Systems not Goals

I recently finished the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a brilliant book, filled with the lessons from individual success stories and really clear structured advice about how to lose a bad habit, or create a good one. I found many sections in the book pertinent to schools and the habits we want to create in our students, but there was one key point in the book that really struck a nerve about school leadership.

In the first section of the book, Clear outlines some of the reasons why our good intentions with habits often fail. We are told as individuals or organisations to have a goal and focus on that goal. Clear instead instructs us to “forget about goals, focus on systems instead.” This advice seems so contrary to how we are usually taught to get what we want in life, be it getting fit, getting a promotion, or generally becoming happier. Yet Clear sets out 4 main reasons why goals don’t often get us very far, and actually it’s systems that are more beneficial.

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals – We assume that when we see successful people and their goals, that that explains their success, but: “Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal. Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.”
  2. Achieving a goal is only a momentary change – “Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment….When you solve problems at the results level, you only solve them temporarily.”
  3. Goals restrict your happiness – This is something which resonated personally. When I was losing weight I focused so much on my end goal and how I’d be happy once I’d lost the weight. In reality even when I hit an 8 stone weight loss, I still wanted more, dind’t know how to stop and felt I couldn’t enjoy the achievement I’d made. In fact, stopping dieting and moving to maintenance over the last couple of years has been far far harder mentally than losing weight ever was. Clear says: “The problem with a goals-first mentality is that you’re continually putting off happiness until the next milestone.” Furthermore, goals set us up for failure – “Goals create an either-or conflict; either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and are a disappointment.”
  4. Goals are at odds with long-term progress – “Goals can create a yo-yo effect. Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line, they stop training.”

Clear therefore emphasises a focus on the system, rather than just having a goal: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your system.”

So what lessons are here for us working and leading in schools? Well how many of us still focus on a goal of achieving a grading of X from Ofsted, or a P8 of Y, a certain % pass rate for our class or even a particular target grade for a student, rather than just focusing on building the very best systems and cultures in our schools or classes? What would happen if we had a goal-less culture in our schools, and instead built systems of continual refinement and improvement? Why don’t we focus on building school cultures where we create the systems that will bring success naturally, without the short-term goals we sometimes build in? I think this means being brave and stepping away with some of our measures of success. For example, I had a recent conversation with governors about why we have moved away in the last few years from a % measurement of good and better teaching when reporting to them. There are many reasons why this is meaningless and unhelpful, but it takes courage to move past the comfort of statistics like this. It’s also a reason why I rarely if ever use target grades with students, something Ben Newmark wrote a fantastic blog about here and Mary Myatt recently reinforced:

As Ben says in the blog: “…it’s better to have high expectations and to focus on meaningful step-by-step improvements from the subject specific point they have reached. Generic target grades are a distraction.” John Thomsett has also written an excellent blog on this theme, explaining the reasons why they do not publish target grades to parents or students at Huntington: “The idea that a school policy should put a cap on students’ outcomes seems so ridiculous; there are enough things which inhibit their progress, for goodness’ sake! Our decision does not mean we will not track their progress using assessment data; rather we will use assessment data to enhance our teaching.”

In addition, there is a danger with goals in focusing too much on the actual measurement, a temptation in our data-driven world. Clear outlines this danger in his chapter on habit-trackers (something that can be really useful when used correctly): “The pitfall is evident in many areas of life. We focus on working long hours instead of getting meaningful work done. We care more about getting ten thousand steps than we do about being healthy…In short, we optimize for what we measure.” Instead of focusing on this measured target, it’s much more useful to be concerned about the larger context and see this measurement as only one piece of feedback. Clear adds a comment I think we should hold close in our work in schools: “Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.”

Clear’s final part of the book returns to this theme of goals and I think he presents a real challenge for us in schools: “Success is not a goal to reach or a finish line to cross. It is a system to improve, an endless process to refine….The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements. It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop.” Let’s instead work on building school systems with the highest expectations, a relentless drive and commitment to improvement and a focus on the highest quality curriculum. Accountability is of course important, but let’s move away from short term goals and targets and instead be brave enough to focus on goal-less improvement.


Leverage Leadership and CPD

“Take a moment to remember the best Professional Development you’ve ever attended.” This is the statement posed by Paul Bambrick Santoyo in chapter 4 of Leverage Leadership. I must admit, this threw me for a few minutes before a couple of really clear examples came to mind. The sessions that had the most impact on me were delivered with both passion and expertise. Rooted in evidence, they allowed me to see how my practice could be improved in an easy and sustainable way. Moreover, the sessions that really stuck in my mind  centred on an element of practice; a practice interview in Leadership CPD or practicing creating a modelling example in a History session. Bambrick Santoyo says “Whatever it was, chances are that the reason this PD still sticks in your mind is that it made a difference to who you became as a person, teacher or leader. The PD that matters is the PD that marks us and changes us.” When I look back, there are clear examples of CPD meetings, events or courses where my practice has been challenged and irreversibly changed. But there has also been a lot of CPD that had changed very little, or fleetingly, before I resorted back to old methods. Bambrick Santoyo goes on to ask: “What if you could lead PD that made that same difference to everyone in a workshop – not just the hungry learners but the entire staff? Think back again to the session that made such a difference to you, and imagine the impact it would have had if all the participants in that session had gone on to make the same improvements to their practice that you did…The question is: How can we craft PD that results in that kind of change? …We have to reach everyone – every time.”

In the rest of the chapter, he goes on to outline advice for ensuring your CPD has the most impact on its participants. I thought it might be helpful to share some reflections and how they relate to the CPD I have co-led this week.

1. Set up participants to experience success. Kelly Dowling, one of the school principals who contributes to the book says “Most PD doesn’t make a difference in the classroom…because you talk about things but you don’t tackle the hardest part – doing it! You leave it for the teachers to figure out when they go back to their classroom. But when I give them the opportunity to practice with me right then, we see more results right away.” This view goes back to the heart of the Leverage Leadership model, which is based on the principle of See It, Name It, Do It, and this immediately challenged my thinking. How many times have I led whole school CPD, explained something we wanted staff to change and then left them to go off and do it. No time to practice, to find pitfalls, to ask questions or to see results right away. If I’m honest, I think this is incredibly hard to do, but can absolutely see the value in.

2. CPD matters when it responds to a need. This is something I have been trying to focus on and implement in our CPD programme, rather than just sharing something when I read a good book, or see something done well in another school. The best CPD responds to a need that has been raised through lesson drop-ins, assessment data, book looks, information from Middle leaders etc. For example, when embedding our “no expectation for written feedback” policy, it became clear over time from book looks and talking to students, that whole class feedback required specific CPD. We then spent time identifying the key barriers and designing a set of CPD sessions which broke down those barriers one by one. Bambrick Santoyo also writes about meeting teachers where they are; in-house CPD can be much more specific and tied to teacher’s needs, rather than buying in external CPD. We have found in-house development, very specific, and subject focused wherever possible to be incredibly beneficial. In our recent TLC model for CPD for example, we use the fantastic walkthrus materials as part of the session. However the rest of the session is discussion and examples about what this looks like in our context and in each subject. Not only is the walkthru focus itself carefully chosen in response to need, but the materials are never shown in isolation without application to the needs of our Academy.

Not only does the best CPD respond to a need, it is the highest leverage need – what will make the most difference in this area: “The objective must be the most important skill teachers currently cannot do that will increase student learning and teacher proficiency.” In good CPD,  as in Instructional coaching,the teacher’s action step should be the one highest leverage area for improvement. Just because we can lead a session on X, evidence might show that Y would have more direct impact on the classroom at this point in time. That’s not to say that it isn’t incredibly difficult to do this in practice. I know at times I can be overwhelmed thinking that there is so much I want to share with staff and there is so much good CPD out there, so many possibilities! But part of my job is to ensure that the messages shared are timely and manageable for staff and based on evidence indicating it will have the most impact.

3. Narrow your focus. How often am I guilty of cramming too much into a CPD session?  Or thinking I’ll just add this little idea in while I’ve got everyone’s attention? Bambrick Santoyo says this is a natural tendency, but one which could undermine what we want to focus on. Similarly, if we talk for too long and don’t allow time for discussion and practice, this can also be an error: “In the end, what they practice is what they learn.” Just as when teaching a lesson, far better to focus on less but give plenty of time for practice, questions and embedding the idea. Similarly, if you’re the kind of leader who wanders off the point, the book suggests scripting and rehearsing presentations; a simple tip to make your CPD “more polished and effective. Even if it feels awkward presenting in front of a mirror or to a colleague, rehearsing will make the final performance much better.” Finally, Bambrick Santoyo warns leaders to “anticipate tough responses.” When delivering CPD we need to have spent time thinking about what challenging questions may arise, and scripting appropriate responses…this “will help you keep your cool and remain confident even if the questions or responses are challenging.”

Fittingly, we are taking this week in school to work on resetting our culture, looking at our routines,  standards of behaviour, and thinking carefully about what we may need to tighten up on with the return to the classroom. We will lead this face to face with all staff, in small groups, to ensure a consistent and coherent message. Reading Leverage Leadership and other publications reflecting on effective CPD has really made me think about how best to deliver these important messages. I am not claiming that this CPD was the best, or 100% effective.  Yet I am convinced that careful contemplation  about how our CPD could be most effective rather than jumping straight in, has been incredibly beneficial.

  • The CPD is a response to a lot of time spent as a leadership team thinking about the  need to reestablish our expectations and work on our student culture. Students re-entering the school building presents the chance for us to tighten up some of our routines and standards and it was important to focus on this in the session, establishing why this was so important. Staff won’t buy-in to any changes if they can’t see the evidence about why this matters and why we are choosing to spend time relentlessly pushing on these things. We also carefully thought about the context of our staff, and made sure our examples were right for the place our staff are currently in.
  • When planning the session, we thought carefully about what the highest leverage actions we could take at the moment would be. Improving student culture and motivation is a huge area, and so it was important we only focused one one or two areas. Entrance to and exit from lessons as well as lesson transitions were the areas where we felt we could have immediate and significant impact.
  • Staff were given practical examples of what this would look like, although time to practice was much more limited that I would have liked. Leverage Leadership has challenged me to think about making sure this is a must for future sessions.
  • The session was led as a joint effort between myself and the Vice Principal. We spent time together making sure the session was cohesive and that despite our different roles and styles, that our message was the same. Time was spent scripting the presentation and practicing together to make sure it was more polished and effective. We also thought about questions we might get asked or possible barriers and some ways we could respond.

Thinking carefully about how the CPD should be delivered as well as what the message should be has really helped me focus, I’m convinced this process resulted in a clearer and more effective session. I’m not claiming this week will be on people’s lists of the best CPD they’ve received, but I hope it was more practical and more useful than it may well have otherwise been.

It won’t be a surprise that I highly recommend the book. CPD is only one chapter – there is so much more covered from Instructional coaching to observations and using data. It is a massively inspiring book and  makes you think about what is really possible; what elements of CPD can we be brave enough to let go of? Which elements that might feel uncomfortable do we need to do more of? There are a few landmark books that sit on my shelf and I return to time and time again. I can already tell that this is one of those.


Lockdown loneliness

I’m writing this during a half term break which I have struggled with to be honest. Whilst grateful for the break from remote learning and home-school, it’s been hard to relax. There’s the constant speculation in the press about when and how we will return to school, the challenge of entertaining two kids who are desperate for adventure, and the feeling of needing to escape myself. Many of the usual activities I would choose just aren’t possible, but this morning I met one of my best friends for a walk around a big local park and wow did I feel better afterwards! The chance to offload with someone else, have a laugh about our mutual home-school disasters or lament the feeling of an empty house was worth its weight in gold. The walk and how I came back feeling reminded me of a part of Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead which I finished yesterday. It made me realise that I acknowledged I had been feeling overwhelmingly tired and low, but that what I was actually suffering from was loneliness. Brené tells the story of a leader called Colonel DeDe Halfhill, who works in the American Air Force Global Strike Command. She had read an article in Harvard Business Review about an organisation researching high levels of exhaustion in different companies: “What they found was that whilst these employees were in fact exhausted, it wasn’t because of the ops tempo. They were actually exhausted because people were lonely. Their workforces were lonely, and that loneliness was manifesting itself in a feeling of exhaustion….When we’re lonely, we just feel lethargic. We don’t really want to do anything; we think we’re tired and we just want to sleep.” Thanks to reading Brené’s work, Halfhill was able to have the courage to ask her Air Force team if they were lonely and start to work through some solutions.

It’s easy to ignore the possibility that what I may have been experiencing was loneliness when like me, you don’t live on your own and have active whatsapp conversations, regular zooms and even go out to work a couple of days a week. In fact I would have said as an introvert, I actually crave time on my own! But in lockdown having those real heart to heart conversations which break down barriers are rare and yet without these conversations and moments to be really vulnerable, it’s easy to feel like you carry the load on your own. Even without our normal hugs, seeing my friend this morning, someone I knew I could be brutally honest and let my guard down with, cry with and laugh with, made me feel less lonely than I have done for weeks.

This prompted me to think about staff wellbeing during this tough lockdown period and how this loneliness may be even more profound for our colleagues who live alone, who are shielding or who just don’t have the opportunity to meet up with a friend like I had today. I feel as leaders during this period in particular, we have a responsibility as far as is possible to help our colleagues who may be experiencing these feelings. As part of building up our school cultures and protecting staff wellbeing, perhaps loneliness should be something we are considering. Hopefully the lockdown will not last for many more weeks, but it seems that life as we knew it may not return for quite some time yet. So what can we do practically to help?

Building a sense of community is not something which develops overnight, but having a strong foundation and vision led from the top where everyone knows how they contribute is obviously important as a starting point. But in this lockdown period, I think small gestures can mean so much to colleagues who may be struggling with loneliness. A personal thank you card written by the Principal and received over the half term break by post, in recognition of going above and beyond in the last few weeks, I know has meant so much to staff at my school. A public or private thank you gives you a sense of belonging and feeling noticed. Having a line manager who checks in on you regularly, not to ask you if you have completed the assessment data or planned that new scheme of work, but who actually takes the time to ask how you are really and expresses real empathy, certainly can help you feel less alone. Our staff newsletter has also really connected staff, helped us get to know each other a little better and find things in common. A rota in school has also been set up where wherever possible the same subject team can be in together and work socially distanced and this has also really helped maintain a sense of community.

Colonel DeDe Halfhill writes “Loneliness is such a hard thing for many of us to admit. I thought maybe one person would raise their hand. But when fifteen people raised their hands, I was shocked.” The pandemic and lockdown is undoubtedly affecting people’s mental health and I think a deep loneliness may be at the root of much of that and be more widespread than we may realise. I don’t have many answers but I do think it’s something school leaders need to be aware of and seek to mitigate until we are able to come back together again. There’s no shame in feeling lonely; I know for me, the online world is no substitute for a muddy walk in the park with my best friend.


Changing direction

On Saturday, I drove my Mum to her appointment for the covid vaccine. We had to drive over 20 miles away to another town and so I’d already looked up the route, checked the weather (plenty of snow about here at the moment and so often roads near us get closed), and calculated how long it should take. I had my plans in place and felt prepared, but I wasn’t expecting a set of roadworks on a key point in the journey. The route had to be carefully amended and the direction changed in order for us to make the appointment and get to where we needed. In actual fact, the detour was less busy with traffic and there was a Home Bargains on the way home and so the route change ended up being a very good move! I thought I’d known best, but actually it was proven that there was a better way.

So why do I tell this story? Well it’s a good comparison to my recent thinking with CPD and Quality Assurance in our school. When I started out on my leadership journey, I believed that good leaders had a strong vision and a plan for getting there, and to deviate from that plan would be to show weakness. In fact, what I’ve learnt is that strong leadership is recognising that you don’t always know best, and that plans may have to change as you respond to changing situations, reading new research, changes in staffing, challenge from others or feedback from stakeholders. Changing direction doesn’t mean you lack focus or that you’re retreating from a challenging situation. In fact, it can be the wisest decision you can make.

When I first took on this role, I did an enormous amount of research and so I thought I knew the formula to a great CPD programme, but to be a good leader you need to keep reading, listening to the research, and responding to what your staff are telling you. Whilst mostly very positive, some staff in my school were telling me there were flaws with our CPD programme: it wasn’t bespoke enough and failed to harness enough of the good practice that existed already. Whilst having every good intention and keeping my eyes on the vision, which obviously included consistency, I’d become blinkered to the fact that there may be a different, perhaps better approach to get there; a different route to the same goal. For the first time in months, I’ve been able to take a step back and see the bigger picture, prompted by some brilliant blogs by Louis Everett which really challenged me, and David Didau’s recent book: Intelligent Accountability. Both of these pieces of reading gave me a firm nudge to changing direction in a way I had been mulling over, but had not yet been brave enough to move forward with.

There is still a lot of work to be done, both practically and in my thinking. But what I’ve learnt is, there’s nothing wrong with needing to change your direction in order to get to your final goal. The fact that my car journey on Saturday needed to take a detour didn’t change the result of us making the appointment, and actually I learnt a new route on the way. Being a good leader, in my opinion, is having the humility to realise that there may be different approaches, different routes to the same goal. In this case, I would have been a poor leader if I’d relentlessly continued on the same road, ignoring any criticism and refusing to be challenged by my reading (or worse still not doing the reading in the first place!). It isn’t weakness to change direction or to admit there may be a better way. And just like my route change on Saturday, there could be a whole world of positives experienced on the way.


No limits

Parents evenings were usually a pretty good experience for me at school. I worked hard, really hard, and was desperate to please. Unlike my extremely talented younger brother, good results did not come easily to me, and I often had to fail many times before I achieved. It’s for this reason that this particular parents evening when I was 15 stands out. I had been chosen to sit my GCSE English language exam early, along with a group of friends who were part of what we’d probably call a “most able cohort” now. I don’t know why I was picked or even why early entry was chosen (and I’m certainly not here to discuss the merits of it!). I do know that I was excited and was prepared to give it everything. So, when my parents and I sat in front of Mr N, my English teacher, and he proceeded to tell my parents that the early entry would be a catastrophe, my heart broke. I wasn’t good enough, he said. I would end up getting a grade I’d regret and have to resit anyway. I simply wasn’t as able as the rest of the group sitting the exam and he wasn’t sure why I’d been selected. Looking back, there were clearly tensions within the Department, but the fallout from those divisions was me.

Mr N was known as a difficult teacher, harsh and uncompromising, but this was still a shock. I’m sure Mr N has no idea of the impact his words had that night, but I was utterly crestfallen. My parents were confused and questioned what we should do, but I was already entered and I decided to carry on and just do my best. Getting an “A” and smiling smugly at Mr N when I got my results, were moments of deep satisfaction for me, but now looking back, I feel only sadness. I achieved despite my teacher, not because of him. I worked hard to prove him wrong, not to prove him right, and no child should have to do that. His words have remained with me all this time, over 25 years later, and they came back to me again very clearly when I read Kat Howard‘s recent brilliant blog on Attainment over Ability. I did go on to study English literature at A-Level and did well, but when I thought of pursuing a degree in literature, I just never felt like I’d be good enough. Unfortunately I’m sure some of that lack of self-belief was down to the words of Mr N.

There is a happy ending, as I discovered a love of History and don’t regret my degree and teaching career in History for a second. However, I was a lucky one who achieved anyway, and was able to find a fulfilling career. I often wonder who else Mr N may have broken in his career and wonder what happened to them.

So why am I talking about this? Well, this background is one of the reasons I’m so passionate about high expectations, and one of my reasons for writing this previous blog on differentiated learning objectives. I’m far from a perfect teacher and make mistakes every day; I’m human. However, Mr N is never far from my mind when I have conversations about expectations. I don’t ever want to be that teacher who puts limits on what a student can achieve. Some will need more support and guidance than others, but if a student is prepared to work hard there are no lids in my classroom.


Creating a professional development area

One of the biggest challenges for a Teaching and Learning lead, especially in a school which needs to rapidly improve, is treading the fine line of ensuring all staff have the foundational professional learning to ensure the quality of Teaching and Learning is good, but also to ensure that CPD is bespoke. I feel it’s important to have a balance of the CPD that all should receive, whilst ensuring that staff have autonomy and can work on the areas of professional development which they personally would like to improve in. To ensure this happens consistently, we have developed a Disciplined Inquiry programme for all staff to improve in one area of practice which has been identified as a development need (based on the ideas outlined by John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley in Putting Staff First).

Over the past year or so I have been considering the best ways to make this happen effectively and making sure access to resources is organised well for staff. I have also been thinking about how best to support our subject leads who need to access to high quality resources and CPD to further develop their teams. Since I took over the role of Teaching and Learning lead, I have started a Teaching and Learning weekly email, including a blog of the week. I have vastly improved the provisions in our staff CPD library and I have also developed a half termly Teaching and Learning newsletter which includes a podcast/book of the half term. We have also bought into the Walkthrus package, which has been fantastic at helping us structure our Teacher Learning Communities. I have become conscious though, that this means teachers and leaders trawling back through emails, and logistically, it isn’t always easy for staff to find the best CPD which they need in a timely manner. On Twitter one night I was blown away by the work of Claire Hill and the amazing CPD area which she had set up to share Walkthrus materials, using Google classroom in her school. I thought this was a really good way of organising access to resources for everyone and so started to create the professional development clasroom all our staff are invited to and you can see here.

In creating the classroom, I first created topic areas. I used the main areas from Walkthrus, as that is our main CPD resource in school, then added others which I thought should sit separately, such as EAL, Safeguarding and remote learning. I started with the Walkthrus materials, which really are brilliant. There is a video resource and slideshow for each topic area, plus workbook reflections. I then explored the best CPD channels I knew of such as the researchEd youtube channel, Tom Sherrington’s Kitchen pedagogy series, Rosenshine masterclass material, podcasts such as Naylor’s Natter and Becoming Educated, Seneca teacher courses and of course all of our own internal CPD. We have also bought into Bluesky learning, which provides video resources with tasks and reflections so these were all linked on the classroom in the topic areas.

The hope for this area is that individuals will access it for their own personal development first and foremost. Any CPD undertaken can be reflected and evaluated in Blue sky, which we use for professional development and Performance management, or in staff own personal records. Some of the resources, such as Walkthrus, also contain their own workbook reflections which staff can of course use. I hope that a member of staff studying an element of retrieval practice for their Disciplined Inquiry for example, will quickly and easily be able to find relevant reading, videos and current research which is well explained and accessible. I hope that leaders and coaches will also be able to use the classroom to help drive improvement in their areas of responsibility. The Head of Geography for example, might notice a need for more work on scaffolding with her team, and be able to choose a suitable video to focus on as part of her next department meeting followed by a discussion and sharing of ideas. An NQT mentor might want her NQT to spend some more time exploring assessment and so set the Seneca course for him, and plan to meet up in a couple of week’s time to explore his findings. Ultimately, I hope having an area like this means CPD will be happening in a more consistent way, using the best research and practice that exists and help with my aim of making CPD more bespoke for staff.

Obviously the professional development area is still in it’s infancy in terms of it’s use and will be continually developed, but I hope this explains the rationale for it, and the practical process I went through whilst creating it, in case it is beneficial to anyone else in the same position.


2020 in 100 books

2020 has been a year filled with uncertainty, fear and worry. However, for me, it has also been a year filled with far off continents, tales of humanity from centuries ago, the depths of grief and the passion of new love. At the beginning of the year I set myself a challenge to read 52 books. Then covid and lockdown happened, and the lack of a commute plus much more time at home meant I read more and more, until today, when I finished the last page of my hundredth book. The books I’ve read have taught me so much and made me feel every possible emotion, from absolute joy to deepest sorrow. Some of the books I’ve read will stay with me forever.

A while back I shared a thread on Twitter to one of my most-asked questions: How do you read so much? I wrote about reading once before here and how until a couple of years ago had lost my way with reading. Now, I cannot imagine not having a book on the go, and I have so much I want to read! There are a few practical things I have done to make reading fit more into my life that I thought it might be helpful to share.

  1. Peps Mccrea in his book Motivated Teaching writes about routines being a huge motivator. Reading has now become routine for me. I make myself read every day, usually just before I go to sleep, even if it’s just one page. It’s amazing how quickly this has become a habit and what I’ve found is that once I’ve made that initial action of picking up the book to read, I find myself quickly getting immersed! It’s also become routine to always carry a book with me. If I’m queuing for the supermarket, or waiting to pick the kids up and have 5 minutes break I will try and use those times to read rather than scrolling through my phone. Practically, I honestly believe not having a TV in our bedroom really helps me read more too!
  2. Secondly, I try and vary the books I am reading. I’m not one of those people that can have multiple books on the go at once, so I try and vary my reads between history books, education books and fiction and I think this helps keep me motivated.
  3. Quite simply, I really want to read! I believe in the power of books in transforming us and shaping us. When I look back over the books of my childhood or books I’ve read and learnt from, books that have got me through challenging times or books that have been a much-needed escape route they have fundamentally changed me. I love learning and focusing on knowing more and experiencing more and books allow me to do that. I also strongly believe in the importance of reading in my family and I want my son and daughter to grow up seeing me reading around the house. At the moment they both absolutely love books too and I want it to stay that way as long as possible!
  4. Don’t be afraid to give up on a book you’re not enjoying. This year I’ve given myself permission not to finish a book that I’m struggling with – life is just too short! Ironically, having given myself this permission, I think I’ve only done it once or twice this year but I know in the past this would have caused my reading to stall if I wasn’t gripped or enjoying a read.
  5. Lastly, I’ve kept a record of all the books read this year. I try and use Goodreads as much as I can and it’s great to look over books I’ve read and remember how they made me feel. I share quite a lot on social media too. I know I love seeing book recommendations from others and so many of my reads this year have come from recommendations on Twitter, so I hope people don’t mind me sharing when I find a book that I’ve loved or learnt from.

I didn’t want to do a top 3 from my 100 books or anything like that, because I think it’s unfair to pit my reads against each other, but I can’t finish this blogpost without writing about the book I’ve read this year that I’ve loved the most. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is the story of two sisters: one sold into slavery and the other a slave trader’s wife. I was gripped from the first chapter. It is incredibly moving and epic, as the story continues through generations. It is so intelligently written and so interesting that I absolutely couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that 2021 becomes the year you do!

And so for 2021! I’m sure I won’t manage 100 books again- 2020 was quite unique in allowing me so much time and opportunity to read. However, I’m going to aim for my 52 again – I need to clear the bulging bookcase of a huge stack before too long!

Thanks for all the support in 2020 and I hope Christmas brings you a good book or two to enjoy!


Retrieval practice – My next steps

Over the last term, I have been really thinking about how to make my retrieval practice more focused and relevant in addressing gaps in knowledge and tackling misconceptions. Retrieval practice is now an embedded part of my lesson routine, but I felt there was more I could do to make it meaningful. I really believe it it important, as Tom Sherrington says, to “vary the diet”, but after reading this study from Argawal et al, it is clear that there is evidence that the best conditions in order to prepare for a higher order seem to be factual quizzing followed by a higher order quiz, and therefore retrieval should have varying complexity too. What I’ve found is this is far from easy to do. It’s easy to generate 10 factual recall questions, much less easy to design a multiple choice question which really challenges students thinking and tackles misconceptions head on. This aligns with much of how my teaching has changed over the last few years moving to a teach to the top approach, as outlined by Tom Sherrington and Mary Myatt amongst others. Myatt says: “We have a tendency to make things too easy for many of our pupils. Why? It is partly because we don’t want to overwhelm them. Yet pupils are saying that they relish the challenge of demanding work: work that makes them think; work that means they know more and can do more.” (Back on Track) In consequence, I have been trying to implement some different retrieval strategies, some of which I have shared on twitter, and thought it might be helpful to collate them all here, explaining my rationale and how it worked in practice.

  1. I’ve started using much more retrieval practice based on The Writing Revolution. Reading The Writing Revolution has undoubtedly changed my practice. I’ve reflected a lot on how I have been telling students to run by writing paragraphs and even essays in Year 7, before establishing the right conditions to walk; looking at sentence structure and word choice. You can read my post about my thoughts here, and I have therefore tried to implement some of the suggestions as retrieval practice. Because, but so, scrambled sentences, fragments, If this is the answer, subordinating conjunctions and appositives are all activities which could be used for retrieval, and which test knowledge but also really get students to think hard about vocabulary and sentence formation.

The example above of but, because, so worked really well with my GCSE classes after a lesson on medieval surgery. If you want to read more about this technique, Kristian Shanks has written an excellent blog here and Greg Thornton has a brilliant how to guide here.

Scrambled sentences is another strategy which has has worked well, although this has been a process! The first time I used it with no prompts and it was just too hard, so I’ve started to bold and highlight the first and last words in the sentence, I’ve often modelled the first one and have then discussed with the class what words might go next logically, and over time this has helped. I also think that keeping the sentences short in the first instance works well! As with all good scaffolding, I hope to remove this hints the more practised the students become.

Below is an example of fragments used for retrieval, which has also worked really well, really challenging students to use their knowledge in a productive way.

And finally from the Writing Revolution, I’ve tried subordinating conjunctions such as those above, which students surprisingly said they really enjoyed the challenge of.

2. Another related retrieval practice idea I have tried, is that of asking students to think hard about misconceptions in their studies. This is a great thought process to got through as a teacher, particularly after an assessment or the reading of books before whole-class feedback. This definitely got my students thinking and provoked a really good discussion. In the right column, I asked them to back their thoughts up with evidence, so for number one, the fact that monasteries were actually quite clean, with filtering of water, lavatoriums and an emphasis on good hygiene, as well as mentioning events such as the 1388 Statute of Cambridge where Parliament made efforts to get people to clean up the streets or face a £20 fine, would all challenge this statement. This is also a retrieval exercise which I think works well alongside, think, pair, share and encourages elaborative interrogation.

3. Finally, I’ve been making more use of multiple choice in my retrieval practice. Again this takes quite a lot more thought about possible misconceptions, but has produced some really good discussion. The first set I tried were pretty standard but I really use this as a basis for elaborative questioning. For example, when we go through the fact that Q1’s answer is c, I will then go on to ask what a and b would be, what they have in common and why it might be easy to get them all mixed up.

However, after seeing Blake Harvard’s blog about maximising the effectiveness of multiple choice questions, I decided to have a go at, as he suggests, making more use of the wrong answers, and focusing on just one misconception. I thought this was a powerful idea. It is however, definitely an exercise I recommend you working through yourself first, as when I tried it initially, I realised it couldn’t work the way I had set it up so had to edit it! I picked a common misconception by students in the medicine topic, which is understanding the different impact Pasteur and Koch made to medicine in relation to germ theory and created a multiple choice question based on that. The first stage is for students to students to choose the correct answer, then they have to provide a memory aid, for example a simple sketch to help them remember the correct answer. Then I asked the students to write the letters of the incorrect answers down the side and have a go at a related question about each of the incorrect answers. Again, Blake’s blog gives some great suggestions here which I just adapted to make work for this example. Students then had a go at these, and an example is below. I then showed my answers and modelled how I had thought through them and we discussed what other possible answers might look like. Just concentrating on one key misconception in this way actually allowed the students to do some really challenging thinking and utilised the wrong answers in a multiple choice question effectively. Another example is also below.

All of these strategies are very much a work in progress and probably could be refined. I would also very much say there is a place for pure factual recall; I do a weekly factual quiz based on homework retrieval grids for example. However, trialling these strategies has shown me there is something very powerful about the more challenging examples of retrieval and the interrogative process which happens afterwards in discussion. I will continue to use and share examples like this I create if people find it useful.


The work, not you

How High Challenge, Low Threat is helping leaders hold important professional conversations with their teams.

Last year I read one of the best books I’ve ever read on Leadership: Mary Myatt’s High Challenge, Low Threat. I took so much away from this book and knew other leaders in my Academy would benefit from the rich advice it holds, and so this year, as part of our Curriculum Middle Leader Development, we are working our way through the book. Before each session, Middle Leaders read up to a specified page and we then have a discussion based on some questions given in advance. In the last session we had a really good conversation based on the first section and particularly the part: “Humans first, professionals second”, and related it to giving feedback to staff on their practice as part of Quality Assurance processes. Some leaders raised concern about using phrases like “less effective” when discussing elements of practice with their teams and this led to a really good analysis of the kind of culture and environment of continual improvement needed in order for this sort of conversation to take place successfully. How can we ensure as leaders we help our staff develop and give effective guidance from our lesson drop-ins, or what we see in books? How can we make sure that our staff see CPD as the essential we do, and that they all seek improvement? How can we effectively do the ground work to have what can sometimes be difficult conversations with staff? Mary Myatt’s book gives some excellent foundations related to this which we were then able to explore and use in this context and I thought it was worth sharing some key takeaways which had the most impact.

Firstly, as Myatt says in the title of this section, we need to ensure we have an expectation that staff are humans first. You cannot expect to have a conversation about improving someone’s practice if you have not taken the time to get to know your team, show genuine interest in them as people and have built a solid relationship. This is a time investment, but is so worth it. Do you know your staff? Do you show you genuinely care about them and their interests or family? Do you regularly ask for feedback yourself and have opportunities for 1:1 chats? Do they know that they matter to you? It’s from a foundation of warmth and attentiveness that conversations about improving practice will flourish most. Myatt sums up the knock on effect this has: “What happens is that there is a “bank balance” of goodwill. And it means that when it needs to be drawn on for tough conversations (and there are always tough conversations) the underlining message is that “You’re ok, but this aspect of your work needs addressing.” That doesn’t mean we need to be or should be best friends with all our colleagues, but does mean equally our relationship is not robotic or without care.

This leads on to the second key takeaway: Leaders giving feedback are saying the practice could be more effective, not the person. It’s not personal and no judgement is being made of the teacher themselves. We are all always developing and in order for staff to do this effectively, there needs to be a trusting relationship built up so that staff know any feedback is with the right aim of achieving better outcomes for students, and that staff at all stages of their career can become better. Again, this is about a foundation of the right culture, hence why I include it as part of our whole Academy Teaching and Learning vision – we can all improve and should be striving to make those improvements. Once staff buy in to this and see there is no recrimination or black mark against their name but only support and guidance, then real incremental improvements can take place. Developing becomes exciting; a challenge rather than a stick to beat staff with. As the book suggests, the best learning comes from these “High challenge, low threat” situations; The work, not you.

Thirdly, Myatt recommends Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor, and the subtle difference between the words guidance and feedback. Scott encourages us to talk about guidance, and says this is usually far more welcoming to us than feedback. I’ve since gone on to read Radical Candor and in this book Scott argues that people do want to be held accountable for their work but some ways of doing this are more effective. We naturally want and need to be guided to be the best we can be at our jobs, and so as leaders we need to not shy away from these conversations: “Guidance is often called feedback. People dread feedback. They dread getting it, both the praise, which can feel patronising, and especially the criticism. They dread giving it. What if the person gets defensive? Starts to yell? Threatens to sue? Bursts into tears? What if the person refuses to understand the criticism, or can’t figure out what to do about the problem? What if there is no simple way to fix the problem?….All these questions loom so large that people often forget they need to solicit guidance from others and encourage it between them.” Honesty, if built on the foundations mentioned earlier, can be so powerful at helping us move from novice to expert. I mentioned in my last blog post on 360 feedback, that the responses from my colleagues really helped crystalize my thinking about what my priorities needed to be as a leader. They helped identify my blind spots, areas I needed to work on that I was either oblivious to, or were not as high on my agenda. Because my colleague’s responses were built on firm and honest relationships, this guidance mattered to me and I welcomed their suggestions. Additionally, if we do not have these conversations, we risk modelling low expectations ourselves. In Radical Candour Kim Scott writes about a situation with “Bob” where this happened. By not giving Bob honest feedback on poor performance, Bob did not realise he was making mistakes and a culture was built where there was no honesty: “..I’d failed to create a culture in which Bob’s peers would naturally warn him when he was going off the rails. The team’s cohesion was cracking, and it showed in our results. Lack of praise and criticism had absolutely disastrous effects on the team and on our outcomes.” Steve Jobs famously said: “The most important thing I think you can do for somebody who’s really good and who’s really being counted on is to point out to them…when their work isn’t good enough. And to do it very clearly and to articulate why…and to get them back on track.” As leaders these conversations matter, and as long as they are built on the foundations described earlier, then people generally would rather know, have the opportunity to, and the guidance about how, to improve.

Myatt also makes an important point about making the assumption that staff are trying their best and that we as observers often don’t see the full story. She models an example which ensures the conversation with feedback is actually a productive one: “I noticed that not everyone was on task. Did the same appear to you too? Why do you think that was?” This “I noticed” conversation is so powerful because it is a discussion rather than a top down “you need to work on this.” It allows for the teacher to share their version of the lesson or the events and for an open conversation about how more on task behaviour could be encouraged, whether that be through scaffolding or high expectations for example. It’s honest, specific and helpful but it’s a two-way conversation, where the member of staff has an investment in the guidance.

Another aspect which Myatt emphasises which was really resonated with me was about the fact that because we are human, mistakes will happen. Our staff need to know we expect them to make mistakes, take a wrong turn, to have a lesson we know just didn’t go well. Goodness knows, I make these mistakes all the time. And therefore, as leaders we not only have to tell them that they should take risks and that that will go wrong sometimes, we have to show them, to model failure. As someone who has written about failure before here, this was music to my ears! “The key message is that we are all in this together; no one starts off perfect and gets it right first time. We have all made mistakes and that’s ok as long as you learn from them. And we have all taught a terrible lesson and learned to live the tale.” How much more are our staff likely to want to develop and improve if they know the culture is one that we all can and need to improve, that our leaders trust in our potential, and that if we hit a bump in the road on the way, that’s ok? One of my favourite quotes about mistakes says: “Show me a person who doesn’t make mistakes and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t do anything.” Failure is something which unites us as humans. As a leader, don’t be afraid to show your mistakes. Staff need to see that we don’t expect perfection, we are all on a path of continual improvement.

Lastly, and importantly, we need to ensure that our staff are not left floundering on their own trying to develop. We need to be specific in our guidance, and make sure that staff know this is a process, not a quick fix, or a plaster over a problem. Firstly we can do this by using really specific and incremental guidance. As an Academy we have bought into the Walkthrus package and I’d argue this is one of the aspects it does best. It gives a common language for step by step improvement. Secondly, Myatt advocates the use of “Would you like me to come back and see how things are going?” and I think this continues to build the sort of culture where staff feel they are not on their own, that teaching is complicated, and that leaders are there to support and guide, not measure. That’s not to say leaders shouldn’t hold to account when needed, but holding to account when the culture described above is present, is a world away from the humiliating de-personalised judgements that are unfortunately made of staff in some schools: “This is light years away from top down leadership: pointing out of errors which make an individual feel diminished, got at, and that it isn’t worth trying.” Kim Scott says: “…there are few more things more damaging to building a trusting relationship with another person than unilateral authority or a sense of superiority. The way you treat people determines their best effort, a perfunctory effort, or an effort to sabotage you. When you treat people like cogs in a machine, you’ll get no more than you demand, and you create an incentive to break the machine.”

High challenge Low Threat is just superb. We’re only up to page 32 as a team, and there have been so many lessons applicable to our context and to our journey as leaders. Her advice is so grounded, relevant and has provoked so many useful conversations already that I know it will be fundamental to our development over the next few months. I highly recommend it to current or future leaders – I know it will be a book that stays with me for a very long time, and there may very well be a part 2 to this blog post!


I would also highly recommend Radical Condor – one of the best books on leadership I’ve ever read, with really practical advice.

360 feedback

360 feedback is a key component of the leadership course I have recently taken part in, both at the beginning and end. 360 feedback is a process where feedback on an individual is given by colleagues; line managers, people they line manage and people they may work closely beside, anonymously, in order to assess an individuals strengths and areas for development. Alongside this, the individual is often asked to rate themselves in very similar questions. (We did ours through Leadership Matters). Conclusions can then be drawn about areas where the individual might perceive they are more competent than their colleagues think they are, or the individual might be underselling themselves, and actually their colleagues may rate them higher than they rate themselves.

I think Andy Buck sums the reasons for doing a 360 like this really well when he says: “Leadership starts with you. Your understanding of yourself: the way you tend to behave in certain situations, what you enjoy and are good at and those areas you should probably focus on if you want to improve your effectiveness. But you also need to take the time to properly understand your situation: the people and the context you find yourself in. Taken together, an understanding of self and situation should enable you to decide what actions you need to prioritise and the best approach to take in implementing them. If you get this right you will create a productive culture and climate that combine to release discretionary effort from those you lead which will lead to you achieving the pupil outcomes you aspire to.”

I’ll be honest though, I was extremely nervous about this process and although I knew I passionately wanted to improve as a leader, and I wanted to get the most out of this course as I could, I was anxious about what would be said. The questions surveys like this ask are those which I believe we wouldn’t naturally seek answers to. How am I doing? How can I improve? What can I get better at? What can I do to make us work more efficiently as a team? I undoubtedly felt trepidation about hearing about areas where I needed to improve and where I needed to hone my leadership skills. I am fairly typical, I believe, in that no matter what positives in feedback I receive, I of course am naturally drawn to anything negative or areas where colleagues felt my performance could be better. My standards for myself are high, and I did not want to feel I was letting anyone down. However, if I did not hear about these areas, how could I seek to improve? I would be wanting to become a better leader with no map to guide me, no way to know if I was working on the right things. There is a lesson here in positive uncomfortableness too, and pushing yourself outside what feels natural. In the same way we ask students to get outside their comfort zone in order to challenge them and help them learn, we have to be prepared to take the same position ourselves so we can learn as leaders. Not all of leadership comes naturally, and while there are some parts of the role I see as straightforward, other parts are difficult and take work and commitment, and if I’m honest I’m not sure I’ll ever get completely right. As Mary Myatt says so eloquently, we are; “Human beings first, professionals second.” We are human, we will make mistakes and as leaders we are always learning. Consequently, I bit the bullet and was careful to choose a range of colleagues who I knew would give me honest feedback.

What I found was that in the most part, my colleagues did recognise the elements of my practice which I also found were strengths – anyone who knows me knows I am good at meeting deadlines for example. There’s no doubt it was lovely to receive praise in some areas, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. There were also areas where I knew I could improve. I’m open and honest about the fact that I know sometimes my passion for Teaching and Learning can overwhelm the need to take a step back and see the bigger picture. What I also found though, was that I did have some blind spots. There were areas where colleagues said I needed to work a bit harder at, where perhaps I had got complacent, or even areas where I had subconsciously decided something was less important, and yet colleagues felt it was something I did need to improve on. One such weaker area was asking for feedback on performance, which maybe is not surprising given what I have said earlier! What the process and the feedback did though, was make me focus and gave me a starting point. It increased my self-awareness and made me create some actions so that I could show improvements in these areas. It also made me really think about people’s perception of me, and hone in on refining my behaviours to be more like the leader I had aspirations to be. I made a point for example when introducing or changing something related to Teaching and Learning of forcing myself to think more about the effects on other areas of the Academy, and whether this really was a priority at the moment. I also tried to ask for more feedback throughout the year, using line management time to ask questions such as “What else can I do or take off you to support you?” for example.

I’ve recently completed the 360 again, about 15 months later. Again, the process created nervousness, but this time I was much better prepared about what would be revealed. What it showed, pleasingly, was that progress had been made. My strengths were, unsurprisingly, still my strengths, but the areas for improvement were rated higher than they had been in the previous process. Again, there were some areas where I still have work to do, but the comments from my colleagues were a massive boost that I am on the right track.

What I’ve learnt from this process, and the course as a whole, is that there is no shame in being told you can improve in some areas, and that actually forcing yourself to listen to feedback like this is humbling, and makes you a better leader in the long run. I’ve also learnt that a 360 like this is a process, it’s not a one off event which I can now tick off. Feedback should be part of our daily conversations if we want to get better. If I want to be a good leader, and I really really do, then I have to make the time commitment and also swallow my pride a little to ask for regular feedback from others. Ignorance is not bliss on this occasion; too often we plough ahead with our own agendas without thinking about what will really make us, and therefore our organisations better. In my opinion, a 360 like this is really worth the investment.

This quote by Doc Rivers, the American professional basketball coach, is really powerful and sums my feelings up well: ““Average players want to be left alone. Good players want to be coached. Great players want to be told the truth.” I want to have the courage to be told the truth by those I work with so that I can be a great leader, not a good one or even an average one.


Create your website with
Get started