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Relentless incremental improvements or micro-management?

I saw Mathew Syed on the television this morning. He was talking about his new book 'Black Box Thinking', a follow up to his big seller 'Bounce'. His new book, which I admit I have not read yet, seems to be a continuation of some of the themes found in'Bounce', which I have read. Having heard him speak this morning, I visited his web-site and looked at some of the main messages contained in his new book, as well as his insights this morning, and considered these from an educational viewpoint. 

What he was talking about this morning is how we could raise our health service, education and even our own individual lives to 'world class' if we were to apply the same principles found in the aeronautical industry following a major failure, or by some of our leading sports personalities and organisation's. Firstly, we all need to embrace failure and ensure we see it is an opportunity to learn, a stance that will be understood by most in the education system. The title of the book seems to refer to the kernel of his theory that if we applied the same principles that aircraft designers and engineers apply when they have a 'failure', which in their case means a crash where it is likely that everyone has been killed, we could all achieve so much more. After an aircraft 'failure' accident investigators and engineers are forensic in their examination of the facts. They examine information from  the two 'black boxes' that all passenger planes carry, and any other available information, data and evidence, so that they understand what went wrong. They learn from their failures, and adjust procedures or engineering as a result, so that the same mistakes are less likely to occur again. As a result off this approach travel by air is one of the safest ways to travel with there only being on average one accident in every million and a half of flights. Syed then went on to say how if our major institutions such as health and education applied the same principles we would be 'relentless' in our improvement until we became 'world class', whatever that means.

Syed then extends the analogy to include an examination of high performing sports stars and organisations. So he looks at Formula 1 motor racing and the attention to detail all the teams have. In sports, where every little improvement can make you that little bit stronger, faster and resilient, and where the rewards are getting higher and higher, we find the top performers having an attention to detail that the lesser lights don't have, or can't afford. So Formula 1 teams, and their Principals, have an unbelievable attention to every minor detail, as well as being devourers of data, to give them those small incremental improvements that may get them ahead of the opposition. Again, Syed extends this example into hospital and school practice, suggesting those who work in them could improve so much if they applied the same principles. He acknowledged that no doctors or nurses come to work to deliver a bad service, but felt there was a culture which promoted the hiding of mistakes instead of using them as an opportunity to share, learn and improve.

He talked about the example of British Cycling under Sir Dave Brailsford. I think we have all heard this story before of how Brailsford transformed British cycling by his relentless use of data and incremental improvements to improve individual and team performances. The UK went from an also-ran in world cycling, track and road, and grew into the world's leading cycling nation through performers like Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish and others. All of this was masterminded by Sir Dave and his well documented attention to detail. A similar story of success was achieved by British Rowing under Jurgen Grobler, featuring Sir Steve Redgrave, Mathew Pinsett, James Cracknell and colleagues, or with Sir Clive Woodward and the English rugby union team. Again, Syed looked at what they and other leading individual sportsmen and women had done to reach the top and then extrapolated this into health and education.

There is no doubt there are lessons we can learn in education from successes in other areas of life. But can we take the procedures and lessons directly from Syed's examples and apply them into schools and the system? My thoughts are that some of the practices and principles transfer, some don't and some could be quickly corrupted and turned into something a lot less desirable if we are not wary.

I agree that we should have a 'relentless' approach to school development. There should be no standing still. If we think we are standing still we are actually going backwards or being left behind by other schools and systems. I also believe the best way to keep moving forward is in small incremental steps which are informed by data and based on evidence. I definitely feel that, like our children, we learn and grow from our errors and our mistakes, so we need to create a culture where this is accepted and supported. We don't have to get everything we do right all the time, but we need the capacity to reflect and adjust our individual performance as part of an ongoing process and a disposition. We need to practice to get better and we should use peer, and other, feedback to help us develop our practice and understanding. We should use research to inform our practice and not be afraid to learn from other schools and systems, remembering the importance of context.

What we need to take into account though, is some of the following. Importantly,  our work is with people and not machines. This makes a difference in how we should approach our desire to improve. We are not working with machines, airplanes, cycles, racing cars or widgets. We are working with young people, and in primary schools very young people. I know all the sporting examples are also focused on people and extracting the very best from their bodies and minds. However, top sports stars are very focused and a bit one dimensional in that focus. It is all about the clock, the tape measure or the ability to beat an opponent, and winning. Every top sports star I have ever spoken to or read about also talks about the sacrifices they have had to make to reach the very top. I also know of the thousands that are spewed out by the system because they are not winners or have been injured. Top sport can be a very harsh environment. I understand that, and would still support anyone with that level of drive and commitment to follow their dream,  but I am not a sports coach. I am an educationalist and I want all of my pupils to have the opportunity to discover their own passions and achieve their potential. I want them to develop as whole people and I look at that development holistically, not in a narrow way. My performance is measured in terms of how successful I am in developing them as individuals. I also know that every single one of them is already an individual and will respond to my endeavours in different ways, and I accept and embrace that. However, I also know I can, and should get better at what I do. Not in order to win a competition or be the best teacher in the world, just so I can help all my learners be the best they can and to support the system. I want them all to be winners.

I am also concerned that some leaders will interpret some of Mathew's messages, and some of Dave Brailsford's techniques and turn them into micro-management practices. If we talk about incremental steps and a relentless approach I fear this will could quickly involve more incessant demands on staff to demonstrate continual improvement, and more accountability procedures by ill-informed school and system leaders. School leaders need to have and set high expectations for all staff, to achieve this the first thing they need to do is establish a culture and ethos based on shared values that gives them the time and the space to achieve these high aims. Micro-management destroys an organisation's collaborative and collegiate culture and the ability to self regulate and develop. We need to be informed by data and by research but we must be aware of the dangers of been 'driven' by these. As Michael Fullan has shown, if we have the wrong drivers in our schools and systems we can destroy all that we are seeking to achieve.

There is no doubt that as school leaders and teachers we can learn from high performers in sport and other sectors, but for me it is important that again we understand the principles and adapt these to our own vision and aims for our schools and education. Mathew Syed is coming to Scotland soon to speak to AHDS ( the Association of Heads and Deputies Scotland ) members at their annual conference and I am sure he will be informative and entertaining. We will hear first hand his messages for schools and education. I just hope we will listen respectfully and try to understand the messages and relate them critically to our own contexts and our own aims for our schools and the systems, and not be bounced into following blindly.

PS apologies to Mathew if I have misinterpreted his message, and I do promise to read the book


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