In September 2016, I joined the Totteridge Academy as a history teacher along with Chris Fairbairn, the new Principal, and a brand new senior team. One month later, we joined United Learning – Britain’s largest Muli-Academy Trust. In the space of a year, Totteridge has improved extraordinarily, witnessing a jump in GCSE results of 27 percentage points (40% – 67%) and a progress 8 score of +0.32, up from -0.44 the year before. The following series of blog posts entitled “The Totteridge Way” go some way to elucidate the ongoing success of the Totteridge Academy.
The purpose of this blog post is to explore how the philosophy of Kaizen has been used by students and staff at Totteridge. Meaning “continuous improvement”, Kaizen has been used mainly in the business arena to improve and streamline multiple lines of work but it is also a common mindset in Asian education and life-coaching. In many ways, Kaizen is meant to symbolise the small-steps that one takes every day to become either a better person or a better professional. It is not about improving oneself strategically over a period of years.
How do we use Kaizen at the Totteridge Academy?
Each member of staff is continuously critical of their own work and strives to implement a cyclical review process into everything they do For example, I make and write the booklets for the history department and aim to sit down at the beginning of each academic year, re-read them and then edit them where necessary to ensure that they are the best tool to effectively teach history to the given year group. I may, for example, change the way that I want to teach a certain concept (either first or second order), I may include more writings from historians or I may change the overall enquiry. I know that already, I plan to change the structure of the multiple-choice quizzes, gradually taking away the choices and increasing the stakes each time the same quiz is taken.
The policy of Kaizen is also used outside the classroom. For example, Totteridge has a fairly logical and streamlined approach to interviewing and enrolling casual admissions throughout the year; however, because of our focus on Kaizen, certain members of staff have evaluated this process and ensure that it is even better…
Students are also drilled with the philosophy of Kaizen. They are told that the grade that they get is not important but finding a way of improving it is more important. In my class, for example, a large emphasis is put onto purple-pen self- and peer-assessment, not only as a means of improving one’s own work but also being a part of someone else’s improvement Kaizen process. With this in mind, when students sit their exams, I try not and say “good luck” but rather “good preparation” as they are drilled that they can always do more and be more, both personally and academically, and that they should not rely on sheer luck. The result is that classroom behaviour is calm and purposeful as students focus on their learning and personal development because of their deep belief in continuous improvement.
But don’t we all “do” Kaizen?
Indeed, critical reflection is fundamental to most teachers’ practice. Department meetings are usually focussed around teaching the specialist subject in the best way, SLT meetings are centred around ensuring that the given school is performing the best either in the local area or in the country, even NQT mentor meetings are focussed on improving the fundamentals of their teaching.
However, at Totteridge, Kaizen is not an unwritten or unspoken rule. We do not assume that people will continuously strive to be better and we do not take this process for granted. Rather, the word Kaizen is used frequently and meaningfully. Each one of the teachers will know what it means and the importance of striving to be better. Certainly, every one of my students will know it too. In my classroom, I have displays centred around Kaizen and we even have a chant. When I say “Kaizen”, my students reply “always improve” to signify that we are about to start either self- or peer-assessment to help us become better learners and better historians.
Yes, this mindset is frequent but actually talking about it isn’t.
Is Kaizen really that good?
Like with everything, there are strengths and drawbacks to this philosophy. First, I believe that because Kaizen focussed on small-steps towards improvement and sweating the small stuff, it is not a daunting process to “becoming better”, which is often such a vague endeavour. Indeed, by sweating the small stuff, oftentimes larger and more fundamental areas of school life look after themselves and fall into line.
When using this mindset, however, one must be careful to not become obsessed with the minor areas of school life and neglect the longer-term strategic overview. Lastly, by continuously striving to be better, one must also ensure that students are aware of what they do well in the moment, allowing them to accept what makes them proud, rather than rejecting all that is good for the sake of continuous improvement.