Bernstein)


3. Seek Marginal Gains, because small improvements in a number of aspects that we do can have a huge impact to the overall performance of the team.

marginal-gains

What if we realised that impact, stickability and the effectiveness of any change is in the detail and that where change is planned, simple and purposeful big change and impact can follow? … often with unexpected benefits…

“We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly!” (Malcolm Gladwell)

Jobs-quote

What if we understood greatness was about the choices we make and the discipline to see them through?…

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.” (Jim Collins)


“Leaders are only truly in charge when they inspire others to take charge.” (Simon Sinek, 2012)

4. Give Ownership, because with ownership comes motivation. What if we trusted that because we have set the destination … on exceeding our podium people/organisations and  that we have the right people on the bus … then these people are best placed to lead and make decisions? That by giving ownership we increase autonomy and this drives-up motivation and performance that is widely owned and more likely to be sustained. – “pushing decision making to the action” (David Marquett)

What if this ownership was allied to responsibility and accountability – a measuring stick and evaluation that rewards and supports motivation? … so that individuals know they are doing a remarkable job.

What if we connected individuals to collaborate? … Seth Godin reminds that groups/teams need a clarity of destination and an ability to connect and communicate … collaboration and improvement follows…

“…groups of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group only needs two things to become a tribe: a shared interest (vision) and a way to connect and communicate.” (Seth Godin)

What if, as John Kotter identifies, we create and facilitate connection and collaboration (right hand side) alongside hierarchy that challenges, supports and delivers accountability (the left hand side)? It is balancing these that create a successful, agile team/organisation.

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5. Absolute clarity of role – People need to own and absolutely accept the role they have, but importantly they need to believe it is the right thing to do. What if we understood that Individuals perform well when there is absolute clarity on what is expected of them? Too often leaders complain of poor performance only to realises that they have never been clear in the first place as to what was expected.

What if we also identify the standards and insisted on the highest of expectations – in all that you do? What if we create a positive, risk-embracing environment and culture so that we face the brutal truths and seek feedback and understanding to maintain continuous improvement?


Maybe then we would build teams in education from middle to senior to executive leadership that understand outperformance, borrow from other professions, sports and organisations to realise the leadership potential that exists.

Maybe then by asking…

  • …do we have the right people on the bus and in the right seats?
  • …do we know who the podium organisations are? – and how we close the gap?
  • …do we find marginal gains for continuous improvement?
  • …do we give and facilitate ownership for improvement and balance with accountability?
  • …do we have absolute clarity on roles and responsibilities and ensure that the standards and expectations are set high … within a feedback and risk-taking culture?

we would would better understand our organisation and how we create the conditions for great teams to grow, succeed and out-perform. After all, in academies/schools leadership and the extent that leadership creates high performing teams directly relates to the success or otherwise of the organisation.

“Delivery never sleeps.” (Barber)

March 2015

Connected collaboration and deliberate altruism… growing great organisations and systems

Connected collaboration and deliberate altruism… how great organisations grow and coherent education systems improve…

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slide-5-638It is probably true that…for organisations to excel and become great the internal climate needs to support individuals to connect, collaborate and be deliberately altruistic. These indispensable individuals (mavericks, superheroes, connectors, change agents, linchpins, Freds etc.) draw maps, bring Art to work and accelerate organisations toward greatness.

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It is also probably true that this scales to a system leadership level such that great systems grow where deliberate altruism within collaborative networks/multi academy trusts enable clusters of schools to be remarkable; to bring Art to education – lifting-up communities.


Which begs the question: How do we enable change leaders and linchpins across the system (within academies and across clusters of Academies) to connect, collaborate and be deliberately altruistic to deliver world class education?

Perhaps Seth Godin expresses it best: “What happens when you build an organisation (or system) that is flat and open? what happens when you expect a lot and trust the people you work with?” …and what if we create the climate/platform for connection, collaboration and deliberate altruism? … maybe then system leadership has a chance to raise the bar and make education remarkable.

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


What if there are superheroes in our midsts?… What if we set them free to bring Art to work, to be remarkable, to be heroes who seek connection, who collaborate, who are deliberate, innovative and who altruistically spread ideas that work, because they are close to the action and they are infectious with enthusiasm. Tumblr_mnh27a7WA31rir6lho1_1280 Who are the superheroes?… What if we had more Freds in organisations and across systems? The story goes that Fred was the postman of Mark Sanborn. Fred cared; he cared a lot about providing a service – he did not have to, but he did – he went beyond the call of duty to add real value. Not because he had to, because he wanted to…he was extraordinary and he made Mark Sanborn consider the Fred factor; for which he identifies four principles…

  1. Everyone makes a differencedo we exploit opportunities to make a difference?
  2. Everything is built on relationshipsdo we always invest in relationship building?
  3. You must continually create value for othersdo we lift others up & create value?
  4. You can reinvent yourself regularlydo we take a fresh look and reinvent ourselves?

How many Freds do you know? Organisations that have Freds, add value and are likely to thrive. It is for leaders to create an oasis of Freds within their organisation – and even better if they inspire others to take charge…

“Leaders are only truly in charge when they inspire others to take charge.” (Simon Sinek, 2012)

What if we had more linchpins in organisations and across the system? Those that say…Linchpin_TTb What if we actively recognised, grew and recruited linchpins, These are positive deviants, who engage in “positive deviant practices.” (Heaths) Seth Godin in his Tribes and Linchpin books identifies that these individuals bring Art to work, are creative and are linchpins that link and connect widely. Gladwell would describe them as Connectors. (Tipping Point). 499b343267ee2a7181a9913c4f593c48 What if we allow linchpins to bring Art to work and drive improvement from within? What if we also devolve and push decision making and innovation closer to the action (David Marquet), so that Linchpins and connectors influence others, lead change and release potential to secure improvement? Maybe then change and improvement will have greater stickability, be more effective and more consistently delivered. It is exactly these individuals who “Don’t settle” (Steve Jobs) and consistently reflect and innovate deliberately around the few things that matter. See: Strategic Leadership | fanatical discipline and deliberate delivery. Jobs


What if we enabled and created a platform for these change agents, innovators, linchpins and Freds to do their work…to be given the time and space to energise and accelerate improvement where it matters … near to the action.

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

What if leadership within an organisation and across the system created a climate for individuals to thrive, to lead…what if it offered discretion to be creative and innovative? And what if it was less about the leaders at the top and more about enabling and freeing linchpins and Freds to go about making remarkable things happen?

“There are conditions under which people thrive and conditions under which people do not. The culture of an (Academy) is essential…it is organic. If the conditions are right – you give people a different sense of possibilities, a new set of expectations and offer discretion to be creative and innovative…things spring to life…real leaders know that.” Ken Robinson 

And What if leaders sought not to command and control, but to create a climate of possibility that enabled people to rise up, influence and do remarkable things?

“The real role of leadership in education…is not and should not be command and control the real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility…people will rise to it and do things that you did not anticipate and could not have expected.” (Ken Robinson) 

Quotation-Seth-Godin-giving-leadership-work-ideas-people-Meetville-Quotes-228804 What if we developed tribes…

“…groups of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group only needs two things to become a tribe: a shared interest (vision) and a way to connect and communicate.” (Seth Godin)

After all, given freedom we should trust that… f163eaa3b112c76e1f850c9a4ba57189


What if the mode of operation was deliberate altruism. As Adam Grant considers, there are givers, matchers and takers. The takers hold what they have, steal ideas and focus on self-interest. The matchers only give if they receive something of equal value. The givers who give strategically/deliberately, make things happen, they gain far more and they contribute to improvement. We all know takers, matchers and givers. It is interesting that whilst this works on an individual level it is also true at an Academy level. Where Academies give they make a contribution to the system…everyone benefits…in fact more comes back… a-few-quotes-from-its-not-how-good-you-areits-how-good-you-want-to-be-3-728

“There is a crucial difference between the wisdom of openness and the folly of unguarded innocence. (Givers can be the most and the least successful)” (Hargreaves and (Grant))

What if every organisation created the space and supported connected collaboration for individuals to bring art and what if system leaders understood the power of networks…John Kotter provides an excellent diagram of how a great organisation maintains a hierarchical structure with all the necessary line management and accountability whilst enabling connected networks to exploit the linchpins and Freds in the organisation to connect and enabling the organisation to be agile and innovative. If we place a number of hierarchies (academies) around a central network, a network that connected linchpins and Freds across the system, we have the model that connects. If this connection and collaboration is built on deliberate altruism we have the basis for enhancing system leadership and a chance to reshape education. Slide1

Uplifting leadership entails engaging a talented team that values risk and creativity, acknowledges and tolerates honest mistakes, and has members that participate and “play” in interchangeable roles. They inspire each other as leadership emerges throughout the group.” (Hargreaves, 2014)


What if organisations/academies deeply connected and collaborated across networks/clusters of schools and altruistically shared everything such that there was a wide responsibility for system improvement? What if all Principals/Headteachers were system leaders or change agents?

“If as a principal you go it alone, you can only go so far…although it is possible to become a great school despite the system you are in, it is not possible to stay effective if the system is not cultivating greatness in all of its schools…the system matters a great deal.’ (Fullan, 2014)

The best system leaders look out to improve within whilst contributing to the wider system. What if we did not see local schools as competitors? what if there was a greater recognition that the success of other schools increases system success and this is better for everyone? Hargreaves et al.(2014) identifies three powerful combinations of collaboration and competition:

  • Co-opetition: the alliance of opponents achieve greater value together than they can achieve alone.
  • Uplifting federations: that include competitors increase social value for the wider community as well as for each individual organisation.
  • Being on the collaborative edge: enhances motivational value; pushing up performance in the comradely quest to keep innovating and outdo others – in a way that moves everyone up to a higher level.

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


Maybe then…Academies will develop greater opportunities and platforms to support individuals to be linchpins, connectors, Freds and change agents. Maybe where the connection and collaboration of these individuals is deep and deliberate altruism dominates, great ideas and approaches will grow from within the organisation.

and Maybe this will…push decision making, innovation, research, development and delivery to the people closest to the action. Perhaps this greater ownership and drive increases consistency and take-up and importantly is better attuned to the needs of students and the Academy. Perhaps this will also allow Academies to be agile enough to stay on the cutting edge … ever closer to creating remarkable approaches that deliver unusual outcomes for students and families.

…and Maybe if we take these ideas and apply them at an Academy level and to Principals as system (uplifting) leaders across networks of schools and multi academy trusts we could transform education. Creating deep connections and collaboration based on deliberate altruism would better allow clusters, trusts and networks to lift up communities and regions….making education remarkable.

Perhaps it is at this level that we require our system leaders (our uplifting leaders) to be superheroes, Freds, connectors and linchpins to take on the responsibility for taking a deliberately altruistic approach to collaboration, creating a remarkable education system…that has a wide and deep impact on communities/regions.

and perhaps there should be greater focus and measure of these qualities and approaches …such approaches are poorly incentivised at present…and yet it offers a remarkable opportunity to grasp and shape education.

Maybe then we will have a coherent system and shift into the top right quadrant where connected collaboration and deliberate altruism dominates… del alt 3 February 2015 | @DrDanNicholls https://twitter.com/DrDanNicholls