Amongst my holiday reading I came across the letter that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, wrote earlier this year to his shareholders. As one of the people who is undoubtedly shaping the world around us today, I pay attention when he writes about what he sees as important in the quest for high standards. ‘Raising standards’ is one of mantras of the academy movement, so surely there are things we can reflect on here in our field.
High standards are teachable
“People are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure,” writes Bezos. “High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread.”
This is highly useful when considering year-groups, key stages and whole schools, where those joining will pick up the high standards that are already accepted as the norm.
High standards are domain specific
“If you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere?” Bezos asks. “I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest. Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots.”
Likewise, our high standards in one part of the Trust or even in one part of a school, does not mean they exist everywhere. It’s therefore important to be both consistent and keep a critical view on every area. It sounds a bit obvious but the point about humility and blind spots if of course a sensible one to be aware of. There’s nothing like a pair of fresh eyes for spotting issues…
High standards must be recognised
How do you achieve high standards in a specific domain? “First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain,” answers Bezos. He goes on to speak about Amazon’s practice of starting meetings with silent reading of “narratively structured six-page memos,” which he describes as a kind of “study hall.” But not all of these memos are created equal.
“It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo,” states Bezos. “Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.”
For us, it’s useful to consider the ‘memo’ as the ‘lesson’. This cross-refers to the first point about exposing people to good practice. Logistically difficult as it is, we have to create opportunities for teachers to observe the best teaching we have in the Trust.
High standards require realistic expectations: it’s all about “scope”
Bezos says you must also have realistic expectations for the scope of a task or project; and notably how much effort it takes to achieve a great result. “Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards,” concludes Bezos. “To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.”
In education, we have to have honest conversations about whether or not age-related expectations are realistic or not. We need to have the imagination to see how everyone’s expectations can be raised, without drifting into a world of fiction and demotivation because the targets are just nonsense.
Skill is overrated
“How about skill?” asks Bezos. “Surely to write a world class memo, you have to be an extremely skilled writer?… In my view, not so much, at least not for the individual in the context of teams. The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act. But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope.”
Of course teaching is a great skill and we correctly stress the importance of subject knowledge for teachers these days. But, at the risk of losing my whole audience, I would point out that it was George Bernard Shaw who said, ‘those who can’t do, teach’. So I would argue (now with tin hat now firmly donned) that teachers of all people know that to inspire and cultivate high expectations in their children, there needs to be a mindset and a relationship that does that. Which, of course, is a skill in itself.