Breeding Bidability

Language, the choice of words and the attention we choose to give them shapes response*. Recently I’ve been thinking about the language we use to introduce very young children to classroom learning. I’m particularly interested in the notion of rules, how they signify classroom culture and how they are used to direct behaviour.

It seems every school classroom I’ve ever been in has had protocols formal or informal, stated or unspoken, to shape norms. On occasion a quick glance at the classroom rules tells you what no interview would.  Here for example is a photograph – taken last Thursday by a colleague – of a set of class rules from a secondary school in Tennessee,

Notice rule number four on attentiveness – ‘head off table, no snoring.’

I’m struck how quickly a school can socialize very young children. The teachers’ choice of the Golden Rules for classes 5 and 6 year olds quickly seems to become lodged in their minds as what is necessary for learning. I worry that what we do when we stick up this sort of sign – Listen and Silent are spelled with the same letters – is that we create passivity in our learners. This may have its place when children arrive at school with few social skills and little experience of interacting with others but, over time, it makes the task of developing independent learners and thinkers more and more difficult.

So we set out to put this theory to the test and to explore better alternatives. My colleague John Turner and I set up some interviews with very young children. We spoke to six children from KS1. They were very bright and personable, able to relate to what we were asking and for the most part stay focussed on the questions asked.

We started by asking what sorts of words came to mind when they thought of school: which words would they use if describing their school to an adult. – fun, learning, awesome, good games, amazing, fun (again) and fantastic. They were amused by the question and enjoyed thinking about their answers!

We next asked what sorts of words came to mind when they thoughts of a good teacher. we asked this question so that we could begin to obtain a view on what they thought about themselves as learners and what the relationship with the teacher might be. We asked which words they’d used if describing a really good teacher to an adult. The words used were nice, helpful, intelligent, kind, fantastic, very good, special, really good person and then kind and nice again! This was interesting because it was entirely bound up in the relationship and in being an open, friendly and accessible adult.

The next question was about them as learners: what do you have to do to be really good at learning? This was perhaps the most useful part of the interview process and was as interesting for what was not said as for what was said. The responses were:

  • listen
  • be nice to others
  • help others
  • be good at listening
  • don’t copy other people
  • if someone falls over help them up
  • help if someone’s stuck
  • do what your told
  • don’t be naughty

We then went on to ask about what was their favourite sort of learning. We were told:

  • Maths: because it helps you  learn quicker
  • Art: they teach you how to make stuff and you get even better and your drawing and writing gets really nice and neat
  • Literacy: you get neat handwriting and be a good story teller. More people like your story and you might be a famous writer
  • PE: its really fun and it gets you exercised up and my mum really likes it makes me tired


  • Football: at sports day because I’m really good at scoring goals and saving 
  • Talking about famous people: everyone likes it and it gets you talking
  • Everything : I have so much fun at the end of the day I’m so tired when I get  home I have to go to bed straight away

We also asked about the hardest lessons and what was most difficult to learn. The responses included:

  • Maths: Year 2 expect us to do better and sometimes its too hard
  • PE: its really tiring and it really hurts your back and stomach
  • Maths: sometimes there’s really big numbers, that’s hard and counting

Finally we asked their views on why they had to come to school and learn. We asked specifically why they had to learn. Their responses included:

  • You have to learn because you just have to
  • So that when you are older you are clever
  • So that you can be a clever clogs
  • All the numbers and things
  • You learn things in the past and in the future
  • To be good at listening
  • To do GCSE’s
  • So that when you go to year 2 your teachers think you are intelligent

What caught our attention was that the children were very clear on what was expected and most of the behaviours they described were associated with being ‘good’ rather than being ‘good at learning.’ This offered an opportunity for the school to begin its work on creating independent learners early in their school lives!

On the premise that you will get more of what you reinforce we looked again at creating a positive classroom culture with a new set of rules. John and I asked staff to look at the class protocols already used with a view to revising them in favour of learning behaviours. The learning behaviours included learning together to be even better at:

  1. Explaining things
  2. Asking good questions
  3. Learning something new
  4. Practising hard till you get it right
  5. Thinking carefully
  6. Listening carefully
  7. Trying different ways of doing things
  8. Being a learning friend who helps others learn
  9. Making someone else happy
  10. Becoming better at sharing
  11. Reading every day

Within hours of the teachers discussing and using the new learning behaviours children responded.  Teachers too had an emerging vocabulary – one which shifted them away from talking about doing towards describing the learning which emerged from the doing.

It remains to be seen whether the higher energy levels, increased persistence and improved engagement noticeable in many of the children remain but it has to be better than passive bidability which, long-term, will switch them away from understanding and enjoying their learning.

The most absurd rules are always the ones promoted by misguided adults. How would you as a six year-old respond to this one placed on a door in the main hall? “No pupil allowed in this cupboard – this is an adult cupboard”.

*Thanks to Geoff Barton for pointing me to the video!

Pursuing ‘Relentless Simplicity’

The UEFA Pro Licence is, currently, the top qualification in football coaching and management and mandatory in the higher end of football. All the home federations run their programmes and for the past nine years I’ve been involved either as presenter, contributor or part of the planning team in the FA version.

Typically about 20 managers and coaches are accepted onto the programme each year. The licence has to be renewed to keep it current. So this last weekend we had our refresher group renewing their licences and our mid-season group meeting together to share some of the programme.  We invite figures from football and other sports to share their insights.

For me, the UEFA Pro Licence weekend is a refreshing reminder that there is still integrity in football with successful individuals who have the humility and openness to share failures as well as successes.  Whether you listened from an education or a football perspective there were lessons to be learned. My seven key lessons are these.

  • “You can coach technical ability, develop fitness power and strength but you cannot coach courage, belief or hunger – all of which are abundant in elite performers.” Mick Wadsworth (30 years in coaching). These are qualities which have to be ‘found’ in the individual with the coach or teacher, having ‘found’ them, gradually drawing them out.
  • “Performance psychology migrates between the land of reality and the sea of bullshit, no one wins an encounter with a speech.  Protect your players from too much of you and let them make their own decisions” Peter Moores Lancashire County Cricket Club
  • “To coach players and develop them you need a well understood consistent infrastructure and a coach who is open-minded and prepared to study new ideas and solve problems.” – Rafa Benitez who has coached in Spain,England and Italy. Rafa told the group that at half-time in the 2005 Champions League final he made no big speech – focusing instead on tactical changes and inviting the players to be ‘proud.’ A minute before he was due to go back out he discovered because of an injury he had to change his team again.
  • “No matter how thoroughly you prepare, how much time you spend in getting tactics and formation right, how much detail you go into nothing can prepare you for the occasion. The occasion changes performances and changes behaviour.”_ – Rene Meulensteen Manchester United First team Coach on setting up to play Barcelona in the Champions League Final. The level of detail in preparation is frightening!
  • “Don’t wait … Create!” Brendan Rogers who has stuck to his personal philosophy and principles of play in his pursuit of world class coaching and whose team are now earning plaudits for their high tempo possession football. He talked of his own learning journey including working with Mourinho. A manager who was obsessive about detail down to the colour of the cones, whose commitment meant he’d occasionally work late and be found asleep in the dressing room at 7.00 the next morning!
  • “Look at your talent pool and work out their cost per minute on the pitch!” Malky Mackay, manager of CardiffCity whose management approach is forensic in its detail. This maxim could apply to any profession
  • Finally, the message that emerged more than anything else regarding coaching and teaching was, “the environment is the best teacher” In other words, the circumstances in which you have to learn provide the benchmarks and shape the everyday behaviours and habits which then deliver the performance.

The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there. The managers, teachers and coaches who excel in their discipline are life-long learners and students of their game.  They are in pursuit of what Mourinho calls ‘relentless simplicity’, making the complex simple, seeing beauty in every aspect of their chosen game.

Stick to the Knitting!

The phrase ‘stick to the knitting’ popularised by Tom Peters is interpreted as guidance to businesses to do this – to focus on what they know and do best and nothing else.

For over 200 years the small Dales town of Dent stuck to its knitting. Dent, in the north of England owed its prosperity to wool, and developed a cottage industry of knitters, mostly men. These knitters became known as the Terrible Knitters of Dent. Terrible then meant ‘awesome’ – surprisingly good! The knitters went at it night and day, sometimes whilst they herded sheep, milked cattle or repaired their roof! They multi-tasked using knitting ‘sticks’ tucked into the belt as one of the needles. The locals had to stick to the knitting to sell the products and keep starvation at bay. Needles often became bent and worn with use. An 18th century rhyme went:

She knaws how to sing and knit
and she knaws how to carry t’kit
While she drives her kye to t’pasture

The Terrible Knitters of Dent were awesomely good at what they had to do. They shared ideas, collaborated, maintained a high standard in their work and thrived together. They also did the other things but never stopped sticking to the knitting for a moment. Tourists would come from miles around to watch as they knitted with one hand and milked their cow with the other! We can learn from the knitters.

For me the lessons of the knitters are bound up in what my colleague,John Turner, calls the three C’s: Clarity, Coherence, Consistency. We might add a fourth, Community.

Organisations such as schools apply the three C’s when seeking to improve. By focusing down, by saying no more often, by avoiding the temptation to fulfil others’ agendas schools become terrible knitters. Clarity is found when agreement is reached over core purpose. For us core purpose is about planning, delivering, evaluating and improving quality learning experiences for and on behalf of the students – nothing else!. Top sports coaches talk of the power of focussing on process over results. A focus on results distorts preparation. We say focus on the processes of learning. For the knitters clarity was being sure that what they could produce was useful, locally owned and of the highest quality.

Clarity around what makes great learning precedes coherence. Coherence comes when we build and share agreement on the mechanisms for the delivery and scrutiny of great learning and each and every one of us buys in to those mechanisms. This means that we meet and talk regularly about what we do well and how to get even better; we monitor, support and challenge each other and we benchmark against the best. Coherence for the knitters would come as they sat around each others’ fireplaces and talked.

Finally a school achieves consistency when great learning is a matter of routine. Consistency is when, day on day, learning is optimised for the benefits of the students. This does not mean each and every lesson, every day is high in teacher energy and suffused with novelty. It means that students are actively and purposefully engaged often feeling a responsibility for their own learning and the learning of others. When a learning community comes together in support of an agreed purpose, you witness discretionary effort! The knitters survived as a community phenomenon into the 20th century. The Community adds leverage to any common goal. A community who invests in delivering great learning directs and schedule its efforts towards its day on day delivery.

Having worked with a community of schools over a period of 18 months we found remarkable progress once agreement on what comprised great learning was in place.  Once we had clarity over what great learning looked like, we were able to pursue coherence in delivery and consistency in its quality. Here is our clarity on Great Learning. Students across our community –

  • Value and Enjoy Learning
  • Are Actively and Purposefully Engaged
  • Are Safe, Secure and Self Confident
  • Build and Sustain Relationships
  • Stretched Through Challenge
  • Are Creative, seeking out Patterns and Solutions
  • Ask, and are asked, Great Questions
  • Make Progress Based on Feedback
  • Transfer Their Learning
  • Take Responsibility for their Own Learning and the Learning of Others

The Terrible Knitters of Dent endured without any sorts of checklists. The harshness of daily life alone reminded them to stick to the knitting. Be clear about, and focus relentlessly on, what needs to be done. Eventually as you become accomplished in your knitting you might be able to milk a cow at the same time.

What’s your icy shower?

Once in a while you experience, see or hear things which set you back and make you think. These moments don’t happen often and are never to any sort of formula. They are infrequent in life but have a resonance beyond the moment. What then follows is often a period of personal dissonance, where your everyday assumptions and the behaviours which go with them, are questioned.  Things feel uncomfortable for your for a while. You begin to question your motives and ask if what you do, day on day, aligns with something purposeful.

The landscape of our lives provides births, deaths and rites of passage each with their own little questions and answers nudging us along – but what would it be like to get up every day of your life knowing that what you were doing consumed all of your hopes and dreams and answered all your questions? For some, maybe most, such moments never occur and larger questions are never asked, never answered.

Meeting people who have this strong purpose can be as invigorating as standing in an icy shower. I haven’t met this guy, Mickey Smith, but I’ve listened to him speak and what he said stopped me in my tracks. This short video works for me like an icy shower. It sends the equivalent of thousands of volts straight down my spine. It gets me out of bed and asking the questions. It washes away the self-doubt that can transfix. Judge for yourself…

“If I only scrape a living, at least its a living worth scraping…” Mickey Smith, 2011


This is what the future holds!

What will the elite end of soccer look like in ten years time? This was the question we posed to the group of coaches who met at Wokefield Park Reading this weekend for the first ever FA Elite Coaches Programme.

The English Premiership is now 20 years old and some would argue the game has moved on for the better. The trends suggest that it is being played by athletes who, at the top end, are tactically astute technicians who anticipate and solve problems at speed.

In this period in the Premier League we know that there is now:

  • 90% plus pass accuracy in many games (with two players at 100% in two separate games)
  • 3 seconds average time between passer and receiver
  • typically 2 seconds per player in possession, with just over 2 touches on the ball and under 3 seconds to make a decision as the ball come to you
  • heart rates increasing over 90plus minutes to 180 and beyond
  • more distance covered at pace
  • fewer instances of balls going directly from front to back

In the Champions League in the last six years we know that:

  • there are at least 1400 direction changes per game with 12 – 17 km covered by individual players per game.
  • 15% of time is spent on low speed running, 10% on moderate speed running, 2% at high speed and 1% flat out
  • In the last six years there has been a 13% increase in passes and a forward pass increase  of 10%
  • 84% of passes are successful one touch passes!
  • positional fluidity is dramatically up with more teams defending deeper and counter attacking

So the challenge for our modern coaches is to design development programmes and prepare players for a game which requires quicker decision-making, improved technical ability, increased stamina and speed and more tactical nous!

The answer, despite all the fuss about 10,000 hours of directed practice, is not more and more of the same. The answer lies in coaches understanding the principles of athletic development, who know how to encourage effective and instant decision-making in game contexts, have deep understanding of changing tactical demands and an obsession with working towards technical perfection.

We had sixteen of the best young coaches in the English game for less than three days. We debated the future game, the future player and the future coach. In the next eighteen months we will take the theory onto the grass and into the clubs. The word we kept hearing over the weekend was obsession! Let’s get obsessive together!