10 posts

Conversations at the notice board

May 21, 2017

Just outside my office is the PE notice board. It is a blue felt board which is used for multiple purposes; fixture lists, principles of play, team sheets, games groups and PE rotations. It brings children from every year together, to talk about PE and school sport. A hive of activity and chatter every break, lunchtime and after school.

For a long time it bloody upset me. When I wasn’t running a session or having a meeting, I would be trying to eke out some admin work in the little time I had. Their conversations would distract me and I would find myself poking my head round the corner and telling which ever group of kids that were there. They got the message soon enough and left me to continue my work in peace.

I had more important things to do that listen to them talk. I had data to crunch and numbers to analyse, so I could provide an improved experience of Physical Education. Didn’t they understand that I was working hard to make things better for them? If only I could figure out what. I just needed to play around with the data and it would provide me with the answers.

One day I was going through the Year 8 end of year data. Again it was down on the previous year. More children were failing to reach their aspirational targets and more needed ‘interventions’. Take James for example. Level 2 for dance, gymnastics, rugby, football and cricket. Well below what was expected of him. I was staring at a mass of numbers, trying to work out what was wrong and what I could do to ensure this didn’t happen. My thoughts of what was wrong with James were rudely interrupted by another loud conversation at the notice board. I was getting out of my chair when I heard one of the group talk about their last lesson.

I sat back into my chair and listened. I listened to how cricket was boring because all you did was practice techniques and never play. I listened to how unfair it was that all the ‘good’ players got to play in the house competition and they never got a chance. I got to hear which teachers they liked or disliked and why. The stories they told about PE and School Sport provided me a wealth of information my spreadsheet couldn’t. I began to listen to more conversations at the notice bored. I heard about the good things we did and much of the bad.


It dawned on me that I didn’t really understand the problems as I was only looking at the outcomes. I needed to stop seeing James, and the rest of his peers, as just a numerical representation. To challenge my previous outlook and recognise that all behaviour is goal driven. If that is the case then we should seek to engage and understand people’s motivation. We can’t look to influence a person’s behaviour if we don’t understand the motives that drive it.

Christian Madsbjerg of ReD Associates, author of Sensemaking, believes we can reframe any problem involving humans as a phenomenon. This means observing human behaviour as it exists in social contexts, not in abstract numbers. It is a method that would bring PE Teachers closer to understanding the children they aim to support:

The methodology of studying human experience is not interested in what is extraordinary, but is ordinary and common for all (or most) of us. It isn’t about the “r2,” or the significant sample size. In fact, a relatively small number of people and their situations will suffice. These experiences should be collected and understood in order to fully see the patterns of behaviour we all share.

By not paying attention to what was being discussed at the notice board and focusing on the data I thought I was being more objective, more efficient and more scientific. However if we lose contact with the human perspective we limit our ability to geninuly understand ‘our world’ be that physical education, school sport or any other world that involves people. Listening to children talk at the notice board provided me with a wealth of data, through the stories they shared. About all sorts of experiences of PE and school sport, from the obscure to the profound. It provided me with an deeper understanding of the culture of PE and school sport that my department provided.

Listening to those conversations has allowed me to understand that one of the key reasons that children were withdrawing from school sport was not being used when picked as sub. I heard stories of being at an away match with only minutes of playing time, or cup fixtures where no playing time was given at all. I had the numbers to tell me that attendance was falling, but not the reason why. We are unable to get a deep insight into a culture if we don’t have a willingness to engage with it beyond decontextualised data.

I want to change my pupils behaviour and attempt to make movement meaningful for them so that they take responsibility for it. I want to provide them the tools with which they can use movement as a way of flourishing throughout their lives. Part of achieving that is by having a broader view of how I inform my practice with ‘data’ that includes qualitative insight about the experience alongside the quantification of outcome. By understanding their world and their movement culture I’m afforded the opportunity to make better decisions than just relying on partially constructed data that lacked the richness and colours of their shared experience of PE and school sport. The human factor is always the most important factor when it comes to making sense of any culture. If I could harness the conversations at the notice board and make sense of them as well as I can the data in my spreadsheet, then perhaps I might have a chance at helping my pupils change their behaviour for the better?

Poles Apart

Mar 29, 2017

In Complexity Thinking in PE, Richard Tinning and Anthony Rossi write ‘In the face of messy, unruly, boisterous classes of school children and the expectation to deliver predictable, explicit, educational outcomes, teachers of physical education are likely to reduce complexity and have their pedagogy shaped by more practical contingencies rather than by complexity thinking.‘ They certainly make a good point, one that up until recently I would have wholeheartedly agreed with. However what I find that a complexity view does do is remind us that things are interconnected and interdependent. It isn’t a practical tool, but potentially allows us to use the tools we already posses in different ways.

Most of my time as a PE Teacher or youth sport coach is spent solving problems and using my judgement to make decisions. How can I help motivate this child to move? How can I teach this piece of knowledge or skill? What teaching method is best suited to this context? Should I remain quiet or should I step in with feedback? There probably isn’t a moment of the day where I’m not having these sorts of questions pop in my head. For many years I have sought to solve them much like a GCSE PE exam question; with the ‘right’ answer. We are seduced ‘with a search for certainty and a belief in the existence of identifiable causes to identifiable effects, when in reality such predications and certainty rarely exist. This mechanical view does not lead us easily into exploring interrelationship, co-evolution, dynamic flow, the emergence of the totally unexpected, collapse, the ways different factors interact — or give sufficient consideration to the distant future or the role of the past.

But many of these questions are not really problems to solve in the traditional sense, but are in fact polarities. The world of PE and school sport seems to be made up of unsolvable polarities and they are rampant everywhere you look. Mind or Body. Winning or Participating. Silence or Teacher Talk. Direct Instruction or Guided Discovery. Competition or Cooperation. You find them in every thought we have, in every discussion we engage and in every decision we make. We treat these questions with simple answers, but in doing that we may end up leaning too heavily to one side or another. Embracing the excesses or extremes of that polarity. Barry Johnson, creator of the Polarity Map, suggests that you cannot solve polarities. You can only manage them. A metaphor that Barry Johnson gives of this is breathing. Which is better for us, inhalation or exhalation?


The first step is to notice when you have a polarity and not a problem at play. These are issues that are never solvable in any way that could truly last. By understanding the paradoxes that exist in PE, perhaps they may help us to make better decisions for the children we are responsible for. One personal example of that for me is coaching sports through techniques or through games. At the beginning of my career I was taught that the former was the best way forward. Recently my experiences, reading and discussion with other professionals have made me question that position. I have started to swing towards the games centred approach. However surely both combined will outperform either alone? Living at one pole or the other narrows our thinking and therefore our practice. By accepting a polarity we can begin to see the upside and downside of both poles, allowing for informed judgement and decision making. Fighting against what Johnson calls ‘tradition bearing’ and ‘crusading’ patterns of behaviour. By seeing and feeling all sides of a situation, we can participate in a healthy dance between them. Preventing us from rushing to be ‘right and certain’ but towards being ‘accurate, whole and complete’. Seeing things as polarities, where both sides impact on each other, allows us as PE Teachers to take greater account of our context and our particular community. Giving us the freedom to seize opportunities and to be adaptive to the needs of our students.

By existing between the two poles we may find something richer and deeper than just a simplistic reductionist answer. In Simple Practices for Complex Times, Jennifer Berger and Keith Johnston suggest we should think of the space in-between any polarities as a dynamic wave. Something we should be surfing all the time, not something to try and build on and stay put. You’ll never solve a polarity, just as a surfer never solves a wave. They just stay on top of it as it shifts and changes, matching their weight with the rhythm and the force of the wave. ‘People love surfing waves. We could love surfing polarities, too, if we could just recognise the ride for what it is and learn from the mistakes we make.’ It reminds me of some wisdom that Jorge Carvajal once shared with me on twitter the more “mature” I get, the more I look to just get out and surf vs looking for the perfect wave of my youth. Perhaps it is time to embrace the polarities in our subject and ride the waves that come our way.


Feb 5, 2017

Homeric Hymn to Hephaestus (Greek epic C7th to 4th B.C.) : “Sing, clear-voiced Mousa (Muse), of Hephaistos (Hephaestus) famed for inventions (klytometis). With bright-eyed Athene he taught men glorious crafts throughout the world,–men who before used to dwell caves in the mountains like wild beasts. But now that they have learned crafts through Hephaistos the famed worker (klytotekhnes), easily they live a peaceful life in their own houses the whole year round. Be gracious, Hephaistos, and grant me success and prosperity!”

myfastestmile is dedicated to a more humane and bespoke way of helping others to be their best. One of our defining principles is that betterment is achieved through patience and a willingness to developing craftsmanship, rather than short cuts, interventions and quick fixes.

Our lives are fragmented and we have no time. Everybody is looking for shortcuts or the latest hack. Love life? Tinder. Master a skill? Do it in 20 hours. Take Yeovil Town to the Champions League on Football Manager? Use the editor. Read a book? Blinkist. Write a Christmas card? Send a WhatsApp message. This mentality is seeping into every aspect of our lives, including teaching and coaching. Learn to teach on the job in nine months then move to Senior Leadership in three years. Immediately become a high performance coach straight after a career in professional sport. Teaching and coaching are fundamentally about helping making other people better. Learning to do this can’t be done via shortcuts. It requires a willingness to be patient, to take your time and have a deep desire to develop your craft.

Once craftsmanship used to be lauded, but perhaps no longer? Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin in their book, The Neo-Generalist, remind us that the journey to being a master craftsman from apprentice has a deep heritage. In Medieval times, professions had a guild to ensure that all who aspired to that profession were properly trained, passing through the three stages and experiencing the roles of apprentice, journeyman and master. We all want to be a master in our chosen craft, but no one wants to go on the journey to get there. “Journeymen were both students and teachers. They learned by doing and showing, challenging mental models through their actions. The journey was to be undertaken for the expansion of knowledge, cultural awareness and experience…” I agree with them both that there is much modern society can relearn from the concept of the journeyman.


We are in thrall with the new and the quick fix. Even in love we desire the immediate passion of ‘true love’ that never fades. The flashy and sudden thrills of an affair, rather than the predictable warm glow of a steady relationship. Jonathan Haidt in the Happiness Hypothesis describes two loves; passionate and companionate. Passionate love is the love you fall into. It is fire in the heart, but like all fires it will eventually cool. If the metaphor for passionate love is fire, then for companionate love it would be vines. Vines that grow together, supporting each and eventually becoming one. It is the affection we feel for those with who our love is deeply intertwined. This metaphor can also be used for the journey to craftsmanship and the deep intertwined relationship the professional has with their craft.

Developing craftsmanship relies on a continuing deliberate involvement. It takes many years of practice and reflection for the complex skills needed for teaching or coaching to become so deeply engrained that they are there, readily available, tacitly and self assured. The master craftsman is driven by curiosity, investigating slowly, and always prepared to learn from ambiguity. However has the journey that is needed for craftsmanship to emerge been eroded by the introduction of performance management targets and key performance indicators? Do these metrics mean that there is no place for the craftsman’s subtle “interplay between tacit knowledge and self-conscious awareness” in the relentless and ruthless Fordism of the current teaching and coaching profession? Richard Sennett is his excellent book, The Craftsman, makes the case that such quantitative driven environments result in the “lost spaces of freedom“. These spaces in which we can make the journey to craftsmanship, experimenting with ideas and techniques. Risking mistakes in the process and losing ourselves in our practice only to eventually find a better version of ourselves to help others.

Ron Berger in the Ethic of Excellence says we can pay no higher compliment than describing someone as a craftsman. ‘Someone who has integrity and knowledge, who is dedicated to their work and who is proud of what they do and who they are. Someone who thinks carefully and does things well.’ Homer in a hymn to Hephaestus, the Greek god of craftsmen, celebrated craftsmanship and its power to promote the common good. Craftsmanship and community are inseparable. There is a reciprocity between craftmanship and community. The community is enhanced when there is a greater level of craftmanship within a certain domain, such as teaching or coaching. Therefore as a community we should be both demanding and valuing the individual pursuit of craftsmanship in the classroom and on the sports fields. Surely we want more of those who embrace the journey and the long road to nurture and understand their craft, not those who seek a destination or reward soley through shortcuts.

This blog was previously published on drowningintheshallow

the bunker

Jan 12, 2017

I’m sat around a table, in what can only be described as a bunker, somewhere in Birmingham. Around me, talking animatedly, are the guys from myfastestmile. I sit back in my chair and listen to their stories. Stories of discontent with sport, with learning, with the system. “The system is broken”. “Sport is becoming morally bankrupt.” “There is a pursuit of self glory and promotion over helping people to be their best.”

This is at the heart of myfastestmile’s purpose. Helping people to be their best, but doing that in a different way. By taking a different journey, one greater than just focusing on wins, medals and hitting key performance indicators. A journey based on capacity building. Building social capacity, cultural capacity and human capacity. Doing that without taking short cuts and without asking people to just survive and be less like themselves. A journey that is unique, bespoke and celebrates the wonderful certainty of uncertainty in life, not one of mass production.

How have I ended up sat around this table? It started by standing around another table in a coffee bar in Marlow on a dark November evening a little over a year ago. To get to sit at that one you had to tell a story. The story I told of a Sam was my first step on taking that different journey. At the end of the evening I was sat around the table with more questions and no real answers. I think that may have put others off who were searching for simple solutions, but there is no one size fits all recipe for the pursuit of betterment. So I kept coming back, each time being another step on the journey. With each step I didn’t find answers but I began to question my beliefs, my values and my purpose as a teacher and coach. I saw that there was a different way, a more humane way, a more caring way:

  • A way that focuses on people, not on prizes.
  • A way based on dialogue and questioning rather than monologue and answers.
  • A way based on emergence and adaptability rather than one of mechanical efficiency.
  • A way based on humility, embracing uncertainty rather than guaranteeing a predictable outcome.
  • A way of patience and deeply developing craftsmanship, rather than of short cuts, interventions and quick fixes.
  • A way that sees the deep interconnectedness with the environment, rather than a souless, decontextualised assembly line.
  • A way that looks to surf and learn, rather than live at the poles.
  • A way of embracing multiple perspectives, rather than the ‘best and only way’
  • A way based on values and principles to shape the direction rather than of KPIs and metrics to dictate the end point.
  • A way where the story of the journey is just as important as the destination.

I have found that is a journey I’m willing to take. Not just in my professional life as a PE Teacher, but in my personal life as well. I look forward to my next step on the journey with myfastestmile. It isn’t a journey about being able run your fastest, or win golds, or meet your targets, although that could very well happen. At it’s very essence the journey is about being better. A better version than you are now, by committing yourself to a challenge beyond your current capability. It is by taking the steps on that journey you will learn more about yourself. It is by knowing yourself you then have the potential to become better. The failure or the success of the challenge is not important, it is the willingness to embrace the challenge in the first place.

myfasestmile don’t want to break the system they want to build something new that would replace it. Something that is fit for purpose. Something that is human, personal and direct and puts people at the centre. Are you ready to do your fastest mile?

The Overview Effect

Andrew Gillott

Dec 23, 2015 

“So, my first memory of opening the hatch and looking down at the planet that’s moving five miles a second was ‘holy mackerel! This doesn’t exactly feel right.”

can’t help but be excited by the story that dominated British headlines last week and I’ve enjoyed watching Tim Peake talk about the six years of training he has undertaken in order to first reach the International Space Station and then subsequently live there for 6 months, before making the perilous journey back.

Amongst the excited chatter, there has been a lot of talk about how astronauts have a habit of appearing ‘changed’ when they come back to Earth. Frank White’s The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution presents interviews with 29 astronauts and explores the profound affect that space travel has had on their perceptions of themselves, their world and the future. The Overview Effect is seeing the Earth from space, a tiny, fragile, vulnerable bauble. White illustrates the astronauts’ “…cognitive shift…” and suggest that when they next walk amongst us they do so with an “…altered point of view about possibility…”

“…It sort of reduces things to a size that you think everything is manageable…. All these things that may seem big and impossible … We can do this…”

Iwork with coaches. It was pretty full-on last week and involved a lot of watching, listening to, filming, asking about, challenging and supporting coaching practice with a background hum of space travel on every social media and news channel that I accessed in my downtime.

I’ve made some interesting connections.

“I had been well briefed on what to expect…But no one could be briefed well enough to be completely prepared for the astonishing view that I got.”

First and foremost, The Overview Effect is an interesting example of the behavioural change we see as a result of experiences; a change that I am yet to see in coaches as a result of simply knowing. It’s significant to me that a simple online image search will uncover hundreds of millions of images of Earth from space. I expect that six years of NASA briefing is… thorough, and yet nothing was able to prepare these astronauts for the reality of their experience.

“Intellectually, I knew what to expect. I have probably looked at as many pictures from space as anybody…so I knew exactly what I was going to see…. But there is no way you can be prepared for the emotional impact… It brought tears to my eyes.”

The Overview Effect is also about seeing things from a new perspective; in a different context; from a position that throws what was thought to be known in to fresh relief. Regrettably, I can’t fire coaches in to space (for once, budget isn’t the limiting factor here) but I can help establish some criteria and frameworks against which these practitioners can reflect, review, evaluate. It is these points of reference that give purpose and direction to deliberate, iterative practice. Create the conditions for Overview, perhaps.

“I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”

Space exploration is to some degree about mapping the unknown. I like this a great deal as a metaphor for the sometimes fumbling, sometimes strident steps that those with whom I work will take in their developmental journey. For certain, no map exists for us to accurately reference progress against. It is always uncharted territory. Liminal borders are reached without warning. Safe lands for some feel threatening to others.

“Maps help only in known worlds- worlds that have been charted before. Compasses are helpful when you are not sure where you are and you can only get a general sense of direction.”

Clear criteria and frameworks for reflection and sense making provide a means to understand the changing landscape, and a tool for “…navigating by means of a compass rather than a map.” In turn, we are able to navigate further from our point of origin and toward another, where practice can be seen from a different perspective; with new context; perhaps like we could almost reach out and grasp it.

Hurst, D. K. (2002). Crisis & renewal: Meeting the challenge of organizational change. Harvard Business Press.

Weick, K. E. (2012). Making sense of the organization: Volume 2: The impermanent organization (Vol. 2). John Wiley & Sons.

White, F. (1998). The overview effect: Space exploration and human evolution. AIAA.

loud- QUIET- loud

Nov 5, 2015

“Falling silent should be cultivated, the way the woods fall silent in the snow. Messages you can’t send any other way can be heard.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about silence.

I think this started when compiling my contribution to the playlist for the recent #relearn event. I was taken back to my days of editing albums and the painstaking- even agonising- process of first arranging songs in their final order and then negotiating exactly the right amount of silence (or occasionally lack of silence) between each track. The silence provided the segue from one emotion to the next, priming the listener, creating context and dynamics. It was a slow process, prone to last-minute revision but when it was right, everyone just knew it was right. The silence had a remarkable, transformative effect on the sounds that preceded and followed.

The internet is full of questions regarding the removal or standardisation of gaps between music. Auto-crossfades. Drag-and-drop pauses. There is an app for it. This is a space in which sound holds primacy.

Generally, I think that it is the pauses that provide the context in which stories emerge and from which they are understood. Pauses allow us to construct meaning, make sense, engage and collaborate with the storyteller. Pauses are the fertile voids from which non-verbal dialogue emerges and monologue is transformed. I feel that it’s during the silence in someone’s story that we hear ourselves. As such, I expect that everyone experiences silence in a different way and so silence holds meaning.

“He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”

These thoughts reinforce my belief that dialogue is a most powerful mechanism for deep reflection and learning. Perhaps in the past I considered the words spoken to be the mediators for change but I’m now thinking about words as hand-claps in an empty room — creating a purpose and energy to the silence that follows one word and precedes the next. This is my thinking out loud.

“Music is the cup that holds the wine of silence.”

One of the tracks I selected for #relearn was John Cage’s 4′ 33″. Cage created a piece that would be constructed from sounds that are not produced as a result of musicians following the instructions of the composer or conductor. Rather, a spontaneous, human, complex palette of sound emerges from the affordances created by the space in which the piece is performed. 4′ 33″ is music. And it’s also about music.

I talked with Uppy about this. He recognised Cage’s creation of a space for independent, self-directed and self-organised performers. A composer uniquely interpreted by the conductor, once again by each musician in orchestra and from which new meaning emerges.

“…try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

I’m disappointed with myself for making a last-minute revision. I bottled it. I removed Cage’s silent composition and chose instead a more conventional performance (by Cage standards) with Takehisa Kosugi and pals. Simply, I think I feared providing our guests with a silent backdrop. I imagined and feared the music falling away and conversations becoming loud-QUIET-loud, foregrounded and unaccompanied. Unconducted.

Other words by: Phyllis Theroux| Elbert Hubbard | Robert Fripp | John Cage