I hope you’ll indulge this slightly off-piste post. Let’s talk about cricket and, more specifically, two cricketers. The first one we’ll focus on is Steve Waugh and the second James Vince.
Steve Waugh no longer plays, having retired in 2004, but is known as one of the finest cricketers of the all-time. Notable for his role in the transformation of Australian cricket, I’m more interested in Waugh’s personal transformation. We’ll revisit that later.
James Vince is still playing professional cricket. Captain of Hampshire CCC (incidentally, the team I support!), Vince has played for England on a number of occasions, highlighting his considerable ability.
As any avid cricket follower will know, James Vince ad Steve Waugh are worlds apart. They have similarities – they’re both batsmen and both have considerable experience of captaincy. However, Steve Waugh will always be remembered as one of Australia’s greats and James Vince (at time of writing!) will always be remembered as a ‘player with all the shots’. Watching Vince bat is a joy – he can put a ball anywhere in the ground, he is slick, stylish and aesthetically pleasing. Watching Waugh, on the other hand, was a different experience (not just because of his pivotal role in demolishing England teams of the late 90’s and early 00’s…) because of his relentless grind and steadfast determination to bat for as long as he could to put his team in the best position possible.
This post germinated from an anecdote I’d heard about a young Steve Waugh. As he emerged into international cricket, he was an all-rounder, asked to contribute with both his batting and his bowling. As well as this, he embodied a much more attacking, flamboyant style of batting – with all the shots, he was slick, stylish and aesthetically pleasing… However, as his early Test record shows, he wasn’t laying the foundations for greatness he later delivered. Waugh, following a period of poor form, was omitted in the early 90’s – giving him time to go away and adapt his game. Waugh’s response to this omission was to simplify his game. Instead of worrying about being an attacking, flamboyant all-rounder he spent time making sure he was hard to get out and had enough shots to score plenty of runs so this meant reducing the style and crafting the core shots that would help. It didn’t end to badly for him either and the rest, as they say, is history.
What’s this got to do with teaching?!
This anecdote really struck a chord with me and made me think about my own approach to teaching. As a young teacher, I was determined to be brilliant at everything – I wanted to deliver pitch perfect explanations, I wanted to plan wonderful assessments, I wanted to ask the best questions, I wanted to know every part of my subject inside and out. I wanted to be the James Vince of teaching – slick and stylish – but with the world-beating outcomes of Steve Waugh. Naturally, this wasn’t the case and it led me down a dangerous path of following every fad, rushing and changing my practice, not going through a careful process of getting better.
How have I overcome this? Well, I had to have some difficult conversations with colleagues and leaders close to me and acknowledge that if I wanted to be the best teacher I could be, I had to get used to the grind and granular focus of improvement. This meant spending time focusing on some key elements of my practice – e.g. questioning – and working hard on improving my craft. This lead me to control the controllables.
Control the controllables
This was done through a deliberate process of observation – asking a small number of colleagues to observe me (acknowledging the limitations of observation!) – followed by discussion and reflection – whereby I would discuss with the observer what they’d seen, what I’d done and, crucially, what the students had done – before replanning and refining. In the case of questioning, this involved a more deliberate approach to questions – planning what I would ask, when I would ask it, how I would receive responses (Individuals? Whiteboards?).
This model of improvement has formed the basis of much of my approach to teaching. Naturally, as I have read more and come to learn more about the craft of teaching, I have been able to be more specific about my areas of focus. And this approach has also alleviated my worries that I am not in control of everything. For example, curriculum or assessment planning are best done in conjunction with subject teams and colleagues – these are big jobs that need careful plans – I am focusing here on the craft of the classroom.
Education has undergone a research revolution. And it’s been transformative and something that has fundamentally shaped my own practice. However, research isn’t a panacea. Teaching is a craft and, like all crafts, benefits from being shared and looked at and pored over and thought about. The research will offer a starting point but schools are such varied and complex places – research and evidence need to inform, not to create islands.
What am I working on now?
Right now, I am working on my explanations. The curse of knowledge tells us that we can all be guilty of thinking our explanations are perfect but the evidence – what I see in students books, what I get on student whiteboards, what I read in student assessments – tells me that this is an area I can be making some gains with. I’d love to be like James Vince, flamboyant and stylish, but I think I’d be better off being like Steve Waugh – doggedly working hard on a few core skills to sharpen them as much as I can. I’d love to hear what you’re working on and how you’re working to make it better too.
Satisfyingly, whilst I have written this blog this evening, James Vince has made a super 65 for Hampshire against Sussex. Played, skip.