‘Black box thinking is the willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit’ – Matthew Syed
‘I’m not very good at English. I failed me English GCSE last year’ – Lewis*, L2 Engineering and GCSE English resit student
‘They just don’t want to learn. They can’t be taught’ – Mrs Jackson*, GCSE Maths teacher
Above are three very different quotes from three very different people, in very different contexts, with very different life experiences. But something connects all three of them: they are all (in some way) reflecting on failure.
Before, during and after reading Matthew Syed’s book ‘Black Box Thinking’, it occurred to me that every improvement I have made in students, myself or as a leader has been through asking myself the question: ‘How can I be a more effective practitioner/ leader?’
The answer? Reflection. Nearly always, this means identifying mistakes or failures as early as possible and making effective (and usually subtle) changes. This is one of the hardest things to do – it is difficult to put in a 10, 12 or 14 hour day in a job you love and then admit: ‘I failed today’.
But, if we are to improve, this must happen. To become more effective, we must investigate the ‘why’. Thankfully, beginning this process is very simple. Below are some suggested ways of doing this:
Investigating the student ‘why’
Why did those students behave like that? Why didn’t that lesson work? Why didn’t they add that quote? We can either blame students/ colleagues/ schools, or simply admit ‘I got it wrong’ and find out ‘why’. Students see several teachers a day, every day – tap into their expertise. Ask them why the lesson didn’t work, or why they were unengaged. This is not to say students should dictate planning, but it is a starting point and gives a unique and valuable perspective.
The literary/research ‘why’
Read and research as much as you can. This doesn’t mean spending hours trawling through Google searches for research, or spending all day darkened book shops – create a Twitter account and add as many teachers, organisations, schools, CPD providers and publishers as you can. Develop a personal learning network and ask for recommendations. They will soon flood in and generate a rich and diverse personal library for you to navigate.
The peer ‘why’
Ask colleagues within and outside of your own department. Discuss this with staff at other local schools during hub meetings or teach meet sessions. Too often, this is dependent on the relationships you have with colleagues or embarrassment that you will be seen as ‘failing’. Don’t let this limit you. Try teaching triangles (three in a group, one observed by two colleagues, observers carousel) or informally dropping in on a colleagues lesson. Trade resources, ask colleagues to informally evaluate your resources, suggest CPD sessions ran by in-school specialists – use the resources and people you may overlook each day.
The self ‘why’
You’ve accepted that the lesson didn’t work. Why not try reflecting on how you would feel if it was you? Put yourself in your student’s shoes: how would you have felt if you’d been presented with that material or those resources? How would you have reacted? A simple way to do this is to film your lesson(s). This can be incredibly daunting (and a very cringeworthy experience on first viewing), but it will pay dividends. Again, you could do this in triangulation with two colleagues, but this can be difficult viewing at times! As a tip, it’s sometimes best to position the camera at the side of the room (where you are not always reminded of it, which will inevitably change your behaviour and manner).
The what next
Now, you can start crafting a bigger, better plan. Being able to effectively reflect is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching and pedagogy, but once you start the process, everyone involved will feel the benefits (as long as you delete those filmed lessons after you’ve watched them!).
*Names changed for anonymity