“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify … into every corner of our minds.”

John Maynard Keynes 


Knowledge is power, without doubt. What is an education if not the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. And yet, we should be mindful of the rather counter-intuitive possibility that our rich wealth of knowledge may inhibit our future performance in ways we don’t quite expect. Whilst proving essential, our ample knowledge may actually close us down to opportunity and we may get stuck doing things as we have always done them because our prior knowledge provides the only ‘answers’ we can see.

Take this simple question from Gary Klein’s ‘Seeing What Others Don’t‘:

“Two men play five checker games, and each wins an even number of games, with no ties. How is that possible?”

What answer did you come up with? It is a seemingly impossible question, right?

And yet, step back a little and consider a likely assumption: did you have the two men playing one another? Remove this barrier and you will find the answer then becomes rather easy.

This effect – known as the Einstellung effect– was first demonstrated in an experiment by Abraham Luchins back in 1942, when with a simple puzzle using jars of water, people exhibit the phenomenon of being unable to think through a problem by thinking beyond their first ‘answer’. This fixation is alive and well in every institution and it contributes to a natural culture of conservatism, avoiding finding alternative solutions to common problems. It is so damaging because it is programmed into our thinking, but it is pretty much hidden from our view.

I begin to consider significant changes in my thinking that has occurred over the past few years when exposed to new, different ‘answers’ to some well-worn problems in school. Two topics immediately spring to mind: lesson observation grading and assessment without levels. My approach to these topics has transformed over time, but how I arrived at new answers for these ‘problems’ followed a similar process.

The process followed something like this –

  1. The Committed Stage. Given we do anything in school with the purpose of doing it well for our students, I was committed to undertaking these problems with hard work and effort.
  2. The Awakening Stage. This stage reflects my emerging dissatisfaction and sense of there being an actual issue at hand. Not easily recognizable at the time, this stage was characterised by listening to complaints and sensing my own grumblings.
  3. The Challenge Stage. This stage was characterised by being exposed to the evidence and hearing from highly respected voices whose opinion became lodged in my mind, seeing me seek out further knowledge and lifting the lid on alternative solutions.
  4. The Attractive Alternative Stage. Of course, without a viable alternative ‘answer’ then dissatisfaction is forced to linger. With the experience of forming a viable

What does this look like given those two aforementioned examples? Akin to most teachers, I had spent years chasing ‘outstanding gradings’ and feeling pretty confident in my own judgment of others. My ‘Committed Stage‘ with regard to lesson observation gradings saw me invest a great deal of effort into being good at grading the lessons of my colleagues and in grabbing some gradings of my own. Any rejection of the notion that lesson gradings were inaccurate struck me as sour grapes.

With exposure to a growing critique of OFSTED lesson observation gradings on social media, I began to question the efficacy of the whole notion of accurate grading, or the value of grading at all. My ‘Awakening Stage‘ was slow and influenced gradually, but even still, I still believed that my judgments could trump OFSTED. Then I read this simple distillation of the problem by Professor Rob Coe, entitled ‘Classroom Observation: It’s Harder Than You Think‘ and the ‘Challenge Stage‘ was quickly upon me. I followed the evidence leads on that blog and beyond and my faith in lesson observation gradings was irrevocably broken (even my judgements, dear reader). Quickly, led by a head teacher with enough confidence to buck the status quo, I was able to experience an ‘Attractive Alternative Stage‘ of seeing lesson grading quickly removed.

With the removal of national curriculum levels, my personal journey followed a similar trajectory. I had led KS3 English back in the day, and in an attempt to impress, I have gobbled up the APP frameworks and similar and attempted to best apply them. My ‘Committed Stage‘ was matched by my ambition to do a good job for my colleagues. I did the best I could with levels and I thought they worked just fine for a time.

Once more, my ‘Awakening Stage’ was a slow burn, characterised by frustration and a nagging sense of the ineffectiveness of levels. Why were my level 7s so radically different from secondary schools down the road, or why couldn’t primary or secondary teachers ever agree upon a NC level? I then read Ron Berger on ‘An Ethic of Excellence‘ and it struck me that NC levels didn’t add much at all. My ‘Challenge Stage‘ once more came when bona fide experts voiced the limitations of levels. I listened to Tim Oates on removing levels and heard Dylan Wiliam talk about the potential damage wrought by focusing upon grades when giving feedback on learning. This chimed with my intuition that students never really grasped the rubrics we used, no matter how ‘student friendly’, and that, ultimately KS3 levels were for adults and not benefitting the learning of my students at all.

Once more, the ‘Attractive Alternative Stage‘ was shared on social media. My own thinking appeared to chime with other respected teachers, like Tom Sherrington and his blog on ‘Defining the Butterfly‘, returning once more to Ron Berger’s butterfly metaphor that informed his ethic of excellence. The evidence stacked up, but crucially, it also offered the potential for better answers.

Quite clearly, escaping the potentially limiting effects of our old ideas requires support. It requires the support of a network of voices, or ‘critical friends’,  that will offer alternative answers. Without a viable alternative, dissatisfaction lingers and frustration abounds. For me, it was crucial that I was exposed to a serious wealth of evidence to help challenge my habitual thinking. Helpfully, I was also working in a school whereat there was the freedom to consider and then pursue attractive alternatives.

Our capacity to shift from doing what we have always done will not likely prove a eureka affair. Instead, it typically happens in stages, most often slowly, and it requires crucial support factors. With a recognition that better answers are usually available, we can go about creating the conditions for us to overcome the potential limitations of our old ideas.