Post #11 – How I Work

Lost time is never found again.

Benjamin Franklin

It’s been a while. I seem to be more focused when I write, but given a significant change in role in the last couple of years and a complete re-jig of my life outside of school, it’s been difficult to get into the habit of writing regularly outside of my Schools Week gig. Things have settled down these days, so I’m going to get stuck in again.

One of my favourite articles to read if Lifehacker.com’s ‘How I Work’ series. I used the template in the early years of my blog to learn about how Maths teaching experts like Jo Morgan, Ed Southall and Ben Ward dealt with their daily working lives. This time round, I’m using this to breath life back into this blog…

Location: Barnsley, South Yorkshire
Current gig: Vice Principal at Horizon Community College
Current computer: Dell PC at school, iMac at home.
Current mobile device: iPhone 6s – 3 years and still going strong! (may be an inadvertent kiss of death)
One word that best describes how you work: Determined.

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I always wanted to work in education, but started out with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Sheffield Hallam University and experience in rail before taking the plunge with a PGCE at the University of Manchester. After a formative experience starting out as a teacher of Maths and ICT in Derbyshire, I returned to my stomping ground in South Yorkshire with various middle leadership roles (mainly as a Subject Leader) before moving on to working at two schools in the Dixons Academies Trust. I assumed my current role at the end of 2017 and haven’t looked back since.

What are your job responsibilities?

Vice Principal for Raising Achievement. I am responsible for Curriculum and Progress, amongst many other things. Basically, I need to make sure our students are studying the right things whole college, and following the right courses in KS4.  As well as this I have to make sure we’re putting all the processes in place to support our students do the best they can, whatever their circumstances, interests or abilities. With 2000 students in our care that’s a big ask, but it’s an enjoyable one.

Take us through a usual workday.

I get up about 6:15. After getting showered and dressed, I have breakfast – usually porridge and a decaf coffee – and then I’m usually greeted by the sound of my darling daughter waking up. After spending a bit of time with her and my bleary-eyed wife, I head to work. My epic commute of about 10 minutes is soundtracked by a podcast. I like to get my day in order – clearing e-mails, getting my to-dos up-to-date, printing lesson resources (I still teach) before getting stuck into the meetings, duties and teaching that takes up my day. Lunch is normally something carb-laden but I’m trying to address that. I’ll normally have a line management meeting where I make an effort to focus on their development and not so much on admin! Otherwise, it’s a case of balancing strategic planning and implementation and the whirlwind of daily college life. Through the day I bounce ideas and next steps off my fellow senior leaders, a few of whom I share an office with.

What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?

A notebook, my iPad and a cheap pen. I lose nice pens.

What’s your workspace setup like?

At work, I have standard issue Dell desktop with a dual monitor set-up. I’m often looking at Excel spreadsheets on one and planning documents on another.

What’s your favorite shortcut or hack?

I don’t really do hacks anymore, but if this counts I love a checklist for a process. Particularly big ticket things like Options or Exams window planning. Oh, and mindmaps. I love a mindmap.

Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place.

I only wear white shirts with a suit for workwear. It saves having to coordinate.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

It used to be on a notepad, but I’m trying to embrace the world of OneNote to centralise my thoughts, resources and to-do list.

How do you recharge or take a break?

Spending time with my family, watching University Challenge or reading. We have just bought a hot tub and I regret nothing.

What’s your favorite side project?

Writing!

What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is my daily reader at the moment, our students read it for GCSE Literature, and I like to be aware of what they need to deal with. I’ve also got Boys Don’t Try by Pinkett and Roberts as my continued research book, and I also have a third book on the go via Audible, which is You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Tom Sherrington.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Work hard, and be nice. Hard to argue with it.

What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?

How to stop saying yes to people. I love to help, but it can be burdensome…

Aside – I’ll take my £2.3 million now, Mr Hinds

“The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee.”

Frederick Winslow Taylor

HOW MUCH???

So the government is employing consultants costing £2.3 million pounds to help schools cut costs. The faux-outrage over this is understandable at first glance, the irony of spending money with the aim of saving money is not lost on some. However, I don’t think this is a ridiculous idea.

To get a measure of how much this actually costs schools, let’s take a common cost to schools, work out some potential waste costs and then extrapolate that wildly across all schools. Bear with me here, and this is only for secondaries, but you’ll get the point. All data is from the most recent DFE statistics.

Let’s look at photocopying.

  • It’s far from outlandish to suggest on average, a student is provided with at least 1 A4 sheet of freshly printed material per lesson.
  • The average secondary school has 948 students;
  • Working on a waste of 1% per lesson (which I reckon is low, but is absolutely feasible – just think of the people who print 30 copies when they only need 28) that means that per period, about 9 sheets of A4 paper get wasted;
  • A standard school week is between 25 and 30 periods – let’s go for 25, so that means 225 sheets of A4 paper get wasted per week: that IS low – but let’s keep on with the numbers;
  • Accounting for double sided, colour print, colour paper, I think it’s safe to go with an average cost of about £0.04 a sheet, equating to £9.00 a week wasted.
  • Approximate length of a school year is 40 weeks, so we’re looking about £360 in wasted photocopying a year, a significantly low estimate for those of us who are boring enough to know about the things.
  • Now, there’s about 3500 secondary schools, by my calculations that means savings of £1.26 million. Adjusting for primaries, independents and special schools and you’re looking at £2.6 million.

This is just photocopying. Hell, get more staff to print two to a page at least. But this deflects from my point – the cost of these consultants is absolute peanuts. I’m more angry about Crossrail not being ready until next Autumn and I don’t even live in London*.

Speculate to accumulate

The word efficiency seems to instil a sense of dread in public service circles, but the fact is that, as the above example demonstrates, we can be our own worst enemy, and it takes external sources to make that clear.

Also, in any business or industry it is far from out of the question to invest costs in projects to change how operations function. Otherwise you’re relying on those who operate in the status quo, who can’t see the wood for the trees. This is not an advocacy for consultancy – far from it – but just as teachers have learned to bypass the educational gatekeepers and learn from each other (e.g. cognitive load, classroom management, resource sharing, etc), then maybe we can do the same and help each other to deal with costs too.

Hang on…

“But shouldn’t the government invest properly in education in order to solve the financial issues that schools face?”, I hear you all cry…

We can only hope. But then it’s the hope that kills you, as they say.

* – and why would I? It’s busy, loud, and smells.

Aside: Twitter, I hardly knew ye

“Distracted from distraction by distraction” 

T.S. Eliot

For the past six months I’ve had a Twitter ‘sabbatical’. In no particular order, here’s why I was so involved with Twitter:

  1. Fear of missing out. I liked to be ahead of the game in terms of knowing what the latest edu-trend was, and how it would give an edge in terms of student performance;
  2. Being part of a ‘thing’. I felt I was a conduit for key educational trends and had a responsibility to share them with my fellow teachers (yes, yes, I know), something particularly important outside of London and the other big cities;
  3. It’s easy to get into a good educational debate. I’m not what you’d call a keyboard warrior, but I do like discourse and Twitter is a quick and simple way of doing so.
  4. I started to get a ‘profile’. I have been lucky to present at MathsConf, ResearchEd and be interviewed by Craig Barton, and it’s pretty much down to my sharing of ideas via Twitter (and I like to think a modicum of professional success), and I’ll be honest, it’s quite an ego-trip.

Now let’s rebut each of the above, one at time, as a result of my 6 months ‘off’ (inverted commas for a reason, I’ll get to that).

  1. Fear of missing out. I’ve missed out on nothing. Thanks to keeping up with what Tom Sherrington, Schools Week, Craig Barton and others have curated via their platforms, I’ve still been able to have an eye on what’s coming up on the rails.
  2. Being part of a ‘thing’. There’s nothing wrong with paying it forward, but being narcissistic enough to believe you’re at the forefront of an educational vanguard simply for reading a few tweets is problematic.
  3. It’s easy to get into a good educational debate. I still get into educational debates. The difference is that they’re face to face, and the social nuance and contextual understanding is better grasped as a result.
  4. I started to get a ‘profile’. Again, more ego stroking. I began to invest a lot of personal time into the whole conference thing, outside of what is a very busy professional life. Yes my ego was getting stroked, but I get more enjoyment from quality time with my family.

So, as a result?

  1. I’m no longer trying to get a drink from the informational fire hydrant that is Twitter. I still post a bit, and I do have a look from time to time (hence the inverted commas above), but I take a lot more care, and it’s less of a crutch.
  2. I’ve unfollowed a significant number of people because the informational flow was too much. My following list is more people who contribute, rather than simply retweet or post inspirational quotes.
  3. I’m less anxious about ‘not knowing’. I do believe that knowledge is power, but some knowledge is more powerful than others, and there are people better able to find that knowledge than I have the time to.
  4. I can act on ideas better. I don’t flit between concepts any more, and I’m less prone to dropping projects before they’ve got off the ground. I think my creativity is better.
  5. My ego is addressed in more meaningful ways – family, working hard and playing hard.

Will I jump back feet first into the Twitter pool? No. Will I continue in staying on the wagon regards social media? We’ll see. Either way, I’ll tell you this, I haven’t missed it.

 

Post 10: Tackling Shallow Work #3

Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.

Cal Newport

This post is a part of a series on how Deep Work can be employed as philosophy of effective leadership in schools. Cal Newport’s book of the same name is the source of the ideas elaborated here.

In my previous post, I explained how in some cases, it is necessary to carry out shallow work in order to necessitate opportunities for deep work. However, I also used the analogy of a lever to show how the amount of shallow work required to facilitate deep work has to be carefully applied. In the last of my posts on the notion of shallow work, I want to explore this further to look at how we can tackle shallow work by considering the difference between necessary shallow work, and unnecessary shallow work. Let’s start with the latter.

The quest for the holy grail

Textbooks are back in vogue these days, and rightly so. To paraphrase Eric Ries in The Lean Startup, they’re good enough. As long as they’re well chosen, a textbook will serve 90% of the need for practice exercises and supporting notes. As I moved into departmental leadership, textbooks were taboo – handing the textbooks out was apparently synonymous with holding students back and lack of engagement. As we know now, engaging, enjoyable lessons are not a function of a resource used, rather, it’s a function of the quality of teaching and learning. Planning good questions, exposition and routine makes a lesson worthwhile, and yet teachers are still hooked into the cycle of searching for resources when planning lessons. This is unnecessary shallow work: it’s a disproportionate amount of time searching for perfection when good enough will do.

The best thing to do is to have a few ‘go to’ sources; as a Maths teacher, the CIMT website, CorbettMaths, and Dave Taylor’s Increasingly Difficult Questions are constants. I rarely look past these, as they’re good enough (actually CIMT is THE BEST). It’s my teaching that makes the lesson better.

The power of collaboration

I have written extensively about how ICT is not a panacea for teaching and learning: the false dawn of the interactive whiteboard is a case in point. Has the interactive whiteboard improved my pedagogy? Probably not. However has it improved my utilisation of resources? Absolutely.

However, the continued growth of collaboration software, and the development of collaborative functions of applications such as Microsoft Office has potential to address the workload problem that schools face. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Telephone

Try a centralised telephone log. Pastoral teams often get parents contacting school regards students for a variety of reasons. Admin staff will understandably direct emails to a group distribution list for a pastoral team, which can then result in an exponential growth of emails as ‘reply all’ conversations take place over who is going to follow up the contact, what’s going to be said, etc. Before you know it 10 parent contacts = 60 emails = a swath of shallow work. Even if you don’t need to reply, the emails still need to be parsed and deleted. Instead, one central contact log – shared in the organisational cloud, referred to as necessary – allows a team to track what contact has taken place, who is leading on it, and also ensures that nothing gets missed. It’s all too easy to lose track of urgent situations in a plethora of minor email follow up.

One central spreadsheet, that everyone has a link to. Creating the spreadsheet is necessary shallow work because it doesn’t require deep work, but is resultant in shallow work being reduced long term.

Round robins

Often staff will be asked to contribute to a round robin report on a student, for a variety of reasons. Here’s how this often plays out:

1. Member of staff sends out the round robin document to the teachers of said student.

2. Teachers reply, creating ~10 new documents for the originating member of staff to compile and make sense of, or…

3. Even worse, some staff are delayed or forget to reply, meaning key information might be lost.

4. Originating member of staff doesn’t have the full picture, and has to chase up, or is overwhelmed by volume of information coming back. More shallow work.

Solution? One central round robin, shared via one link to all staff involved. One document to monitor, no compilation required, easy to track what’s missing. Shallow work significantly reduced.

Conclusion

Schools are notorious for many to one communications, particularly via email where one question is asked and a multiple email thread rapidly generates. The telephone log and single round robin documents are very simple examples of addressing this, and I’ll continue to explore and share other methodologies of reducing shallow work in schools by initial investment in necessary shallow work.

Post 9: Tackling Shallow Work #2

If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.

Cal Newport

This post is a part of a series on how Deep Work can be employed as philosophy of effective leadership in schools. Cal Newport’s book of the same name is the source of the ideas elaborated here.

In my previous post, I identified, at a school leadership level, how automation and reduction can be applied to shallow work.

There is also another dimension to this. Are there examples of shallow work that are necessary? Absolutely, and for good reason.

Fail to prepare…

One of the most significant lessons I learned during my time at Dixons Trinity Academy was the importance of routines for students. However (and this took some time to truly embed in my brain) it’s not as simple as just sticking to the routine lesson in, lesson out. If you want a routine to work, you need to be absolutely explicit of what you expect of students for them to be fully successful in meeting that routine. Let me explain.

During the last two weeks at Horizon we have a ‘rollover’, where Y6 moves up to Y7, Y7 to Y8, etc. The reasons for this are numerous, and the benefits equally so. I have a new group that have significant individual needs and I’m not afraid to say that this will be a challenge for me, but one that I’m relishing.

Anyway, through conversation with key staff and their previous teachers, I learned that in the main, this group want and need familiarity and routine. However, as I say, the lesson I’ve learned is that making this happen is not a switch you can just flick.

So, for the past two weeks, I’ve been explicitly demonstrating and getting students to follow everything I want them to do in terms of routine – entering the classroom, five minutes of reading at the start, how to do the connect activity, even to the point of preventing students showing me anything on whiteboards until the on-screen timer beeps to indicate their time is up!

In fact, early on, I’d say that in an hour’s worth of lesson, 50% of that was dedicated to developing these routines. The relatively low cognitive impact of these activities certainly fits into Newport’s definition of shallow work, but, there’s a rider to all of this – and I’m sure you can see where this is going.

By lesson 4 or 5, the level of explicit instruction on the routines was cut significantly, because the routines were beginning to embed. Don’t get me wrong, it was far from perfect, but the fact that during the 5 minute reading phase and the connect phase of the learning you could hear a pin drop in my classroom meant that something profound had happened: the initial effort of properly executing the shallow work of implementing routines meant that over time, the capacity for deep work in the classroom (you know, actual teaching and learning), was greatly increased.

The lever

Actually, it’s not as easy as saying shallow work was necessary to enable deep work. In fact it’s slightly more subtle than that. The necessary shallow work was actually thought about (a deep work process) before execution. It’s not as simple as ‘do some shallow work and deep work will come later’. It’s like a lever. We all know that a lever allows us to shift greater loads with proportionately lower effort; however, an understanding of why that works that allows us to use a lever optimally. A crowbar is a great lever, but would you use it to open a paint can? For example, do we need to explain to Y11 students how and when to turn to a new page in their books? Perhaps we do!

There is an ideal type of shallow work – initial effort that lowers the need for future effort. However, this initial effort needs careful planning in itself. In my next post, I’ll explore this latter point further.

Post 8: Tackling Shallow Work #1

…[The reality is] that deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, that in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving…

Cal Newport

This post is a part of a series on how Deep Work can be employed as philosophy of effective leadership in schools. Cal Newport’s book of the same name is the source of the ideas elaborated here.

In my previous post, I identified that to tackle the problem of shallow work in schools, we have to identify ‘hornets’ (as defined by Joe Kirby and Tim Brighouse) and tackle them through one of three ways:

  • Reduction – if the hornet is necessary but can be redesigned, or over time could be something than can be elimnated;
  • Automation – if the hornet is necessary but can be taken out of the hands of staff without negatively impacting the school;
  • Elimination – if the hornet is, in actuality, unnecessary.

Choices, choices

In my new role, I’ve been tasked with the responsibility of coordinating the choices process for GCSE options. Students choosing GCSE options can be a lengthy and drawn out process; from providing the information, the choices evenings for parents, getting the forms out to students, giving students and parents time to discuss and finalise choices, students remembering to bring forms in to school, chasing up students who’ve not submitted/lost/want to change their forms…

It can be a wasteful process:

  • Firstly the forms themselves: hundreds of bits of paper, that are often incorrectly completed, needing replacing, etc.
  • The time it takes to complete the form, if mistakes are made or changes required.
  • The time it takes to process the forms: take the form, input the data from the form into some form of spreadsheet/database/MIS, check the validity of the data.

In other words, this was a whole ton of shallow work – “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks”. Hence reduction, automation or elimination of said processes would be beneficial. So, I thought about doing it differently.

  • I wanted to maximise the time students had to think about their options. Discuss them with parents, form tutors, subject leaders and make a better set of choices as a result. This is where the value lies.
  • I wanted to minimise processing of the data. We’re a school of 2000 students. We have Y8 and Y9 making choices this year. That’s 800 students’ worth of data to process. Let’s say that takes 2 minutes a time to input into the aforementioned spreadsheet/database/MIS, then that’s nearly 27 hours of inputting to take place, or about 3 working days. That’s a significant amount of time. It will also need processing again when the timetabling of options takes place.

How could I make this happen? Automation. We have use of the Frog VLE system, and our Assistant Principal for Teaching and Learning had set up a form on the VLE for choosing workshop sessions for an upcoming INSET. This was the model I was looking for. All students have access to the VLE at home or at school, and as such I could set up a form on the VLE for students to input their options. What did this mean?

  • All paperwork eliminated. Distributing, explaining how to complete, and taking in 800 forms takes time. No paperwork, no time lost to logistics.
  • Problems with submission reduced. It takes seconds to complete the form. The VLE form can’t be lost, either. This also reduces the amount of chasing of forms (how many are laid dormant in students’ bags, bedroom drawers, etc).
  • The data is valid, instantly. By controlling what students can choose, it solves the problem of validating what students have chosen.
  • Processing time regained. Data submitted via the form is recorded instantly. The dataset is then exported directly from the VLE in a form that can be imported into the MIS. That’s 3 working days reclaimed.

What does this mean? As the processing time – the shallow work – is reduced, the choosing time – the deep work – can be increased. More time to promote subjects, more time for discussing choices, more time for finalising options… you get the picture. Not only is this shifting the work from shallow to deep, it’s also a lean approach. Quality improves, waste is reduced, costs are cut and time is saved.

In my next post I’ll explore the idea that in schools we have quite a lot of necessary shallow work, but we should look to reduce it…

Post 7: Shallow Work

This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant).

Cal Newport

This post is a part of a series on how Deep Work can be employed as philosophy of effective leadership in schools. Cal Newport’s book of the same name is the source of the ideas elaborated here.

In my previous post, I defined the difference between Deep Work and Shallow Work. As a reminder, Cal Newport defines Shallow Work as:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

In his blog post, Hornets and Butterflies: How to reduce workload, Joe Kirby borrows the term Hornet from Sir Tim Brighouse to categorise high-effort, low impact ideas. Kirby defines a series of these:

  • No graded or high-stakes observations
  • No performance-related pay or divisive bonuses
  • No appraisal targets based on pupil data
  • No individual lesson plans at all
  • No expectation of all-singing, all-dancing lessons
  • No starters, plenaries, group work, attention grabbers, whizzy/jazzy nonsense
  • No cardsorts, discovery activities or flashy interactive whiteboards
  • No writing, sharing or copying learning objectives or outcomes
  • No extensive photocopying of worksheets
  • No shoe-horning of IT into lessons
  • No mini-plenaries or checks on progress within a lesson
  • No labour-intensive homework collection, marking or chasing up
  • No unnecessary manual data input or entry
  • No unnecessary paperwork
  • No labour-intensive written ‘dialogue’ marking
  • No time-wasting, temporary display
  • No split timetabling
  • No long-winded written reports to parents

N.B. I’ve underlined what Newport would define as Shallow Work. Note the amount of resources and time expended on these examples!

Now, Kirby had an advantage in being able to make these calls because the school he is employed by, Michaela Community School was in its infancy and did not have GCSE results to focus attention on – instead, they could experiment with what made a difference in workload without negatively impacting on students’ learning. Making these calls in established schools with long embedded hornets is a big challenge. The reason for this stems from the negative impact ‘big call’, step changes can have in a school. As I outlined in Post -1:

small actions via the controller stage place low stress on the process and create feedback that is easier to determine and measure

In addition to this, there can also be self-generated inertia due to understandable vested interests and the fear of moving into the unknown. No-one wants the consequences of a negative OFSTED inspection or a poor set of GCSE results. Rapid change is rarely good.

Rather than deciding not to do a whole tranche of hornets in one go, instead the goal here is to pick one or two, confirm why they’re hornets, and define what actions can take place:

  • Reduction – if the hornet is necessary but can be redesigned, or over time could be something than can be elimnated;
  • Automation – if the hornet is necessary but can be taken out of the hands of staff without negatively impacting the school;
  • Elimination – if the hornet is, in actuality, unnecessary.

We have a responsibility to the people we lead to ensure that they are dedicating their cognitive resources to what truly matters in a school: what will improve the life chances of students in our care. By tackling Shallow Work first, we can create greater potential in order to make that happen.

In the next post, I’ll give an example of how Shallow Work can be converted into something more useful. Stay tuned in.