Alec talks to Dr. Simon Breakspear about how he developed his “Teaching Sprints” program, and the intellectual journey that got him there.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: One of our mantras that I’ve always kept saying to everyone who’s helped me on this is, if it doesn’t work for teachers, it doesn’t work. And we just kept saying, if it doesn’t work for teachers, it doesn’t work. Rather than correcting the teacher, oh no, you’re just going to do it this way. Like if it doesn’t work for teachers, it doesn’t work. And that’s really been a really guiding principle, and I think it’s got us to something that is elegantly simple.
ALEC PATTON: This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton. And that voice was Simon Breakspear. I first met Simon in London a decade ago. At the time I was working at a nonprofit called the Innovation Unit. He was researching international education policy at Cambridge University.
Since then, he’s moved back to his hometown, Sydney, Australia, and started two programs. Agile School Leadership, which is a 12-week program for school leadership teams who want to get better at improving their schools. And Teaching Sprints, which to quote their website, support overloaded educators to continuously enhance their expertise.
This episode is all about teaching sprints. I wanted to talk to Simon about them because of my interest in continuous improvement. See, much like Australian and American plants and animals evolved along parallel but distinct lines, teaching sprints and continuous improvement have a lot in common, but with some interesting distinctions.
Now before we get started, I need to give you a content advisory. There’s no swearing in this episode, but Simon mentions the names of a bunch of education researchers and reformers from around the world and mostly he doesn’t explain who they are. You don’t need to know who any of them are in order to follow the episode, but if you want to learn more about them, you can find information about all of them in the show notes.
To understand where teaching sprints come from, we need to go back to Simon’s first job, straight out of university:
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: I started teaching in 2008. And I was a high school science teacher.
ALEC PATTON: In Sydney?
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah, in Sydney, Australia. So I had already taught fulltime for about 3 and 1/2 years, and then I got the opportunity to begin my master’s in the UK. So I took off and started studies in comparative and international education.
And then, went in and did my doctorate after that with a focus the OECD’s PISA benchmarking. And so I was just trying to get my head around what good system change might look like and what were the characteristics of, at that point, what we might have called high-effective education systems.
ALEC PATTON: So what happened to that half year?
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: The UK university calendar, when I was starting up at Oxford, that was in October, so I had to say goodbye to my year 12 cohort at that point, and there’s still another teaching term left in Australia, but I had to hit northern hemisphere for the start of their university term.
ALEC PATTON: Got it. So what is the Australian school year?
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: We go late January, basically the first to Feb., all the way through to about mid-December.
ALEC PATTON: Right, of course you do.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah, we’re strange down here. Southern Hemisphere. It’s how we roll.
ALEC PATTON: This is not going to be a basics of the Australian school year. But actually one thing I’m interested in is the typical trajectory of the ambitious young teacher who wants to have an influence on systems is school leadership, that kind of direction. And you didn’t do that.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Well, that was the plan. That was my kind of theory of action. Lead a series of schools over a career and hopefully influence multiple thousands of students over that time. And then I started to realize, well, just like school leadership was so important for the functioning of teachers– you know you need that enabling culture and leadership– well, so, too, system leadership is so critical to schools.
And I think at the original part, I was idealistically optimistic about this idea that, hey, what we could do is get the system levers, or the system policy, right. And then we’d create this enabling system and sort of get uplift at scale. And that was really exciting to me, the thought that we may not be just working one school at a time or just a small cluster of schools at a time.
That say in my home state of New South Wales here in Australia we have 2,200 schools. And so you can’t solve that problem by leading one school at a time. And, I think that led me to start to think about what type of system solutions there might be.
ALEC PATTON: I feel like this– it may just be because I was starting the Innovation Unit at a similar time, but it really feels like there was something in the water in the UK and maybe elsewhere as well at that time about this very optimistic idea about creating the levers and the structures in a sort of non-autocratic way to enable system transformation. Does that ring true? That was like a–
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Oh yeah. I was drinking that up. You know I was in the UK at that time, particularly say, 2010 onward. You know our mutual friends, people like Valerie Hannon, Tony Mackay. They were leading the work.
Michael Fullan out of Canada had some success in Ontario, maybe not like an innovation transformation, but they had data around improvements in graduation rates, around equity. You know there was this sense of these stories of sort of maybe we could get serious uplift.
Even Michael Fullan at the time wrote a paper called, “Whole System Reform Comes of Age.” That was when I was at Oxford and then Cambridge and kind of lapping all this stuff up. And really thinking about maybe it was possible for these systems to go on these type of improvement journeys and then, potentially even improvement transformations. And I think that discourse really changed way back into kind of an improvement discourse from about 2015 through to COVID, actually.
And then now, people, given this external shocker, I’m sensing this language again around whole system transformation but this time driven by an external shock, rather than, at that time, it was a sense of maybe there could be an internal catalyst for this type of work.
ALEC PATTON: So you have this year in the UK, and you were living in the UK.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah. They let you live there, too. Yeah. I wasn’t just flying back and forth across the world from Sydney to London just to catch a lecture and then heading home. Yeah, so I lived in Oxford for a year, and I lived in Cambridge for four years.
And during that time, I was the worst student going around. I almost never turned up. I was just using the PhD as the most flexible day job I could find to pursue these interests, like trying to work out like, can you get can you get a grip on large-scale reform. And so I spent some time at the OECD, a couple of months in Paris there. Ended up doing my doctorate on PISA and trying to understand what people like Andreas Schleicher and his team at the OECD could really derive from that whole system data. This is the time when Shanghai topped the PISA tables, and people started to think about educational rankings again.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: So the OECD is an international organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It was originally set up to distribute funds from the Marshall Plan, but it has become a think tank of rich nations. So all highly developed countries are a member. They pay a certain amount a year. And it does a lot of economic analysis, health analysis.
And they had a small education division that has slowly grown. And then, they were having this challenge about working out, not just the inputs to education in the late ’90s, but what were the outcomes. And so they came up with this idea of having an assessment in the program for International Student Assessment, where they would have an assessment for 15 year olds that would be comparative across different countries.
And so the first results came at 2001, and that’s when Finland did really well. And that’s why we’ll talk about Finland. But no one really ever talked about Finland in education up until that point. And it happens every three years, and we get another round of results.
And I would say, as someone that was also trying to understand, not just education in the OECD world, but also education where the majority of young people are, which is obviously in the Global South. When you go into the development literature, there was also two camps at that time as well. And one of the camps was the Jeffrey Sachs kind of camp, which was with the right investment in the right place, we can get this absolute rapid uplift in human development.
And others who say, look, we want it but it’s super complex. And, I don’t know whether there’s any top down large-scale solutions to this. And maybe it’s actually about mobilizing a lot of local energy and local solution funding. But there’s not top down solutions.
And so, I was starting to map in that even though we use different language, there’s a lot of people trying to solve complex problems. And I sensed, at the time, there was both early on a real optimism around large-scale system change in all these areas. And then I think as that waned a little bit, people either went into a camp which was kind of, ahh, it doesn’t work, or they started to say, well maybe there is a system play here but it’s not a system of solutions but a system of solution-finding processes.
And that’s where I’ve landed at the moment. That my theory of action is you can get to large-scale change. We might be able to, but the answer isn’t to kind of find the answer somewhere else and then share that with everyone who hasn’t yet got it.
But actually to share solution-finding processes, such that people can, yes, base their ideas on the best available evidence, but go on an adaptive implementation journey to try to work out how to make what work in that context.
And that’s at the moment where you’ve got me in this part of my life phase. That’s my current theory of action. So from teaching in the classroom, to thinking I would try to lead a couple of schools as maybe a school principal, to then thinking, well, maybe it’s working at a minister level or chief state superintendent level to try to get those shifts, to now thinking, well you can still work at scale, but it’s not about scaling up the solutions, but it’s actually about empowering more people with solution-finding processes.
ALEC PATTON: So what brought you back to Australia?
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Well, I mean one thing. My wife found out she was pregnant with our first child. I was actually moving to California. I was going to join an edtech startup because I think at that point, I was thinking I don’t think policy is the right lever here, so that’s a shame. I’ve just spent a lot of time thinking about this.
ALEC PATTON: The last page of your thesis? Well, this is a waste. I’m going to California.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: I don’t know if it’s a waste, but man, we need some intellectual humility around this. So I think I was heading increasingly with the view that you still needed to work at scale. The way of working at scale might increasingly be about empowering people with the right tools, the right research so evidence bases that could start as the best bets for your work, not the answer, and then network so that you could be embedded with both other schools and other knowledgeable others, particularly people like applied academics, who could support you and push you and be thought partners to you in your journey.
And so, yeah, I was moving out to California. I actually did for a month. My wife was still finishing up her teaching job in Cambridge and moving across, and we were about to move and she’s like, I think we might not be going to California. And yeah, we find out we’re have our little boy who’s now six. So we’ve had two since.
We came home basically because we said, look, we’re going to do family, let’s be back close to where we’re both from and our families are from. We made a decision purely on family reasons. And then I started thinking, Oh well, what am I going to do now? Am I going to go work for a department of education. Am I going to go back into the school?
Basically, I’m doing what I’m doing now because I got home in January, and nothing was open because it was summer holidays. And so I thought I’d better start doing some consulting work to fill in the gap until I could find a job, and I’ve just kept going, Alec.
So I never planned to set up my own organization and do this type of work at this phase of my career, but it’s been incredible to be able to try to follow this thought of, how do we develop simple-to-use tools? How do we make evidence available to the people who need it on the front line? And how do we connect them with other colleagues and other knowledgeable others to accelerate their work?
And look it’s not the full solution, but I’m pretty sure it can have an impact. And it also generates a lot of other insights that help me inform some government work that I do. About at least what not to do if you want to accelerate school improvement.
ALEC PATTON: So I can see the recognition of the limits of big-picture policy work and work at scale in education, but the piece that I’m missing is what led you to the concept of learning sprints as the area of focus?
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Sure. So we call them teaching sprints now.
ALEC PATTON: Teaching sprints?
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: You should use that. We changed the name about a year and a half ago.
Yes, so to connect the dots in what we’re doing. So I was back. I was starting to work with some smaller clusters of schools here. But one reoccurring problem over and over again, people were saying, look, you keep talking about what’s our mechanism for practice change or practice improvement. But to be honest, people say that our professional collaboration time is the slowest one hour in the fortnight.
And I wasn’t aware how bad it was on the inside, and how many people were going around with this rhetoric about how we do this collaborative approach and it’s so powerful, and we did this.” In schools teachers think this doesn’t work, I don’t like it, it’s not well-run, we don’t know what we’re up to, we’re not sure what we need to do next.
And so I saw these challenges, and basically, I was never going to build a teacher professional learning approach. I thought that solution set was already available. And it purely came out of supporting some schools who said, well once we’ve worked out what we want to improve, and we’ve worked out what kind of evidence-based could inform that practice, what are we going to do to get a practice change in the classroom?
And so I just saw it as a little project about four years ago or so. I should say when I was back in Australia I was actually going back and forth to Western Canada about four or five times a year. I had some good relationships in Alberta and BC and Ontario. And I was working with the Alberta Teachers Association, and they set up this network community.
I was inspired by some of Tony Bryk’s work around network improvement communities. This is back in 2016, some papers I’d read. And I thought, let’s set up one of these in and around teacher professional learning. And that was really the starting point of the model.
I had a friend in San Francisco who has an edtech company, Nelson Gonzalez. And he’d sort of been pushing me around short of cycles of work. This is the best callout. I showed him one of my early models, and he said, oh, Simon, this feels like it will never end. And I was like, thanks, mate.
Because all of improvement cycles and bloody education were always some circle or some spiral that literally never ended. And I said yeah, that’s the point. Continuous improvement. He’s like, that’s not how we do things in the Valley. We ship stuff. Like we get stuff out and done and it’s satisfying.
And so all credit to him and that coffee we had because he pushed me to think about the model. And that’s when I said, well, maybe I should pick up some of this stuff that I’ve looked at from a technology perspective and incorporate it.
So teaching sprints, Alec, is the lovechild of agile sprints, deliberate practice from psychology, and action research, or research-informed teaching practice. And I was kind of drawing on those areas to try to find a simple approach that would be doable for normal teachers, not just like the volunteer types, but busy people like you and me with young kids at home and stuff going on. What would be a process that would actually be doable, would be evidence-informed, and would allow people to make incremental progress that would add up over time. That’s what I was trying to solve for teaching sprints. I made a lot of mistakes over the years trying to make it work, and increasingly now we’re hearing from our partners in the field, and our co-design teachers that are saying, yeah, this works for us. It’s a good solution.
ALEC PATTON: So in your list of the multiple parents that it was a love child of, you didn’t include continuous improvement or improvement science. Did you kind of invent something much like continuous improvement on your own in parallel?
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Well, some of the early work of Tony Bryk, I think even when he was still coming across from Chicago, I kind of picked up around the concepts of networked improvement communities. But I hadn’t had any exposure at all to the idea of improvement science at the time. It was before he’d released the first book, Learning to Improve.
And I remember picking that up and going, oh, this is coming from a similar philosophical space here. When you start with an understanding that schools and school systems are complex adaptive systems, that improvement rarely linear. It’s often got elements that are unpredictable. There’s a lot of human agency in it. So as soon as you see schools and see school systems as complex adaptive systems, it pushes you into a camp of solutions that probably include everything from IDEO design thinking and human-centered design approaches of agile development, lean startup has deep resonance in this space, design implementation research, and then, of course, elements of improvement science.
And then implementation science, which is different. Implementation science is coming a little bit more strongly from a behavioral science perspective. Once you think you’ve got a solution, how do you get better uptake of that solution? So all of those kind of approaches to solving this similar problem which is, how do you get progress occurring in complex places? I think I’ve engaged with each of those in different times.
Teaching sprints first emerged four or five years ago in that work, and so, yeah, it was actually we were doing this work as, in the US, we could see some of that improvement science work starting to take off and spread. And so yeah, on the other side of the Pacific, there’s been some other people trying out some different ideas and landing in a very similar space.
ALEC PATTON: That’s really interesting. So let’s imagine I’m in the classroom. If I was going to be doing a learning sprint. First of all how would I know–
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: A teaching sprint.
ALEC PATTON: A teaching sprint.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah, well, do you want to know why we ended up changing? So I called it a learning sprint because it was about the teacher learning that could influence the student learning, right?
ALEC PATTON: Right, yeah.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: And actually one of the iterations of the name before that was an improvement sprint. And they were like, it sounds too negative. Teachers were telling us something needs to be fixed.
And we called it a learning sprint, but then what was happening is people were using it as a short cycle to superficially bump up student data. So they’d say, oh a learning sprint. Where’s a kid? I need to bump up their data. Oh, a four-week sprint to bump it up. And I was getting really worried about people misunderstanding that this was mostly about the teacher learning.
And so we actually, again, it would be absolutely from our design work with teachers. We sort of said well, what would make it clearer? And we tested this idea of what if we just call it a teaching sprint?
And teaches got it first time” “Oh, it’s about my practice improvement. Got it.” And so, it was painful but we changed the name.
ALEC PATTON: So I’m a teacher. I’ve called learning sprint. You’ve gently corrected me that it’s a teaching sprint. So you’re saying people are picking it up. And if I’m getting the authentic Simon Breakspear experience, has my school contracted with you? Has my district? How do I come in come in contact with you?
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Oh, OK. Well, I mean we built it as just an open source process. So it is just a process. It’s designed to be a very simple process, just three steps. You prepare a sprint. You run a sprint. And you review a sprint. And that’s by design because people need simple things that they can remember. They don’t have to refer back to the model.
You know that’s really, really crucial. So a lot of the time I might do it or a member of my team might do a quick kickoff keynote or so to introduce them to the main ideas which is about teaching sprints are first and foremost about getting better, that all of us typically reach a premature plateau in our expertise where we sort of land some way good enough.
And sprints is an approach to help all of us consider making small incremental changes in our practice that can add up over time.
We talk them through our three big ideas, which are about start with the best bets when you don’t have enough time. When you’re flat out, why would we focus our practice improvement on anything other than what the evidence is suggesting are our best bet for improving student learning? That if we’re going to improve, we’ve got to actually engage in practice. A real focus on practicing. And then, our third kind of design principle underlying it all is focusing on tiny shifts.
And this has been cool actually because the last couple of years, I don’t know if you’ve come across books like James Clear’s New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits, which is all about small incremental shifts. Or BJ Fogg from Stanford’s work on “tiny habits.”
And so it’s interesting. A lot of teachers have kind of overlapped with some of that thinking about small change adding up to massive incremental progress at the time and that’s always been one of our fundamental design principles for how we set it up.
So we kind of help them just understand that it’s just about improvement, that improvement off the evidence, and trying things out in the classroom and seeing what works. But then, we’ve got on the website, the process is there. There’s a set of videos that explain the process.
For the prepare meeting, when people are getting together to decide on their practice improvement area, we’ve got open source research that we’ve pulled from different places and a list there that people can choose from, and they say, hey, we wanted to do some work on say, retrieval practice and space review.
Or, we wanted to do some work on formative assessment. Cool, there’s some different research bundles here that have been written for educator audiences. We didn’t write those. There’s plenty of good people doing that translation work. And then we also have some protocols online, just simple ways of running that conversation to help you come to a decision about what you want to work on.
So wherever possible, we have it all open, and a lot of people can just get moving with it without engaging with any of our team. The majority of people would get moving on it without engaging any of our team. And then we’ve got a more detailed online course of just things that we used to do live in workshops. Now we’re basically trying to move entirely digital.
ALEC PATTON: So there are schools that are just kind of going, oh, I heard about this thing. That sounds cool and just doing it for themselves.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Oh yeah, everywhere. And the problem with that, Alec, is sometimes people don’t do all of the 21 minutes it would have taken you to watch five videos, and they jump on in.
And because they have some sort of preexisting mental model about what this thing is, and sometimes they head on and implement it in a way that’s not really aligned with what we’ve built it to do. But that’s part of the expectations of what happens when you make something available and open source and you’re trying to allow people to find it and have it go.
And so, you know we’ve got a book coming out December or January this year with Corwin. That’ll be an important piece for us, I think, to try to have more people hear it from the horse’s mouth, if you like, from our team, about the process and how it’s being built.
And we’re hoping the combination of having that book and then having some more detailed running teaching sprints videos that we can get to scale with a higher degree of fidelity to the model.
ALEC PATTON: Yeah. I mean it’s not like you wrote a book about yoga, some people would do Downward Dog really badly. That’s kind of baked into the nature of you making something available to people.
I don’t that’s any worse for what you’re doing than anything else and the of nature of sharing.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah. I think all you can do is make the model as simple as possible because obviously complex things don’t scale well. So that’s why I’ve got it right down to the core, three core phases, tools for each stage, super simple to get your head around.
So you know it’s probably only 20% of my life and work, you know, to be honest. It’s been a bit of an accidental thing that I was just trying to solve a little problem along the way with school leaders.
And it has emerged as something that has really resonated in the field. But, you know, we’ve just got a small little team of people who work on this kind of part-time in the edges and hopefully, over the next year, we’ll have even more resources available to schools who want to make it work.
ALEC PATTON: So what’s the first thing I’d do as a teacher?
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: I would encourage you to go, as a teacher, to go through the introduction to teaching sprints course, which is literally 22 minutes of five little videos. That would give you an overview of what it is, and what it’s for, and what are the three phases.
And then, basically, you’d head along to whatever the collaboration time you’ve already got if you are going to be doing it in teams. And that leader should walk you through a first prototype sprint.
If the school already has an area that it decided to work on, say something like formative assessment, then maybe that’s already decided. And there’s a couple of reference resources that have been printed out or digitally available, and we spend the first 20 minutes maybe doing a research jigsaw, where we just have a look at a page each and draw out some of the key implications.
Move from that to consider where there are points of challenge or points of resonance with our current practice. And then we explore together, well, is there something out of what we’ve been exploring here that we might want to actually take into some deliberate practice and some trying out in the classroom?
And we have a simple protocol called boulder, pebble, sand where we’re sort of saying, look, you can’t take on something that’s too big. You know, that’s a boulder- level practice change so how do we break it down into something that’s small and manageable technique.
And think about where you might want to practice that as a high school teacher. For example, I wouldn’t want to practice that in all my classes. You know, we’re trying to minimize, so we’re trying to make it more manageable. And so I might say, hey, I’m just going to do it with my year 10s biology.
And I’m going to try this formative assessment technique over the next two to three weeks.
ALEC PATTON: And once the teachers found an effective formative assessment technique, Simon wants to make sure it becomes habitual.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: The goal of every teaching spring is the enhancement of expertise adaptive expertise mean teachers are not just doing what they’re told but are making the right instructional decision at the right time to move their learners forward. And I say that because if you long for expertise in the classroom, then there’s a growth rate for that, and I don’t think you’re going to get the growth rate much quicker than what I’m describing.
If you want just kind of improvement theater, which is what I call when I see people, what? You want me to do a what? I’ll do a learning intention. All right learning intentions on the board or success criteria and then just carry on with the rest.
ALEC PATTON: This is what interests me most about teaching sprints. Although they begin with what Simon calls solution-finding processes, that don’t stop with the solution. They keep going until the solution turns into expertise.
To put it in cinematic terms, the teacher starts their teaching sprint like the NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures, drawing on existing research in order to find a solution to the problem of getting a space capsule safely back to Earth.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: The problem is when the capsule moves from an elliptical orbit to a parabolic orbit. There’s no mathematical formula that.
AL HARRISON: Maybe we’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Maybe it’s not new math at all.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: It could be old math. Something that looks at the problem numerically and not theoretically.
ALEC PATTON: So that’s how the teacher begins, but after a few years of teaching sprints, the teacher hasn’t just solved their problem, they’ve developed adaptive expertise.
So now they’re like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, a martial arts expert who, when someone unexpectedly throws a baseball at her head, from six feet away, slices it in half.
[SLICE OF KNIFE]
And this is important, because teaching requires excellent reflexes. Day to day, it’s a lot more like getting baseballs thrown at you, than it is like sitting down to solve a math problem. So if you want to help teachers develop expertise that they actually use when they’re making split-second decisions in the classroom, you need to reconsider where professional learning takes place.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: When I talk to teachers I often say, hey, when you hear the concept of professional learning what mental images come to mind. And they say things like, sitting in halls with like research-y people like you with PowerPoints.
Yeah, what else? You know, oh, being together as a group with some data wall up. OK, what else? Maybe a reading group or a PLC discussion.
OK, what else? And I said, do you ever think when you think professional learning or teacher learning, you in your classroom with your kids trying something out? Not really.
And so, we’re trying to bring the idea of practicing, and not trying to improve all of my craft this week because you can’t practice everything at once. So I isolate a piece. I try to get it a little bit better and then I try to integrate it back into my broader repertoire.
Whether on the basketball court or on the football field or whatever, that’s the way humans get better at things. And that’s true also, by the way, if you want to be a surgeon or you want to be a professional musician.
And so we’re just trying to bring this idea of practicing within the context of your classroom as a core part of professional learning to the fore.
ALEC PATTON: Yeah. You know when you watch a basketball team playing, they don’t all stop and look around and figure out where everybody is before they pass the ball as I would have to if I were on the court. Their sense of where everybody is and what’s happening and what they might be doing. And how they’re all going to respond. I mean it’s astonishing. And you don’t just get that. That takes a lot of time.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Well, that’s a good callout, Alec, because what adaptive experts are able to do as you just said, is that they’re able to perceive things differently.
When an expert basketball player or football player see something they are able to perceive everything in gestalt, in whole. They’re able to take in that information rapidly and holistically. Boom.
Or a chess champion, they’re able to glance at a board, and then you can ask them where are the pieces. And they know where all the pieces are, but you wouldn’t see the board of pieces. You would just see the one king or the one pawn.
If you were on a basketball court, you’d just see one player, or you’re probably just looking where the ball is. And so experts, they build up these mental maps whereby they’re able to rapidly perceive what’s happening, adjust action in real time, and increasingly, I think that’s the discourse we need to have about our expert teachers.
You know you watch an expert teacher come into a classroom they’ve never taught in, and they perceive it in gestalt. They can go, boom, I know exactly what’s going on here. They can look at a kid’s one writing sample and their brains already kind of making quick judgments about where this kid might be up to a what they might need next.
They’ve got this repertoire of potential lesson structures and tasks and they’re using it flexibly. Even if they have to do a cover class for a colleague, they can come in and pull off a pretty good lesson. And, you know, I think this idea of esteeming not just teacher commitment to students, and not just their experience, but also this notion of expertise is crucial to elevating the profession.
ALEC PATTON: And it isn’t just about developing new skills. If you’re a teacher take a moment to think of how many techniques you’ve learned, refined, and then just stopped doing.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: It’s amazing how many times people have said, oh, I kind of used to do that, but I kind of dropped it off.
ALEC PATTON: Yeah, if I could have had a month where I did all of the best practices that I ever picked up and forgot during the course of my career and none of the worst ones–
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: You’d be a killer teacher, exactly, right?
ALEC PATTON: Yeah, and that’s true of everybody. Everybody has, at some point, done everything they need to do.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah, we don’t have it all sorted, but our basic theory of practice improvement change is thinking about massive incremental improvement. It’s about saying, we often ask ourselves and teachers to change too much over too small a period of time.
So what happens if we just think a little bit more medium term, and say, well, look, what kind of teacher do you want to be in three years? Well, that’s OK so imagine in three years, you’ve got 12 terms.
In each one of those terms, we work on just one core sprint, which involves both the knowledge building, because sometimes you did some stuff but, you didn’t really have the underlying theory and understanding about why that is powerful for learning.
So you do a bit of knowledge building. You’d spend two to four weeks in the actual deliberate practicing within the classroom and that’s actually about giving yourself the freedom just to say look I’m doing the best I can everywhere else, but I’m literally trying to embed this practice right now.
I’m trying to find a way for it to be sustainable, to be incorporated into my typical repertoire. So you come out of autopilot. You’re trying to work on it, but then you want to work on it to the point you’re getting some fluency. It’s easier to keep doing it than not.
You review it. You kind of update some of your own mental models in thinking about it. And so you think, oh, it’s too small, Simon, We’ve got to transform learning now.
I’m with you, but you know we had teachers work through a process like that, and they did a small incremental high-leverage shift once a term, and they did it in such a way that they did habit change. Then in three years from now you’d be incredibly better at 12 things.
And of those 12 things, you know, if you’re able to sustain eight of them or so, Alec, you could have a serious step change in your capacity to cause learning. And I actually think that’s probably closer to the rate of change that we can expect in teacher capacity building.
And I think we dramatically overestimate how much change can be done in any one term. And we absolutely underestimate the radical shifts that could occur if we thought about two or three horizons and systematically changing and sustaining one thing a term.
So these are the kind of things that I’ve been exploring, and I don’t have all the solutions. And look I’m the first one to say, oh, but wait a second. If that’s the pace of change, Simon, how are we going to live out our moral imperative to change the learning lives of students, because if it takes three years to get this shift, some of the kids have already left the school. And, you know, I understand that logic.
But then I just have to look at the absolute failure of the way that we’ve done professional learning up until now and say, well, I agree with the moral imperative to make a shift soon, but what we’re doing ain’t working. So what would it look like to give ourselves this time horizon that’s a little bit more realistic in the short term that maybe we get that compounding effect?
ALEC PATTON: Yeah, that’s a really good way to put it. And I think the point of the moral imperative, it’s a very understandable idea that I think tends to do a lot more harm than good, about the we have to have it now or we’re letting these kids down.
It’s sort of like, you know, reforestation is one of the really powerful things we can do to mitigate climate change. And trees take a long time to grow. But the argument of, well, we need to mitigate climate change right now. Well the tree is going to take the time it takes the tree to grow.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah, good call. And it’s the same thing. If this is how long it takes to embed a practice like
ALEC PATTON: This, it just is.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: That’s exactly. That is the limiting factor. I love this metaphor of growth of a tree, because what does it take to grow expertise?
ALEC PATTON: And this brings us to what I think is the most radical part of Simon’s vision, one that flies in the face of almost every other education reformer you ever heard of. Here it is.
As far as Simon’s concerned, if teaching sprints require teachers to do more work than they’re doing already they aren’t fit for purpose.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: I want people just to turn up and do their job. And when they do that, the organization has been set up that they get this opportunity to incrementally improve something that matters every term.
And so if they spend two, three, five, 10, 30 years in your school district, that because they’re there, they will be a dramatically more effective educator. Some evidence, at least, suggests that after about five to six years, teachers’ rate of improvement and expertise, or their ability to cause impact in the classroom, begins to flatline. And basically, I put this at the feet, not so much of the educators themselves, but that we haven’t developed organizations that have taken the adult learning as seriously as the student learning.
ALEC PATTON: For Simon, taking the adult learning in school seriously has meant a lot of false starts and a lot of missteps.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: I would say to anyone out there thinking about trying to design a process or a tool that helps in the ground, just get ready to get it so wrong so many times.
And I think from the first model was five steps. It was called something different. And you’ve just got to keep being willing. And what’s the problem we’re trying to solve? What’s really working? What’s not working?
And are we willing to do anything from, yup, we’ve got to change the domain name of this one, to all right, we’ve got to scrap all of those printed versions of the process, because we’re being told no one’s doing that bit of it or they don’t understand that.
And so, there is this real thing that if you’re going to be outside of schools like at the moment, I am, that when educators say something, we’ve got to take it seriously. And I quote one of our mantras that I’ve always kept saying to everyone who’s helped me on this. If it doesn’t work for teachers it doesn’t work And we just kept saying, if it doesn’t work for teachers, it doesn’t work.
Rather than correcting the teacher, oh, no, you’ve just going to do it this way. Like if it doesn’t work for the teacher, it doesn’t work. And that’s really been a really guiding principle. And I think it’s got us to something that is elegantly simple, and I hope that’s one of the reasons why this thing is scaling so fast.
Without an organization, it’s just up on a website, and I put a little bit of time into it ever now and again, because we have a solution that I think is usable for teachers but it’s inherently adaptable as well.
And so that whether you’re a small little rural school with two of you there, or a huge, large high school in Hong Kong, places where you and I got to work once, that people can see this and then they do the adaptation in their context to make it work there.
ALEC PATTON: And you’ve got a book coming out.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Well, yeah, My dear friend and co-author Bronwyn Ryrie Jones. I was a high school teacher. She was a primary music teacher. She teaches at Melbourne University.
And so COVID was good for us because we had a little bit of a push of like, OK, we’re not traveling and in schools every day. And we sat down and finally wrote this thing up. So we’ve got a teaching sprints book coming out with Corwin in December or January in the States and Australia. We just called it, How Overloaded Educators Can Keep Getting Better.
And that’s what we’re trying to support here with this process.
ALEC PATTON: You are more open and direct about how brutally difficult teaching is than almost any other consultant I know. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired most about you.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah, well, I mean you can’t spend time with teachers– Well, one good thing, marrying a teacher helps. You did the same. They keep you honest and grounded.
But also this. The expertise literature has helped me here, Alec, because I always deeply respected the emotional exhaustion of being embedded in people’s lives and community in the way that teachers do.
And now, I am seriously convinced that the expertise that educators have, their ability to make real-time decisions about when learners are, and what they might need next, and adjust, is some of the most extraordinary expertise in the planet. It really is.
And I think the more that you start to get a head around what they are doing and then in a context that’s constantly moving and an embedded community context as well, it’s absolutely extraordinary work. And so for those of us who aren’t doing that work, I think we need to keep honoring that, and then we have to help them by creating processes that are simple enough to be taken up in that complex environment.
ALEC PATTON: Yeah.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: They don’t need to be simple because educators can’t get their head around them. Of course they can get their head around them. No, they need to be workable and doable where you take the conditions of their work as prerequisites to your design rather than coming in with something you’re pitching them on and saying oh, couldn’t you just do this then it would work? It’s like nope. Back to the drawing board for us on the outside of schools until we can get something right.
ALEC PATTON: Yeah. I remember in my first year, I had this moment where I was like, this is like being in a room full of Rubik’s cubes. And every time you make an adjustment to one, all the ones out of your eyesight are readjusting themselves.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Oh I love that. I love that. That is good. It is. Yeah, a complex adaptive systems, right?
ALEC PATTON: Yeah, and then also, I remember when I realized, oh, not only is this job really hard, but the mere fact that this group of students is excited has made this other group of students less excited.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: Yeah. And yet teachers, on a Friday afternoon at 2 o’clock in that condition find a way to catalyze learning. Right?
ALEC PATTON: Yeah.
SIMON BREAKSPEAR: And that’s extraordinary. That’s one of the things. There’s the relational side of things. And then there’s this whole thing of catalyzing learning and catalyzing human development. And it’s extraordinary.
And I think one of the reasons I want to keep getting, yes, into the practice of this, but also the research side of understanding what it is that expert teachers do and how do they come to develop the capacity to do that.
I think we need that as a way of being able to articulate to those outside of education how extraordinary it is that as much learning as does happen already does happen. And that teachers are able to actually do that kind of work.
ALEC PATTON: High Tech High Unboxed was written and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Hershel. You can find the teaching sprints videos, online classes, research bundles, and protocols at teachingsprints.com Really, there’s just so much good stuff on that website for free. Check it out. And if you want to know more about anybody we talked about in this episode, including Simon Breakspear himself, check out the show notes Thanks for listening.