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Automatic English For The People

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Flywheel

by AJ

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Today I went to Borders Bookstore at Union Square and scanned a booklet called (something like) "Good To Great for Social Organizations". Basically, this book takes the principles of "Good to Great", which is a business book, and applies them to schools, non-profits, etc.

Its a nice little book with great ideas.

The main thrust of the book revolves around the distinction between"bad", "mediocre" and "good" organizations on one hand, and the truly great ones, on the other. The book outlines what the author thinks are the most important factors that help an organization (or person) become great.

Since GREAT teaching is my goal, I read the booklet with interest.

The first factor identified by the author was passion. Great organizations have a passionate mission. They are driven to be more than ordinary. No problem. I've definitely got passion.

The second factor is what he called "Great People First". This means that great organizations (companies, schools, whatever) make talent recruitment and retention their number one mission. Stocking the organization with enthusiastic, excellent, passionate, amazing people is the first and most important secret to eventual greatness. Systems, policies, rules, budget issues, and all other concerns come way behind this principle.

Unfortunately, very few schools follow this principle. Most consider policies, rules, and procedures to be far more important than teachers. Most will readily sacrifice great teachers to preserve a bureaucratic rule, or a bosses ego. Most consider "policy" to be the driving force of the school, not people.

But since I'm an organization of one, I don't need to worry about such problems!

The next factor mentioned struck me as very important. Great organizations (or individual performers) have what Tom Peters calls a "dramatic difference". They don't try to be everything to everyone. They don't do what everyone else does. They identify what they can do with total excellence (Wow!) and that's what they focus on.

This is a principle that most schools (and teachers) neglect. They try to please everyone. If a student complains that they aren't reading enough in class, the administration will send out a memo to teachers to "do more reading". Then another student or two complains that they aren't getting enough speaking time, so admin extols the teachers to "get the students talking". Some students want traditional textbook grammar-based instruction and complain that there is too much talking & reading and the textbook isn't used enough. So teachers are told to "use the textbook more". But this makes many other students, who hate the textbook and consider it useless, unhappy. So they complain.

In the end, the school does a little of everything and a whole lot of nothing. The results are the same in almost every language school in America, Japan, Thailand, Korea, etc: Confusing grammar study, heavy reliance on commercial textbooks, and a dash of contrived "communicative activities". Boring. Ineffective. Mediocre. Useless.

Far better for a teacher, or school, to do what they strongly believe to be most effective-- regardless of what student's expect or are used to. If a school is truly convinced, due to research and practical experience, that comprehensible input is the engine that drives language acquisition- they shouldn't waste time doing other useless activities just to seem more conventional. Rather, to be truly great, they should focus on providing the most comprehensible input possible in the most interesting and effective way possible.

This is my mission as an individual teacher. I've made some progress. But now I'm working on the last principle mentioned in the book: The flywheel.

A flywheel is a metaphor for momentum. Imagine a large, heavy wheel... such as a gigantic Tibetan prayer wheel. To get it to move requires great effort. At first, it takes tremendous energy to turn it only one time. It happens very slowly. But you can't stop, you've got to keep pushing very hard to get it to turn a second time... and a third. Initially, and for quite a while, it seems you are making a lot of effort but not doing very much.

But very gradually, the wheel begins to turn faster. And faster. As it speeds up, it becomes easier to push. The wheel gains momentum. Eventually it gathers tremendous energy and moves at great speed. At this point, it only takes a little bit of effort to keep it going.

This analogy applies to any person or group striving for excellence. For example, as I push to improve my teaching, its seems that I'm getting better at a very slow rate. I try many things, and most fail. I get tired and frustrated and feel I'm making a big effort but not much is happening. Progress seems to be quite slow.

But I have made improvements. When I compare my teaching now to my teaching two years ago, I realize I have improved a lot.

The challenge is to keep pushing, keep improving, keep gathering energy, keep innovating & trying things-- until these efforts gather momentum on their own. The trick is to push for excellence even when nothing much seems to be happening.

This, in truth, requires faith-- faith in yourself-- faith that you will eventually build momentum and make a breakthrough-- to greatness.

In short, stay focused on what you do best, maintain your passion, and persevere until you make a dramatic breakthrough.

Don't settle for mediocrity.


San Francisco, CA

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