I love a good book. Or a bad book for that matter. I’m happy reading all kinds of books: from the trashiest holiday novella to a bicep-building tome on biochemistry and everything in between. Today I’ve just started a book on the Trojan War and last night I finished Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (much to my wife’s disgust and fear that I would suddenly start developing sociopathic tendencies –nothing to report. Yet.) However, my guilty pleasure is the sport biography; I will devour them! At times this can be slightly obsessional. Having read The Damned United by David Peace I immediately ordered every Brian Clough book on Amazon and absorbed everything that there was to read about Old Big Head.
In a similar vein in the years after England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup I would purchase and read every member of the England squads’ biographies as soon as they were published. It was almost as if I was building up a database where each book gave me a different piece of information or perspective. It was an extremely sad day when space literally ran out in my bookcase and I had to cull these memoires. Out went Martin Johnson’s The Autobiography; sad farewell was said to Full Time by Jason “Fun Bus” Leonard; Matt Dawson’s Nine Lives was unceremoniously dumped in the blue IKEA bag destined for Oxfam; I even donated the musings of one of my all-time favourite players, Austin Healey’s Me and My Mouth: The Austin Healey Story (yes, I know he was not actually part of the World Cup squad. Please don’t remind me. The pain still hurts); Greenwood, Jonny, Robinson and the rest of the lovingly assembled set also waved goodbye to my rich mahogany shelves. What I would not allow myself to do was remove Winning! by knight of the realm Clive Woodward. Sir Clive’s book is less autobiography, more retelling of the six years leading up to that astonishing night in Sydney. Unfairly panned by some critics I hung on its every word. From setting up a player code-of-conduct to left-field team building sessions, there were few ideas Woodward wouldn’t try in an attempt to glean a competitive advantage. Visual awareness computer tests, asking Nike to develop new skin-tight strips, building state of the art facilities both in Twickenham and at their Pennyhill Park training base were just some of the ideas he tried. Admittedly it is likely not all of them worked, but in the search for improvement no stone would be left unturned. In fact the thing that I will always remember from his book* is the quote below which sums up his philosophy:
“Winning the Rugby World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing one hundred things 1% better”
Thus Jonny Wilkinson’s right footed drop goal at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney with just 26 seconds left on the clock was not an accident, but a culmination of years of hard-work and planning. I try to think about the attitude embodied by this message with regards to my teaching. Every so often we are sold a story by an interested party about how their method is the best and will revolutionise teaching. Sometimes these crusades advocate dropping everything else you might be doing. I can think of a number of ideas communicated to me over my teaching career, for example AfL, “no hands up”, the three part lesson plan to name just a few. Each time the message was clear: this is the right way and what you are doing is the wrong way. What rot! This is not to say that trying new things is a bad thing: I am in no doubt that new ideas are vital for the profession and are needed to inject verve and vim into our daily dealings, but not necessarily at the expense of everything we are currently doing. Instead we should be looking to bring in the small gains, increasing the impact of many of the things we currently do by reviewing and analysing what went well and what could be improved. Or perhaps bringing in some new ideas to use in conjunction with what we already know works. This is what Sir Clive meant by doing many things 1% better.
As the start of term approaches I am already looking to my one percents. Having taught enough to understand what increases attainment and having built up a decent variety to my teaching, I hope to refine this and eke a little more out. In addition I have a few new ideas that I am going to use and perhaps, if I think they are any good, push for my department to start using. Of course some will not work. Some might not be any better than what we are doing already and I will certainly not be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but there might just be small tweaks that make the difference. Using yet another tired cliché (I know I use far too many) it truly is a case of looking for evolution, in the Darwinian sense of the word of small adjustments that slightly improve, rather than revolution. I also think it is important not to obsess about the final product, whether it is improved exam scores, greater independence of learning or whatever else will benefit the students. Just the other day my old chum Nick Dennis tweeted a link to an article about Sir Dave Brailsford’s quest for improvement with British cyclists.
The quote that he selected to accompany the link is another perfect embodiment of always looking for improvement in the things we do. However, it makes explicit to me that whatever we might try to improve in the classroom, in education and beyond should not have the sole focus of exam results, inspection ratings, etc. Just as Brailsford did not look at just the winning, but what could be improved. It is unfortunate that Woodward titled his book Winning, because it implies the outcome is more important than the process. Having read the book this is not the case and he too emphasises the things you do before the outcome; the one percents.
This year it is my intention to take up the quest of looking at the many ways of improving the little things and making the process more efficient in my own teaching; I will keep you posted.
* As an aside the other thing I remember most vividly from the book was Sir Clive’s brief obsession with Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. What a song. What a man.
Header image credit Wikipedia