What do a corny Dad-joke and the British Cycling team have to do with teaching

** Dr Jenn Phillips, High School SRE Advisor, Youthworks**

If you, like me, have a creative bent, you’ve probably found that inspiration can strike in the most unlikely of places: I often wake up in the morning with a tune in my head that I’ve never heard anywhere before, and my most profound thoughts often happen in the shower.

With teaching, inspiration has struck me in two very odd places. I’ve found both of these have led me on a journey that has radically transformed my teaching practice and I hope it can help you, too.

The first is a corny old joke my dad used to say, and the second is the story of the British Cycling team. What do these two strange bedfellows have to do with teaching? Read on to find out!

(1) Start with Why – My Dad’s Corny Joke.

My parents tell me that when I was a young, inquisitive girl of around 3 or 4 years old, my favourite word (and one which I’d repeat ad-nauseum) was “why”. I’d like to think I was asking profound questions about deep things of life and the universe, but I was probably just as likely to ask why I couldn’t watch another She-Ra or Smurfs cartoon when it was time for bed.

Once my dad inevitably got sick and tired of my seemingly unending questions, he would stop answering and instead say: “because Y’s a crooked letter and you can’t make it straight.” Get it?

I’ll never forget how frustrated I would feel when my dad would say that joke whenever I asked a “why” question. I think that’s why the work of Simon Sinek has resonated with me. In 2009 Sinek gave a well-known talk where he explained that the best leaders don’t focus on what they do (for example, Apple sells technology), or even how they do it (the products Apple sells are stylish and desirable status symbols), instead, they start with their reason, purpose, cause or belief – their why (which for Apple is to “think different” as their slogan says).

Sinek claims that most people think about the world as a series of whats and hows, but he believes that the leaders of our world (the likes of Apple, Amazon and Elon Musk) stand out and succeed precisely because they allow their why to drive their how as they do their what.

What about us as teachers? It’s easy to think of our “what” as teachers – it’s to teach! Our training and experience have also given us a strong handle on our “how” - our methodology and pedagogy. But the “why: is harder.

Ask yourself: Why do you want to improve in your teaching practice?

Your answer will be different to mine of course. For me in my current role as High School SRE Advisor for Youthworks, I want to improve in my teaching practice so that I can lead other High School SRE teachers to create engaging, thought-provoking and stimulating lessons through which Bible truths are communicated clearly and effectively.

With my why clear, I can move on to my how. What about you? Why do you want to improve as a teacher?

(2) An example of How – The British Cycling Team

Let me be the first to admit that I am not a cycling fanatic – if faced with the choice between a good night’s sleep or watching the Tour de France on SBS, sleep will win every time!

I was introduced to the story of the British Cycling Team by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits. Clear chronicles the reversal of fortunes that the team undertook after David Brailsford became coach in 2010. Before Brailsford took the job, the Brits had never won a single Tour de France, and their stocks of Olympic medals were anemic to say the least. But by 2012, not only had Brailsford led the team to victory in France, but they took home 70% of the medals in the London Olympics.

How did he achieve such a feat?

Brailsford’s approach was called the “aggregation of marginal gains”. Simply put, if you regularly, routinely make small improvements, over time the increases in performance will compound. For Brailsford and the cyclists, the results were obvious, the means were less so. The obvious things were optimised: nutrition, the team’s training regimen, and all parts of the bike – seats, chains, grips, tires. Less obvious optimisations included the type of pillows and mattresses the cyclists slept on, and even teaching them how to best wash their hands so not to get sick (in a pre-COVID world, no less!).

As reflective teaching practitioners, we are often seeking our own cycling team improvements, but perhaps we get lost in the everyday rather than thinking about how these small regular improvements can have a huge impact on the efficacy of teaching over time.

Now that I’ve started with the why and how, in my following article in the next edition, I’m going to share the what: 5 steps you can take to minimize classroom disruptions, increase student learning, and create activities that impact student’s heads, hearts and hands.

Jenn Phillips