My hedgehog concept: How I hope to improve as a teacher this year

My hedgehog concept: How I hope to improve as a teacher this year

There was, I noticed, a continuous line of mountains which stretched across the continent from the Atlantic to the Black Sea….  I began to make a few estimations.  The distance was slightly alarming; Cape Finisterre to Istanbul was twelve thumb-lengths on my atlas, or about 10,000 kilometres of walking.  I was unfamiliar with the practicalities of epic pedestrianism, but then lack of knowledge was one of my motives for going…  To give the journey a temporal circularity I decided to shoehorn the walk into a cycle of four consecutive seasons…”

Nicholas Crane’s epic, eccentric quest eventually took him a year and a half and included many things he could never have predicted, including meetings with shepherds, bears and cheesemakers.  Throughout, he maintained two clear rules: “I’d avoid mechanical contrivances: no cars carts or cable-cars, no trains or tractors, bicycles, buses, escalators or elevators…  Second, I would make the journey without a break.”

While I’m not sure I’d be able or willing to take Crane as a role model, he had a clear ‘hedgehog concept’ – a clarity of direction and purpose, self-imposed dedication and consistency in applying basic rules which act as fine exemplars for the process of setting professional development priorities for the year – the subject of this post.

In writing, I’m building on two previous posts: reviewing Good to Great by Jim Collins, I questioned whether schools have a ‘hedgehog concept,’ that is, a single thing at which they excel and focus on entirely; I certainly doubted that I had one.  A post on trying to make my own CPD ‘continuing’ grew from another of Collins’ concepts – the flywheel of incremental improvement.  The latter post proved far more popular than I had anticipated, remaining the second-highest viewed post on the site to date.

But where did my professional development priorities last year grow from, as reviewed in that post?  Essentially, nowhere: starting a new school, my ideas about my professional development were hazy and primarily focused around what the school would need in its initial year.  I hadn’t predicted being able to focus so much on teaching and learning, had no plans to start blogging and thought I knew quite a lot about AfL.  A year later, I’m blogging regularly, know I can focus strongly on my own classroom and I want to improve my use of AfL significantly.  Setting out clearer improvement plans for myself this year seems important; given the interest the last similar post attracted, I thought it might also be worth sharing.

HedgehogThe idea of the hedgehog concept was that of a single driver, about which a business was passionate, was capable of exceeding its rivals and which it could narrow down to a single profit metric.  I questioned whether a school could narrow its focus so much – and wondered whether a teacher could do likewise.  How could I choose one thing to work at?

I think I have an answer.  My proposed hedgehog concept for 2013:

To become great at learning, applying and sharing effective educational practice.

What does this mean for me this year?

Becoming great at learning means… lots of reading – of blogs and of research articles. Attending conferences, visiting other schools and countries. Maintaining strong contact with colleagues in my school, other schools and other countries.

Becoming great at applying this learning means… examining what I learn and working out how it fits my context. Looking at how other countries address problems and identifying what I can use of this. The idea of continually refining my practice is central to this – taking my strengths and existing practices and relentlessly improving them.

Becoming great at sharing means… blogging what I’m learning and doing; discussing this on twitter, via responses to the blog and email. Attending educational discussion fora. Welcoming others to the school.

How will I know if you have succeed?

I am a massive sceptic about measurement. I see why it is important and intrinsic to success. I also see how fraught it is with compromise and inaccuracy. In many ways, since I am my own judge, I see little point in setting formal metrics, least of all when so many aspects are unpredictable. I could measure my sharing against hit counts or twitter followers – but I could just as easily game those to meet my measure by getting into fruitless debates or ‘sexing up’ my posts. I could promise something more measurable, like visiting three great schools… well, how can I be sure they are great? I might spend time trying to choose, but actually, most of my school visits are opportunistic, deriving from meetings and email contact. Since I’m teaching four Year 7 classes history – as I did last year, one measurement I will set myself is to set some similar questions in the exam – and expect to beat myself significantly (our cohort has a different attainment at entry, so there are flaws with this – but let’s be ambitious).

Instead, I’m going to set targets which are vaguer and more aspirational, but, I hope, will be more valuable.  An element of accountability comes from making promises and making them public.  This TED talk – on ‘building a better block’  underlines the strength of this as a way of forcing ourselves to achieve our goals (and is worth watching in its own right).  [And in any case, I always hold in mind Pasi Sahlberg’s thought-provoking line: “Accountability is what’s left when responsibility has failed.”]

Learning

Reading:

Read as many good blogs as I can; in particular, read every post by Joe Kirby, David Didau, Tom Sherrington, Alex Quigley, Chris Curtis and Laura McInerney – some of those who most consistently and most sharply influence my thinking

Read every book of edubookchatUK (the sterling work of Kerry Pulleyn); through this I have read three brilliant books which influenced me a lot last year: Switch, Practise Perfect and An Ethic of Excellence.

Read every book recommended independently by two great teachers.

Visit at least five schools during the year.

Visit schools in at least one other country.

Application

I’m particularly interested in prioritising refinement and practising until perfect.

Set monthly (or slightly longer) targets to deliberately practise skills – notably 1) refining classroom efficiency (next week), returning to sharing learning objectives, hinge questions and wait times and improving my practice.

Try at least two new AfL techniques.

Sharing

Blog weekly; publish nothing with which I am not content.

Respond promptly and thoughtfully to comments on the blog and emails.

Maintain and develop communications with the excellent teachers and educators with whom I’m in touch around the world.

Welcome those who wish to visit and learn from my school and department (subject to availability, terms and conditions apply).

Organise a teachmeet.

Limitations

I think I’m going to struggle with the hedgehog concept and cutting out what doesn’t fit within it.  What you choose to stop doing, Collins notes, is as important as what you do do.  My list fails to include many things I love doing – but which I’m not brilliant at and which aren’t such high priorities.  Will I be ruthless enough to stick to what I actually need to do?

And it remains to be seen how all this will work out.  I’d welcome your thoughts, suggestions and reflections.