Developing the Expert Teacher

At the Cramlington Learning Festival I talked, albeit briefly. about the need to recognise and promote the role of the expert in the teaching profession. Here are the slides –  CLV Festival 2013 (NXPowerLite) I chose this topic because in our school system I see more and more instances of opinion masquerading as insight, novices positioning themselves as experts and collectively we, our schools and our students suffer in consequence..

The slides ought to speak for themselves but to paraphrase my argument it’s down to the profession to wrestle back the influence in shaping thinking, particularly around what constitutes great learning and teaching in our schools. I argue elsewhere that the ‘Novices’, the ‘OFSTED Whisperers’, the ‘Evidencing Soothsayers’ and the ‘Policy  Pedants’  will rob us of our profession.

When you watch an expert teacher working you see the artistry of teaching underpinned by the science of learning. It’s the culmination of years of reflective practice, bench marked against the best and tested in differing challenging contexts.

My experience tells me that expertise needs to be tested in different contexts; experts deploy a range of strategies and can do so under duress. The expert teacher has spent years improving and adjusting what he or she does so that there is no unfamiliar.

When we filmed the Step Up lessons we saw expert teachers close up. What quickly became obvious was there was no one way – the teachers adapted their interventions to the context. Some were directive, others less so; some focused on specific outcomes, others more on developing skills and understanding of learning processes. So we had a matrix – Teacher to Learner on the horizontal axis, Outcome to Process along the vertical. It looks like this Matrix. Experts excel in any of the four quadrants. Here are a selection of excerpts which illustrate each quadrant on the matrix. Fuller versions are all available on Step Up.

An example of a Teacher  and Process emphasis can be seen in Craig Stuart’s maths lesson. In this short preview to the lesson Craig explains how the approach is to isolate the big questions in maths which will tap into the learners’ innate curiosity to know more about the world around them.  Craig Stuart Outstanding Lesson (1) Craig directs and orchestrates the learning, although pupils have limited autonomy, through his skillful use of challenging questions Craig ensures everyone is stretched .

Some teachers set up learning challenges which deliberately positioned content understanding within the skills development of the learners and then  nudged pupils through the process in an indirect way. What followed was a Learner and Process emphasis. Learner autonomy was high, outcomes uncertain.  Darren Mead Outstanding Lesson (2) In this short excerpt Darren is conducting a review with Year Seven students engaged in a species diversity project on behalf of a local farmer. This lesson shows an ‘expert’ science teacher  interleaving learning interventions without being consciously aware of doing so.

One of the more exacting challenges for any teacher is to achieve quality learning outcomes without being directive. David Gray explains how he use learning conversations and choices of ‘route’ to help year 7 maths students direct their own progress towards agreed levels. Here we see a Learner and Outcome approach David Gray Outstanding Lesson which is engaging and brilliantly differentiated.

It may seem that a teacher directed learning experience towards a given outcome is the everyday work of the full-time classroom teacher. It would be understandable to see this quadrant as the least challenging. In this lesson Charlotte has brought the topic to life using a memorable Teacher and Outcome approach. Charlotte Murray Outstanding Lesson (1)

Expert teachers have years of accumulated experience focusing and refining their professional skills. Novices just don’t get it! Experts in all fields retrieve information holistically, focus attention on what matters and make successive and rapid decisions about appropriate interventions. Our profession needs experts; we should celebrate and cherish our best teachers as our collective futures depend upon them.

Done for effect: better feedback in six hours

I’m writing this as I wait for the man to come and unblock my drains. Not a glamorous job by any judgement but one which I’m relieved someone else is prepared to do and one which will yield instant results. My drains are blocked. He’s been before. I’m one of his hundreds of customers. Phil empties the septic tank, rods the pipes, gets my drains smelling sweet and assumes a very droll manner as he goes about it. He turns up, does the business, gets the system back working as it should and life goes on.

Yesterday we helped a school rod its works. We were in like Phil at Tong in Bradford. The school feedback system had become gunged up with well-intentioned initiatives and false starts. It needed clearing out so it could smell sweet again. So we got in and rolled the sleeves up. It helped to have a team of twelve very capable middle leaders. We were set up to develop a more effective student feedback system and do so in less than six hours. We would get to the everyday heart of what the school was about.

Our starting point was to identify some key features of an effective feedback system. So paired discussion led to recording short one line contributions. This, our “prior understanding” is below. The red dots are the subsequent three votes cast by each member of the group on which features they thought most significant. The dots are used to direct the content of the first draft of the school feedback policy.

We then had an input to follow up the reading given out in advance of the meeting. We looked at the research showing effect sizes of different interventions, provided practical techniques from classrooms around the country, modified the ideas with common sense and added a few of our own.

We heard about the work of Marzano, Hattie, Sutton Trust, Black and William. We discussed assertive and other types of mentoring, coaching, target setting, dialogic teaching, enquiry based learning and the SOLO taxonomy. We had a short input on Critique and watched videos of Ron Berger. We were primed, had shared knowledge and were ready to go…

Our first task was to define the desirable behaviours at three levels: school, classroom and student. Groups were asked to take ten minutes to draw and label the key features of effective feedback, one group for each level. We left the products on the top of the table and then groups moved round. At the new table, the arriving group had to discuss each feature before choosing three or four and listing some recommended “delivery” strategies.  For example, a school level feature might be ‘an effective whole school approach to marking’ and a strategy might be ‘to use generic response labels which can be peeled off and placed into exercise books.’

Once we had spent time generating strategies, groups moved around again. At the third and final station they had to look at the features left by the first group, the strategies recommended by the second and then decide on which strategies to prioritise for further work. They did so based on a ranking exercise using do-ability and impact. These strategies would go out for further consultation immediately following our day. The chosen strategies were:

    • Process into Practice – whole school guidelines on effective feedback in different versions to appear in the staff handbook, pupil planner and on the Parent Portal
    • Smarter Marker – separate sample templates which can be provide as peel off labels for generic and subject specific marking
    • Literacy Passport – outline contents for a portable document to record the use of literacy skills in different subjects
    • Display to Develop –standardized classroom display to prompt effective feedback routines
    • Peer Protocols – prompt questions and responses for teacher, pupil and peer

As this is happening I’m busy listening in and based on what I’m hearing I’m re-drafting the school feedback policy. This is what the first draft looked like.

In order to make Process into Practice consistent with what we had discussed we shared the following seven shaping principles. Effective feedback is

    • Participative: feedback involves student(s), Peer(s), teacher(s) and home
    • Iterative: feedback is accessed through a succession of improvement cycles and small adjustments, drafts and re-drafts
    • Understood: feedback  is communicated in an accessible language and/or format
    • Actionable: improvements arising from feedback and/or changes can be made immediately and with minimal effort
    • Timely: feedback is delivered at the points when it is needed
    • Related: feedback is connected to both subject and to whole school assessment criteria
    • Owned: feedback is linked to the student’s personal aspirations, targets or goals

There are now five groups working away at producing the practical guidance and resources for staff to trial. This takes a further ninety minutes and runs over and through lunch. As we work we share progress and re-adjust this helps create a further draft of the school feedback policy.

 After a mountain of bhajis, pakoras and the sort of cakes which are used to support the foundations of large buildings we finish. To conclude we ask each new group to describe

  • What’s been done?
  • What needs to happen next?
  • What do you need to make it happen?

After a further 24 hours, some thinking space and another re-draft. The school feedback policy now reads like this

At Tong High School we have a feedback approach which is accessible to all and which:

    • informs assessment
    • involves cycles of self, peer and teacher evaluation
    • is integral to a shared culture of learning and improvement
    • is built around purposeful dialogue and time effective interventions
    • actively involves students, peers and teachers in both review of progress and planning for improvement
    • fosters student reciprocity, emerges from curiosity and shapes personal growth
    • helps teachers and students locate and reinforce discretionary effort and strategies for improvement
    • is consistent with an easily applied whole school system  
    • derives from evidence-based research and the context of our school

We have begun to get it smelling sweet. Phil would be proud of us.

Thanks to John Turner, Matt Perry, Hayley Duckworth, Matt Campbell, Dawn Theakston, Jack McPhail, Danielle Burns, Ross Towler, Amanda Patch, Simon Ford, Jo Philipson, Victoria Harrop, Lisa Dabrowski – great talents one and all. Thanks also to Phil who emptied my septic tank in 25 minutes for £95.




Formative with Forthright in Formby

Friday was spent being Forthright with Formby. John Turner and I worked on our first day with the Secondary and Primary schools in the in the Forthright Learning Community as they further their journey to develop independent learners and independent learning across the community.

The schools are embarking together on an ambitious, self-funded project over the next two years to develop independent learning approaches across the schools starting from the infants. The schools within the community are already successful in their own right and have a tradition of academic success. The aspiration is to be even more successful in helping students be autonomous problem solvers who take increasing responsibility for their own progress.

Over two years it is hoped that staff in the schools can work together on agreed interventions which will help transform the learners’ experience. Amongst the possibilities which were offered for consideration

School level

  • Episodes such as problem solving programmes, learning to learn approaches
  • Events such Enquiry Week, Independence Day
  • Vertical tutoring challenges on big questions
  • Changing rewards and incentives towards independent learning behaviours

Classroom level

  • Reinforcement of essential attributes and skills
  • Development of common tools – such as an independent enquiry wheel with versions for all Key Stages
  • Shift from performing to learning orientation
  • Improved group work
  • Extended enquiry built into how we teach
  • More pupil choice
  • Lazy Teacher week!
  • Use of Critique method of authentic presentation and feedback

Learner level

  • Learner passports across the Forthright Community
  • Independent learner profiling
  • Fewer lessons led by the teacher, more challenges initiated by the pupil
  • A Students Commission on how we should learn
  • Improved use of the environment with better spaces for problem solving
  • Prop boxes for topics

John and I were very deliberately avoiding giving a ‘strategic lead’ in favour of consensus and collective ownership and so time was spent identifying what is meant by independent learning and how we would recognise the independent learner. We asked the group of nineteen to sub-divide into three and ‘characterise the learner’ before we then went on to isolate and rank the key attributes. This allowed us to agree the following working definition –

In the Forthright Learning Community, independent learners are curious about answers to the ‘big questions.’ They are prepared to be open-minded and resilient in their pursuit. Forthright independent learners are also:

  • willing to be actively involved in extending their own and others’ learning
  • flexible in approaching challenges and in learning from setbacks
  • able to make connections
  • optimistic, and ready to make positive contributions alongside others
  • able to apply and extend  reasoning
  • reflective, and in being so capable of improving their own learning
  • autonomous

The definition will be used to help shape all of the agreed activities. Going forward the group started to define what the signature features would look like at whole school, classroom and learner level with strategies to provide clarity, coherence and consistency for each.

The Forthright definition is pleasing because it has not been sourced from an academic, imposed by an agency or produced by a cabal and because it’s owned by the schools and emerged from honest debate it’s arrived with built-in durability; in other words, its forthright for purpose

No one wants to see him miss this!

The England national side’s success rate in penalty shoot outs is currently 18%. For Germany it’s 87% Why is this? Why do some teams and some individuals consistently do better in high pressure environments?

We can name the moments when top performers choke. Their collapse is often spectacular. Over the years we’ve seen it in different sports: Don Fox in Rugby League, Jana Novotna in tennis, Jimmy White in snooker, Roberto Duran in boxing, David Bedford in athletics, Greg Norman in golf, Eric Bristow in darts. The list goes on…

What happens when a top performer loses mental toughness and chokes? Can a coach make an athlete mentally tough?

Researchers cite the links between arousal and performance. They talk about managing attention and about coping strategies. Some causes of choking are said to be stable – for example personality and self-consciousness. Others are labeled unstable – such as expectation, the perceived reward, the audience or the competition.

For some time now I’ve worked with footballers to help them improve the mental side of their game. Accommodating the stable and managing the unstable causes. There have been some successes and some failures. All performers have ups and downs. Everyone will ‘choke’ now and again. For a performance coach it’s how to help the player manage this to reduce its likelihood and then deal with it should it happen.

Why bother with mental toughness?

Elite performers have the edge. At the top-level in every sport, elite performers use mental toughness strategies. Some are learned and some are natural.

Chris Hoy worked with his psychologist prior to the Athens Olympics 1000 metre sprint to mentally rehearse every possible thing which could go wrong so that they were perfectly prepared. The kilo was the hardest sprint event of all. With Hoy going last, he watched on as three of the four competitors before him successively broke the world record. He required a personal best to take the title. He won gold by 0.185 seconds.

When pro basketball players mentally rehearsed throwing shots for 15 minutes prior to practicing, their success rate went up by 9%

The beam in gymnastics is only 10cm wide and is 125cm above the ground. You could walk along it with confidence. How confident would you be if the same beam was placed 25 metres above the ground?

Adrenaline and cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate change when you are anxious. Your anxiety levels are determined by your thinking. Control your thinking and you control your body and your performance.

Brain scans show that mental rehearsal stimulates and sends messages to the muscles used in the real experience. This means that you can speed your recovery from injury by visualisation. Slalom skiers improved performance by 12% through regular visualisation sessions before racing.

I tell players to take 10 to 15 minutes before you train to go through what quality in training looks, feels and sounds like.  Give yourself an edge – the body follows the mind. Using the techniques improves the quality of preparation and remember nothing replaces hard work in training

A key part of mental toughness is to use the techniques to train at a better quality level. If it’s all about the match day then it’s too late. Performance psychology is not about a rousing speech! Produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas in which you need to improve.

My strategies for developing mental toughness in top performers – or at least, the first few strategies

1. Learning about arousal up and down. Focus on managing your emotional state so that you can lower their heart rate and blood pressure and experience what the difference between anxiety and calm is like. Use visualisation and relaxation techniques. Do so regularly during the week.

2. Mental rehearsal. Prior to training take ten minutes to go through how you will produce quality in training. Mentally rehearse performing at your very best, particularly in areas which you need to improve upon.

3. Directed Practice – suggestions for Technique improvement. Take areas of your game where you feel you must be even better. For example a centre forward might focus on:

  • Holding the ball up
  • Positioning for diagonals
  • Winning headers
  • Getting across your man

4. Benchmark against a higher or desired standard. Watch the people who are the best and use training as an opportunity to practise the techniques and do what they do. Again, mentally rehearse in detail the performance improvements

5. Competition. Use competition in training to hone skills and build belief. Competition in training sharpens your competitive instinct and plays a big part in building confidence. Competing against yourself and your own Personal Best in skills sessions also builds self-belief.

6. Showing off! Showing your individual skill, doing what you are good at and letting everyone see it can be another way of giving your confidence a little boost. Do it in warm ups, after training and every now and again as a reminder to yourself of how good you are. Showing off what you can do improves your confidence.

7. Set ambitious targets. No-one ever got better at anything by staying in their comfort zone. To have a big impact, set targets for yourself which are at the edge of your ability level. Work towards these demanding targets. Share them with others: until you do so it is easy to cheat!

8. Scaffold the challenges. Don’t try too much too early! Set demanding targets and work towards them. Build up the basics as you go. Top athletes keep performance diaries and are interested in monitoring their own progress.

9. Demand specific useful feedback. Ask coaches, team mates and your family in the stand for specific role and technical feedback. Find out what you could do differently or better.

10. Recovery rituals. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Your performance goes when you are distracted. You suffer 35% in performance losses when you become distracted. It needs up to 40% more mental energy when you lose focus and have to recover. Have a simple gesture for recovering from mistakes. Try to focus immediately on the improvement needed and not the mistake. Dwelling on failures is unhelpful and will destroy your performance.

11. Parking errors. Leave any errors behind. If you are a goalkeeper and you make a mistake you are not going to correct it by dwelling on what went wrong. Park the error up because you know you will be going over it later.  Use your recovery rituals to help you stay sharp. Some keepers do things like drink from the water bottle and spit the mistake away, kick the post with their studs or rub mud on the gloves. Little things which tell your brain – we’ve moved on…

Sport is full of  cliches. Over a life time of sport, top performers have heard them all. The real work in preparing to perform takes place away from team talks, from motivational speeches, from crowds and stadiums – it starts early on in life. Some of it is learned along the way and all of it is learned at the very edge of what’s possible.


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.