Raising the bar

Incremental gains for professional growth

In my role as a senior leader, as a SLE and as a consultant I am constantly looking for more efficient, effective and realistic ways to help teachers be the best they can be. In order to fulfil this quest, I have frequently looked beyond education for inspiration, direction and solution.

Over the last few years these are just some of the books that have influenced my thinking.


Who has inspired or influenced you?

As a young child in 1969 I distinctly remember watching, on a small black and white TV with my family, an event that had a big impact on me. The first man on the moon. I Picture2.pngremember my mum putting me to bed that night and saying, as she pointed to the bright moon, “there’s a man up there!” This sparked in real interest in science for me; I wanted to be Neil Armstrong.

Over the years several people influenced and inspired me. They were mostly from the world of sport: Bobby Moore, Bruce Lee, Daley Thompson and Sergey Bubka.


In the dim and distant past I was, amongst other things, a pole vaulter. I learnt it at school, developed it at club level and successfully took part in several competitions. The first time I saw Sergey Bubka, a Ukrainian pole vaulter, was at Crystal Palace in 1984 where he broke the world record. He was still vaulting when all other athletes had gone home! A supreme athlete, Bubka went on to break the world record 35 times (17 outdoor and 18 indoor). An extraordinary statistic fuelled undoubtedly by incentives such as world record bonuses. As much as $100,000 each time has been mentioned. In less than two years between 1991 and 1993, he improved his previous mark an astonishing 14 times. Bubka’s final record of 6.15m stood for two decades. A consistently high and sustainable standard over a long career.

By the time I watched Bubka in action my vaulting days were over (PB 3.89m!). For me his influence wasn’t and isn’t one related to my own athletic performance but to how I approach working with teachers to help them to grow; training of the basic skills, specific practice, focused feedback and, most pertinently, small ‘1cm’ bar raises to ensure continuous and sustainable ‘performance’ and improvement.

The bar is higher now and raising it even further is harder.
Where does our next 1, 2, 3, 4cm bar raise come from?

Picture4There has been much talk over the years of ‘marginal gains’ (Sir Dave Brailsford), 1% gains (Sir Clive Woodward) and Critical Non Essentials (Australian dentist – Paddy Lund) but much of these approaches relates to small tweaks to every aspect of performance to bring about changes.

In my experience of working with teachers, they are too busy and do not have the capacity to address EVERY aspect of their ‘performance’. So, instead I take the approach of 1cm bar raises; the relentless pursuit of one aspect of practice that when habitual and routine is added to with another 1cm bar raise and another and another…over a substantial length of time. Usually in the same area of practice too; for example, explaining, questioning, formative assessment or modelling.

TSP-3D-Covers-1-UP-72dpi_LEFT_001Jack Canfield in ‘The Success Principles’ refers to +1s.

Over a substantial time these small, sustainable and manageable improvements add up to BIG changes and great habits.

In Japan they call this approach ‘kaizen’; change for the good, change for the better – continual improvement.Picture5.png

Using kaizen, great and lasting success is achieved through small, consistent steps. I have discovered that clear, slow and steady is the best way to overcome a resistance to change too.

One of the mantras of the All Blacks, New Zealand’s phenomenally successfully rugby union team, as outlined in James Kerr’s wonderful book, Legacy, is…

The challenge is to ALWAYS IMPROVE, to always get better, EVEN WHEN YOU ARE THE BEST. Especially when you are the best.

Change for the good is for everyone, every teacher.Picture6.png

These changes may even be daily! The legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, used to extol the virtues of becoming a little better every day.

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens—and when it happens, it lasts.”

John Wooden was also a fan of FOCUS and DETAIL.

One of his basic principles for success was the focus on basics. At the first practice new players were taught how to tie their shoe laces! He actually taught them how to put on their socks first. Wooden had a reason for this; if you don’t put on socks and tie your shoe laces properly, it will affect your performance. Improperly put on socks can cause blisters and untied shoes can cause injuries or problems during games. Court time is lost, team performance is affected, as ultimately is league position.

The same principles hold true for teaching. Focus on the basics. Focus on the detail. Don’t get caught in the flash of social media, or the next shiny object. While many of these tools may be valuable and may help contribute to your goal, you can’t ignore the basics of teaching.

Little changes lead to BIG changes.compoundeffectbook

In Darren Hardy’s book ‘The Compound Effect’ he suggests that the formula is simple:
“Small, smart choices + consistency + time = radical difference.”

Focus on the daily disciplines. The magic is not in the complexity of the task; the magic is in doing simple things repeatedly and over a sustained period to instigate this ‘compound effect.

Jeff Olson, in his book, ‘The Slight Edge’ urges us to focus on…
…the things that are EASY TO DO but also EASY NOT TO DO.

Charles Duhigg in ‘The Power of Habit’ refers to a ‘keystone habit’; a habit that, when we change it, will have the greatest positive impact on our lives.

Designer Ray Eames said:
“What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts.”

41baXFvN4UL__SX332_BO1,204,203,200_So focus not on the flash but on the stuff that works: the basic skills of teaching. The things you do in your classroom when no one is looking. The kind of skills that Shaun Allison (@shaun_allison) and Andy Tharby (@atharby) so deftly describe in their book ‘Making every lesson count’; explaining, modelling, questioning, feedback, challenge and so on.

Choose well – focusing not on just changing your practice but on having an impact on the children you teach. Choose what works therefore – cognitive science is now helping us hugely with making this choice.

Break these well-chosen strategies down into small achievable bits and practise them until they become routine, habitual and efficient.

However, we aren’t musicians or pole vaulters who perform occasionally and practise in the interim – we are always performing! So to counter this issue, book in time to practise. Plan for specific practice with a particular group. Seek the honest feedback from a colleague – ask them to focus on the impact on the children of the strategies you are practising.

IMG_1520Visual prompts
A pole vault coach I had many years ago used to write brief reminders of things I had to remember on pieces of card that were left by the runway – a visual prompt to help me keep focused and remind me about what we had been trying to do in training. I use this idea in my own school and all staff have these on their walls as a reminder of what they need to focus on. Teachers are also learners!

link-back2.pngIt doesn’t have to take this form of course and recently I read about a post it in a teacher’s classroom at Shaun Allison’s school which was used as a visual prompt. https://classteaching.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/five-reasons-i-like-this-post-it/

Equally as effective!

The important thing here is to have a FOCUS.

Herbert Alexander Simon said ‘a wealth of information leads to a poverty of attention’. So narrow it down.

Look for the better you. The believable possible: the slightly better version of yourself. Focus on getting better rather than being good.

Reflect on your practice and on the children you teach.
Choose a focus. Choose well. Choose what works rather than what looks good.
Choose a challenge. The comfort zone is a lovely place but nothing grows there. Work just out of your comfort zone.
Be realistic – B is your aspiration, yet A is a realistic 1cm bar raise.
Book in time to practise.
Seek honest feedback and act upon it.

When embedded seek the next marginal gain, the next 1% gain, the next +1,

“Success is…
modest improvement consistently done”.

Sean Fitzpatrick
Former All Blacks captain


Chris is an education consultant with over 30 years of experience. He has worked with over 275 schools. Please get into contact if you would like to work with Chris.

One thought on “Raising the bar

  1. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 12th May – Friday 19th May – Douglas Wise

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