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.

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