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Joe Wicks, Functional Fluency and teacher observation

This blog was written a while back and then forgotten about. Since then Functional Fluency International has developed considerably. It has a network of providers across the globe, an award winning people development tool, TIFF, and a growing range of training - download a starter pack from the website to learn more. The highlighted terms below are taken from the Functional Fluency model.

Featuring a six second fart (hear it here if you must), his children running around ignoring him and quiz questions such as “What Cairo is the capital of Egypt?” PE with Joe is often chaotic. He has dressed in crazy costumes, smacked his head against the wall and lost his temper with the spinning wheel which keeps suggesting the same exercise. But, despite all this, I want to be clear from the start - I like Joe Wicks’ PE workouts. My wife and I have done every one since the start of the first lockdown and I'm sure we are fitter, healthier and happier as a result. And so have millions of others too: in front rooms, bedrooms and classrooms around the world. These simple films have become a world-wide phenomenon. Find out more here.

While I was doing last Friday's workout, I began to ponder on his popularity and his qualities as a teacher, albeit an untrained one. Could Functional Fluency be a lens through which to observe Joe Wicks' approach and identify the reasons behind its success?

One of the central truths of Functional Fluency is that to thrive we need to have balance in our lives and our behaviour choices. I think Joe Wicks’ PE with Joe demonstrates this. Throughout his workouts, he carefully balances the amount of time and energy he puts into structuring activities for his millions of students with the time and energy going into nurturing them, so he constructs a series of exercises that is inspiring and generally well-organised. He leads us through these with enthusiasm, avoiding ever lapsing into bossiness, always providing us with safer, easier alternatives if we're struggling. This is balanced by the high level of nurturing behaviour he displays. He is accepting of our limitations but still encourages us to keep going. In lockdown one he gradually upped the difficulty level as we became fitter, avoiding inconsistency or over-indulgence.

It's also clear from watching the series that a lot of time and effort is going into accounting. It is due to this that he realised that it would be inappropriate to make personal gain from the pandemic and so made the very popular decision to donate the money earned from his YouTube views to the NHS. He also realised that there was an opportunity to boost the funding stream further by selling branded tee shirts, showing his alert approach. Those tee shirts were designed by his public which again shows a blend of creative, aware and inspiring behaviour which has reaped great rewards. Through effective accounting he has been able to blend several different effective types of behaviour, resulting in outcomes which help his project and build a strong sense of belonging for his audience.

The workouts also display a balance between cooperative and spontaneous types of behaviour. Wicks comes over as being very, very friendly, making a lot of effort in most of his sessions to do “shout outs” to families and individuals from around the country and the world. Often, he caps these off with a personal anecdote about the place, repeatedly making his connexion with his audience public and this clearly endears him to them.

Wicks is not afraid to allow spontaneous behaviour to predominate at times. Every Friday he wears a fancy-dress costume and on these days he tends to behave in an even more spontaneous way than normal. Last Friday, while wearing a honey monster outfit, he was enjoying sliding on his slippery costume feet across the carpet of the attic room he was filming in. This will have seemed immature to some of the teachers doing the session with their classes, as the children may well have attempted to copy this move, with probably riotous consequences. A little later, it became clear to everyone, in a very tangible way, including Wicks, that he had strayed from spontaneous behaviour into immaturity as one slide went a little too far and he hit the wall, his head actually making a hole in the sloping ceiling.

Generally, though, Wicks’ costumed antics are just funny. As he attempts to exercise while wearing a ridiculously hot outfit or struggles to do sit ups in a top with dodgy Velcro, he blends expressive and playful behaviour and demonstrates high levels of friendliness and adaptability. This functionally fluent behaviour must be a strong reason for his success.

This surely tells us something valuable about how we observe teachers. Wicks' pedagogical approach is not perfect by any means. But, as shown above, he does demonstrate and embody a high degree of Functional Fluency and this enables him to form warm relationships with people of all ages. Using Functional Fluency as the basis for a teacher (or self-) observation tool could provide a much more humane approach to QA in schools. Too often in the past, teacher observation schedules have put too much emphasis on fads, such as the four-part lesson or technicalities such as subject-specific vocabulary. There has been little emphasis on the fundamental of teaching, namely the creation of a strong, mutually respectful relationship between the teacher and the learners. This may well have been because a structure for defining this relationship didn’t exist. My assertion is that Functional Fluency could provide this missing structure, enabling teachers to reflect on their practice and on learners' responses to their use of time and energy in a rational and humane way, enabling them to see how they can develop and improve as a pedagogical practitioner while also continuing to manifest their authentic selves. I have tried to demonstrate how this could work using Joe's teaching as an example.

It would be great to hear what colleagues think about using Functional Fluency as a basis for teacher observation – please let me know.

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