Guest Post: Blinks: the power of thinking without thinking

Roy Blatchford writes about a distinctive model of externally supported self-evaluation…

 

I am an admirer of Mark Twain’s observation: ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead’.

As a teacher and headteacher I regularly urged others to adopt a ‘less is more’ approach when committing words to the page. Master storyteller Roald Dahl is the model.

And these numbers tell their own story:

  • The Lord’s Prayer – 54 words
  • The Ten Commandments – 297 words
  • The American Declaration of Independence – 300 words
  • The EEC Directive for exporting duck eggs – 26,911 words

When, as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI), it came to writing reports on schools, I became convinced that fewer, well chosen paragraphs proved more useful to school and college leaders than pages of descriptive prose.

 During my time as an HMI (2004 -2006)), I led the pilot inspections of good and outstanding schools as part of the Proportionate Inspection Project (PIP). I realised then how very good inspectors working with excellent headteachers could come to reliable judgements about provision and outcomes in a short space of time.

On its publication in 2005 I read Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal book Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. Its central argument is that someone who is very knowledgeable in a given field of human endeavour (‘10,000 hours of purposeful practice’) can very readily distinguish between excellence or poor performance – in the blink of an eye. Just occasionally they get it wrong, but most often they get it right.

Over the past fifteen years I have been involved in education system improvement in the UK and in different parts of the world. I have taken the spirit and philosophy of Blink into settings from New York to Abu Dhabi, Pune to Geneva, Singapore to Southampton.

What is a Blink?

  • Blinks offer a distinctive approach to reviewing and reporting on education settings: nurseries, schools, colleges, university departments. It is a model which promotes robust, externally supported self-evaluation. 
  • Blinks celebrate what is good and great in a setting, identifying sharply how practice might be enhanced.
  • Blinks offer high quality, precise and engaging feedback to teachers and support staff.
  • Blinks value what colleagues are doing and motivate them to do even better.

 AND…….it is all a matter of trust. It is the external reviewer’s key responsibility to earn the trust of those s/he is working with for just a day or two. Earning trust does not come easily. But where all parties are willing and open, it is remarkable what can be established in a very short space of time. 

Fresh eyes on familiar settings

The review/blink process aims to get to the heart of a setting, capturing students’ lived experience. Central to this are the fresh sets of eyes that external, independent, experienced colleagues bring. Most of us, over time, can become almost blind to our everyday surroundings. It often takes an outsider to point out an important plaque which is hanging at an angle, a notice-board with two-year old notices, or a broken paving stone as you enter the main reception area.

Importantly in classrooms, outstanding practice in one classroom or lecture theatre may almost be taken for granted by leaders and is thus not sufficiently shared with other teachers. Or tired everyday routines in another seminar room are just that – and are in need of an urgent refresh.

It is a hallmark of high performing schools and colleges that they promote the ‘fresh eyes’ approach as a key element in staff’s professional development. 

One of the key skills excellent reviewers bring to their work is their ability to help those observed ‘climb inside the skin of the observer’. If you are a hotel inspector, the moment you walk into assess the quality of a bedroom suite you know what you are looking for. Or you are a car mechanic and can recognise in an instant that a certain engine noise means a particular fault is in play. Or you are an eye surgeon and can spot, at a glance, the symptoms of a detached retina. 

Another key reviewer skill is the ability to ask great questions, with a smile. It is worth challenging orthodoxies, if only to find out why some things are orthodox. School leaders and teachers enjoy explaining why they do things the way they do; and are equally interested in listening to suggestions for different ways of doing.

Great questioning requires keen listening, quick thinking, and skilful orchestration of follow-up questions: why, how, where, when, what – the familiar litany.

Feedback

At the end of a day or two-day Blink, a well organised feedback session is an integral part of the process. Carefully agreed with colleagues beforehand, and depending on context, the feedback can take different formats:

  • to the group of teachers/lecturers whose sessions have been visited
  • to a core or extended leadership team
  • to a group of governors/trustees
  • to a group of students and teachers
  • to the Principal.

Flexibility on behalf of the reviewer is essential as s/he is serving the setting in order to help develop everyday practice. Any feedback is to achieve this improvement purpose.

As with the whole Blink process, how oral feedback and ensuing discussion takes place is as important as what is communicated. Comfortable messages are easy and important to give. The real skill lies in giving the occasional uncomfortable message in such a way that these who are listening will act upon the advice. High quality oral feedback should be fun, engaging and concise.

Enabling teachers and leaders

A key goal of the successful Blink process is to train colleagues to be able to carry out similar styled reviews in their own setting or in partner schools, colleges and university departments. It is inherently difficult to bring ‘fresh eyes’ to your everyday setting, so working outside your own classroom or department is recommended.

I have trained up hundreds of teachers and leaders over the past fifteen years to conduct Blinks. Feedback from them has consistently been one of professional pleasure, testifying to real impact on school development and improvement.

For further details about Blinks see www.blinks.education

Roy Blatchford’s latest collection of essays ‘Success is a Journey’ is available at the John Catt Educational bookshop.

 

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