Precision Canvas

A precision canvas helps to enhance the precision of improvement thinking by describing an idea at three levels: compelling concept; behaviours; and examples.

Transcript of video

Hey, it’s Simon Breakspear here, and I hope you’re doing incredibly well in today’s training. I want to share a little bit about the precision canvas, a really practical tool to get really sharp about the strategic directions and areas of improvement that you are pursuing. So my world, I’m really interested in new ways of working for school improvement, sustainable school improvement, some of the most important work to do on the planet, and yet so often we get hamstrung by templates and processes that really reduce the quality of our thinking and feel like compliance documents. In my work, what I’m trying to do mostly is help school leaders and their teams, I guess think through how they can build their skills in three key areas in their strategy. What I call clear thinking, how to figure things out and get clear how to build momentum in implementation through responsive action and actually make things happen.

And then how to evaluate, how to engage in lean monitoring that can help you check how things are going and develop fresh insights about the next steps forward. So today I want to just give you one tool that sits within the clear thinking suite, and it’s a really practical tool, particularly if at the moment you’ve been thinking a little bit about where you want to go as a team. Where do you want to go as an organisation? And you’ve been thinking a little bit about those strategic directions, priority areas, what are the big things we want to go after? Now, in my experience, when we’re thinking about these big ideas, we often tend towards picking up big compelling concepts. Compelling concepts like differentiation, quality, collaboration, evidence-based practises, the use of data, formative assessment and feedback, student agency and voice, student wellbeing and belonging, positive behaviour for learning.

You get where I’m going here. All these terms are used with a high degree of frequency, growth, mindset, collective efficacy, quality, teamwork. Alright, I’ll settle down. These terms are compelling and there’s no wonder therefore that we often find ourselves putting them into our plans and talking about them regularly as the key things we’re working on. The problem is whilst these terms are compelling, you can get a whole range of actual different definitions going on in people’s minds about what it really means, and even more so what it’s going to look like in practise. What are the people actually have to do in their practises or behaviour to make progress in this area? And that’s where the precision canvas comes in. The precision canvas allows you to take a compelling concept and try to move across three levels. I call these the a hundred thousand-foot level, the 10,000-foot level, and the 1,000-foot level.

And this is some language we use in our community just to simplify and to have a respectful conversation about at what level are we talking about things. So at the hundred thousand-foot level, we’re talking about the concept, the broad abstract goal that we’re going after At the 10,000-foot level, we want to get into practises and behaviours. We want a behavioural definition of what this is. Often I find in education people are often using the same terms. There’s something in the zeitgeist, we’re often using terms that we might’ve picked up from certain educational researchers or on Twitter, but the thing is, we pick up these terms because they’re compelling, but we often don’t have a chance to actually work out. But what does that mean in practise? What would that goal look like if we were to implement it? Who would be doing what?

Well, the last level is to say, it’s one thing to talk about what practises or behaviours we’d need to see more of, but then getting right down into real world examples. Now I’ve got to be clear, I’m not asking you to prescribe to anyone. I’m not saying do this precision canvas and then tell everyone to do exactly what you say at 1000 feet. Now, I actually just want to check to be honest, whether you and your team and me when I’m working with teams can even describe with precision what this looks like. And I hope you can start to see the power of this conversation over 15 to 20 minutes. You can move concept, behaviour, example, and then come back, example behaviour concept bit by bit. You can make sure that all the people in your team are getting really aligned around this. Then you can check, is this something we really want to pursue?

If one of the members of our team, an educator said, respectfully, look, this sounds really interesting, but what does this look like in practise? You’d actually have an answer to it, a clear view about this concept in the real world. Well, why does this matter? Well, firstly, I think it’s going to give you a lot more confidence in leading your improvement work with your team and your organisation. Number two, if you’ve ever faced some resistance, you might actually find that you face resistance in your improvement efforts. Not because people aren’t open to change, but as Dan and Chip Heath say in their great book Switch, what looks like resistance is often just a lack of clarity. And so what we need to do is to make sure that we’ve got ways to clearly describe these things that we’re asking people to engage in. As the philosopher John Sell said, if you can’t say it clearly, you may not actually understand it yourself.

So why don’t you try out the Precision Canvas. You’ve got a copy either probably below me here or somewhere nearby that you can download. Grab that have on your desk and find 15 minutes where you could take one of your key concepts, whatever it is you’re really driving forward as a team or across your organisation. And check whether or not you can go all the way to the bottom. If you can’t draw in some other actors, draw in some practitioners to help you flesh that out so that you can have the confidence of being able to describe your change idea across those three levels of concept, behaviour, and example.

Hey, if you get a chance, let me know how you go trying out the precision canvas. I’d love to hear about the concepts that you are thinking through and how you are actually finding this canvas as a way of getting precision in your improvement ideas.