Incremental improvement

Have you ever sabotaged a diet because of one small slip up? Maybe you’ve eaten well all week, but because you couldn’t resist a chocolate biscuit at break time you end up spiralling into skipping the gym that night and pigging out on a takeaway then crisps and chocolate. Does this sound familiar? Or is it just me who experiences this ‘all or nothing’ approach to dieting? ‘If I’ve had a chocolate bar, I may as well go the whole hog and really mess up my healthy eating with a McDonald’s as well!’ I must admit, for me this doesn’t just relate to dieting, often I adopt this ‘black and white thinking’ in life more generally.

As someone with traits of perfectionism, I’ve come to learn that I do an awful lot of black and white thinking. ‘If i don’t do this way, then this will be a disaster.’ ‘If I don’t get it right first time, I’ll never manage it.’ ‘If this doesn’t go well, there’s absolutely no point in me continuing.’ It’s taken a long time for me to recognise this and I’m only at the beginning of challenging my thoughts when I realise I’m using this filter. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t need to be ‘all or nothing.’ I’ve learned that giving up on your goal because of one setback, is like slashing your other three tyres because one got a puncture.

It can often feel overwhelming at the start of of new term or school year. With time to reflect during holidays or inset days on what needs done and what could be improved, sometimes it feels like it’s all just too big a mountain to climb. I often have grand plans of my ideals to improve this unit of work or totally overhaul a series of lessons which really need updated. Good teachers will reflect often and because they want to be their best, they will constantly look for ways to get better. This is a strength. But then term starts and the demands on us ramp up and just getting through a 6 period day is a challenge enough let alone making a start on development work. I tend to slip back into my black and white thinking and do none of it! Instead of making a start at developing something and chipping away at it gradually, I write it off completely. And no one benefits. I wonder how many teachers recognise this pattern.

I recently heard the very wise and sensible Mark burns @Thelearningimperative talk about the 1% effect and it really resonated with me. He refers to this in terms of incremental improvement within a school suggesting that we don’t have to do it all. 1% is better than 0%. If everyone in an organisation improves by just 1% then imagine the gains overall. And if I return to the dieting analogy, what is likely to have better results?! The quick fix dieting pills or the harder route of consistent healthy eating? Usually small, incremental steps applied consistently over time have more long term impact than a radical quick fix which might provide some impressive results initially but becomes hard to maintain.

So What if I took my own tendency for ‘all or nothing’ and instead, applied this 1% thinking. Aiming to improve by just 1%. Taking little steps, which over time will cover a huge distance. Starting small but growing big.

This past two weeks back at school I’ve been challenging myself to improve my use of digital technology to support learners. It might have been easy to write this off as too big a job. Too much of a challenge. But what if I tried to do 1% of it at a time? By seeing this differently, and realising I can do it in stages has helped me make big gains in the classroom. By being vulnerable, admitting it’s not perfect to learners, and by sharing with them that I’m still learning has been scary, but has taken a bit of pressure off. And the results have been reassuring – we learned together. Shared ownership and shared problem solving to get to a better solution. Slowly I’m building my knowledge of OneNote and transferring resources and booklets online to this digital platform. I don’t fully understand it’s possibilities yet but by taking it one step at a time and embedding each new thing I learn gradually, means I’m more likely to stick with it in the longer term. I think this applies to pupils and schools too. I wonder what developments might seem more manageable if we just focus on 1%?

Lockdown and blended learning has shown me what is possible when we really have to adapt in a short space of time. But I’ve also learned that it’s ok to step back and take a longer route to a different destination. Especially if it’s going to lead to improvement.

I love this quote by Mark Twain. ‘continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.’

This week I hope that we all remember our collective impact as teachers. Perhaps you might discover that even just 1% can make a big difference on the route to improvement. Have a good week everyone.

The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones. Confucius

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