I came into teaching through coaching sport. This certainly influenced the way I taught and, as a school leader, influences the way I approach teacher development and school improvement.

I intend to write in more detail of the similarities between schools and sports teams, teachers and athletes. But for now I want to point out one important difference between education and sport that dawned on me while reading Matthew Syed’s book, Bounce:

Sport is, to use the jargon of economics, a zero-sum game: if I win, you, by definition, lose.

To modify an example that Syed uses to explain what this means, suppose that I am a top sprinter and I adopt an innovative practice that reduces my time by 10 per cent. When I run my next race, I will beat most of my competitors. This is good for me but bad for them. My relative position has improved, but at their expense. The net ‘benefit’ across the group is zero.

Now suppose I am a sprinter and all of my competitors join me in adopting an innovative practice that reduces all of our times by 10 per cent. Our relative positions in the next race will be precisely the same as they ever were. The net benefit, once again, is zero.

Top level athletes will do anything to improve their performance. Trying new things might not always lead to improvement but, importantly, they are prepared to take the risk. Athletes are constantly striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it, falling short again and again. In this sense, an athlete’s progress begins with a step outside of his or her comfort zone and in a zero-sum game like athletics, success also depends on secrecy.

Education is not a zero-sum game. Education is a game where everyone can win simultaneously. If all teachers adopt an innovative practice that improves student outcomes by 10 per cent, the gains to society are huge. And while success in education does rely on innovation, secrecy kills it. Success for everybody in education depends upon innovation and collaboration.

If we make the positive presumption that teachers want to innovate and collaborate and school leaders want teachers to innovate and collaborate, who is at fault when neither is happening? I believe that before pointing fingers, we should take a look at the systems in which teachers are expected to innovate and collaborate in – especially teacher development and evaluation systems.

Bill Powell and Ochan Kusuma-Powell’s excellent book, Teacher Self-Supervision: Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it, lists 11 faulty assumptions that underlie the traditional practices of teacher evaluation. Two of these assumptions stood out to me again as I flicked through this book recently:

  1. Student learning can be reduced to a behavioural formula that can be implemented mechanically by the teacher in the classroom. There is one best way to teach and we can evaluate performance accordingly. What is the point of innovating if we are going to be evaluated on how well we do something that has been prescribed for us? Why take the risk?
  2. Trusting relationships are nice, but not essential to high quality learning. Truly meaningful learning takes place within relationships. Traditional individualized teacher evaluation systems isolate teachers.

I am not saying that school leaders believe these assumptions to be true. I certainly don’t. But school leaders do need to be cognizant of them to ensure that teacher development and evaluation systems do not propagate a ‘play it safe and keep your head down’ culture. No-one ever changed the world by playing it safe and keeping his or her head down. And while professional athletes have a higher profile from which to make a positive difference, teachers taking a punt and working together would make a much bigger difference to the students that they teach.