Thursday 25 September 2014

Have YOU Made A Good Start To The Year?

It's a good time to have a first checkpoint of the year. For us, 24 days of the term gone. I estimate that, in our school, most exam year groups are going to have about 1000 lessons between the start of this term and the start of their exams. So far they have had about 130 of these. By the end of this week, it'll be 15% through the year. So, I challenged them this morning - "How have you done so far?"

A few years ago, a former pupil came to speak to our teachers about what he had learned from winning two Olympic Gold medals which could be applied to what we do. One of the things he referred to was this: at the end of every day of training, their coach would take the crew to one side and they would talk about their day’s training. Every day he would ask them, has today been a 'gold medal day'? For four years, they would ask that question every day. They believed that it would take gold medal commitment every day to gain a gold medal at the end of four years.

Now most pupils aren't planning towards a target four years ahead, although some may be. For the moment, it's worth looking ahead to the end of this year. Maybe a pupil has targeted a clean sweep of A and A* grades at GCSE. Has the first 24 days been A/A* in quality? Maybe the target is a distinction in Grade 8 of a musical instrument? Has the first 24 days’ music practice been grade 8 with distinction standard? Or a sporting goal: a certain time in the 200 metres - has the training thus far been consistent with that goal. Or it might be three A grades at A level - have the first 24 days been AAA standard.

For those that have managed this, I encourage them to reflect with satisfaction, but also to consider that the good start will be wasted if it isn't built on, because merely to start well is not to do well at all.

For those who haven’t managed to make a start in line with their long term goals: change NOW! Don’t change tomorrow, and don’t leave it until next week. A change tomorrow is half as likely to be put into practice as a change today. If any students get to this stage of the school year and have not started in tune with the goals they have set yourself, the easiest and best time to change this is right away. The longer any of us practice not working in a distinction, or AAA or all A* and A way, or whatever the target we have set yourself, the better we will get at working in a way that will not deliver our goal. 

And, if one doesn’t know how to work in a way that is consistent with our objectives, we must ASK. 

So I encouraged our whole school community to use the question ‘Has it been a gold medal day?’ as a shorthand for the more difficult and more nuanced idea of whether today has been a day in which our attitudes and approach have been consistent with our long term objectives.

And finally, it's worth considering whether our effect on others is to make them have a gold medal day, or to prevent them from doing so - because gold medals are often won in teams, or crews, rather than individually. Even when the medal looks as if it's an individual award, there's nearly always a team behind the medallist, who made it all possible.

Have I had a gold medal day? Have you? Questions worth asking. Every day.

Monday 1 September 2014

The Power of Expectations

What are you expecting this year? This is the key question I asked our pupils this morning. I suggested to them that there is evidence to suggest that, whatever one is expecting, one is likely to be right. Those who expect good things tend to put unexpected failures down to bad luck, and see successes as reflective of their ability, and those who expect less good things tend to put their successes down to luck, and see less successful results as being reflective of their ability.

It’s tremendously important at the start of the school year that pupils have high expectations - to understand what they are being taught in Maths, to do well in English, expect to be able to play the pieces their instrumental teacher gives them, to beat the opposition at rugby or hockey, to be able to learn their lines for the school play, expect to better their opponents at the Model United Nations, and so on.

The power of expectations was clear in the last football season. For decades teams had gone to Manchester United’s ground expecting to be beaten, and hoping for a draw. With a new manager, and a new set of circumstances, at Old Trafford, teams turned up not expecting to be beaten, and playing to win. As a result, many did win, and more managed to draw. So the difference between Manchester United and the rest of their league was reduced by a reassessment of expectations.

Similarly dancers, and sportsmen and women give a lot of time to visualising themselves being successful so that it becomes their natural expectation. Because doing so makes them more likely to achieve their goals.

However, and I think it is a big however… a great deal, it seems to me, of a healthy and wholesome approach to life is to be able to hold two different, sometimes contradictory, concepts in balance. Some readers may be thinking that if all one does is expect success and good things that might make one complacent. We all know people who expected to be able to play a piece of music in a concert, or pass a vocab test, or their Driving Theory test, or beat the opposition, and failed because they were overconfident.

And so, as well as expecting to be do well this year, I encouraged our pupils constantly to reinforce a ‘growth mindset’ - that hard work will enable them to do what they want to do. I exhorted them to expect great things, and work their socks off for them. To be optimistic, but not complacent or arrogant.

'The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it but that it is too low and we reach it’. So said Michelangelo. Aspiration, high expectation, huge hard work to achieve it. To any pupil readers of this: I encourage you to set lofty targets, and make this a year where you strain every sinew to achieve them, whatever they are, and where possible encourage others to achieve their ambitions too.