Saturday, 4 February 2017

Success is 5-6-7-3-2-0

When I was a child, I had a bike and because I lived in a dubious part of town I had one of those combination locks. A green plastic coated thing. Three numbers could simply unlock that bike. Turn the cogs round to 4, 7 and then 2 and I could use the lock.  Thankfully, when the lock was purchased for the bike, the combination was provided for me. I didn’t have to scroll, for hours, through each combination with the hope of using the bike. It was done for me.

Recently I have been asked to support teaching and learning in my school. There’s been some reshuffling and I am filling a void for the moment. And, it is quite interesting, from my point of view. I have always thought from an English point of view. In fact, all my discussions and thoughts have always been about the teaching of English. When I have been talking about French or Geography, I have secretly been thinking about English and dressing it up as another subject. Now, I have to think about every subject and, boy, does it makes my brain hurt. I am having difficult questions and arguments in my brain: How can you show progress in Science books? How can you convince students that teachers are not fooled by large handwriting masking a lack of work? What do you do if a student has started a new book in a subject and the evidence of progress is in his old/new book? These and other questions are floating around in my brain.

However, education is paradoxically both simple and hard. The solutions to the problems are relatively easy, but the journey to those solutions is difficult and tough. You have to sift and sift through things to get the right solutions. It is as if each school has a combination lock and it is the leadership’s job to work out the right combination. They should sift through each dial on the lock until the barrel clicks. Then they should move onto the next one. They might have to revisit an old dial because it wasn’t the right combination for the school and they didn’t realise it at the time. It is a long journey, but is a journey.

Things are not helped by looking at other schools because ‘other’ schools are clearly ‘other’ schools. They are different. They have different students. They have different parents. They have lots of differences. One thing that people have yet to learn in schools is that other schools are different. Schools are not the same thing repeated hundreds of times over with different names and uniforms. Ofsted and Twitter haven’t helped with this myth. Ofsted deems a school is outstanding and everybody rushes to replicate the success. The school has a combination of 7-8-1-2-5-6. Everybody tries to emulate them. People visit the schools and attempt to bottle the success. Some go whole hog and change their combination from 2-1-4-9-0-0 to 7-8-1-2-5-6. Others do it in bits so they might change the first two dials.

Schools should spend more time reflecting and thinking about their contexts. Rushing to emulate another school means you are probably barking up the wrong tree. You don’t copy success; you work out the steps that lead it success. Those steps are often not visible to the human eye. That’s why I think intervention is the single most dangerous word in schools. What interventions have you used? How do you know it has worked? If you think one single action is going to be reflected in a piece of data then you might need to think a little bit more. Yes, my intervention was to paint the room green and look Tim made three levels of progress. Really? That one act was the miracle cure for the student? There’s a lot of things going on in schools and classrooms and we are na├»ve to think we teach students in isolation separated from factors like emotional state, family life and interest in the topic. The word ‘intervention’ is just a lazy attempt to reduce teaching to simple components. It would be much easy to say ‘stuff you do or have done’.  

I am interested in the Michaela Community School model. Their code of 1-2-0-4-5-2 seems to cause unrest, but what they are doing are exploring the different components that ensure success. They might be using numbers that people are cautious about using, but at least they exploring the components. How many times have I seen people just copy what a successful school does without thinking about the steps? I am interested to see what they do so I can look at my school’s combination. We are all trying to work out what the numbers mean and what the correct position for the numbers should be. I think it is important for schools to reflect and not copy, and schools like Michaela are mirrors to our own. We see ourselves better when we compare ourselves to others.  

Each school has a unique number. My school’s code is  5-6-7-3-2-0.  It’s now my job, for the moment, to work out what each number represents and then twist the dial to the number. I just know that my first number is something to do with the students, so I am off to think with my fingers in my ears. I am looking at my own school and I am not listening to anybody else until I am ready to. Lah…lah…lah!

Thanks for reading,


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