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Why Sun Tzu's "Art of War" is the Best Book you Will Ever Read About Teaching

25 Jul 2019
"The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting" - Sun Tzu, The Art of War

A few years ago, book clubs were all the rage in schools, and my school chose to do one for our twilight CPD sessions - we would read one book every half-term and discuss it. Each book had one CPD lead, and staff would carousel so they read every book. 

As a CPD lead, I got to choose the book I would lead with and so I chose Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This was partly as a joke, imagining classrooms as battlefields and teachers as generals in charge of insubordinate soldiers, or in some cases fighting the enemy. The other reason was its length - it took me an hour to read and I thought teachers would appreciate that. However, this joke backfired in an unexpectedly positive way...

It was the best book I had ever read on teaching.  

Everything we have been taught on how to be good teachers is reflected in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. And if you don’t believe me, read on...

"The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting"
This quote screams positive behaviour management and good planning. You want to preempt any behaviour issues by having a well-pitched lesson that interests them, full of purposeful tasks and interesting discussions. And if a flicker of rebellion sparks, you can diffuse it using positive behaviour management strategies without having to bring out the big guns of removing the pupil or bringing SLT in.

"All warfare is based on deception"
My mum (who was a Deputy Head) told me teaching sometimes is ‘coercive learning’ - you have to trick them into learning. I prided myself on my starter activities - I convinced pupils we weren’t learning today, we were looking at Love Island, football, Donald Trump, a gruesome story from History. Really it was practising a skill we were going to need in the lesson - for every pupil who said “I can’t do it” I could point back to their historical narrative of last weeks’ episodes of Love Island and say “you can. Now do it for the Spanish Armada”. Yes, I deceived them - I removed their ammunition. I removed their ability to say “I can’t”.

"Opportunities multiply as they are seized"
Sun Tzu has said in one sentence what Making Every Lesson Count took 271 pages to say. If you seize every lesson, indeed every minute of the lesson, you will inevitably have more learning opportunities. If you seize every opportunity to get to know a pupil, you have a more positive relationship that you can rely on in the future.

"If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles"
One teacher in my group said he really struggled with behaviour in his classes. When I asked why he said: “cause they’re awful”. I gave him a print out of 12 gingerbread men outlines and told him to write the names of the 12 worst pupils above each one. Outside the outline I asked him to write everything he knew about the pupil from an educational point of view: SEND data, PP/non-PP, reading age, etc. He was embarrassed when he realised that he didn’t know many things about them at all. He was even more embarrassed when I asked him to write down things about that child inside the outline: likes, dislikes, favourite music, TV show, etc.

I am no behaviour management guru, but the worst kid I ever taught could be as bad as he wanted and I knew if I took him outside and calmed him down whilst chatting to him about England Cricket he’d be able to come back in and try again. I am not saying you have to like all pupils or even be liked in return. But if you were a 15-year-old, why on earth would you make someone’s life easier, especially when that someone didn’t know you or even attempted to? You don’t have to be liked, but it makes it a hell of a lot easier if you are.

This quote is also great for the “know yourself”. Do you really know your strengths and weaknesses? Have you done an audit of your skills? What are your development points? Seek out help for your weaknesses so they don’t lead to defeat.

"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat"
You need a good lesson plan. That is your strategy. Plan for everything, make sure the work is differentiated, pitched appropriately, full of engaging activities and tied together nicely.
Tactics are your teaching skills. What are you going to do when Charlie asks an off-topic question? What are you going to do when David arrives 10 minutes late to keep the class occupied and get him on track? When Emily doesn’t understand the task, how are you going to re-explain it to her? You don’t need to plan all of these things, but you need a host of teaching tactics for any eventuality.

"Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?"
Isn’t this growth mindset in a quote?! If you unlocked all your potential, how good a teacher would you be? If you could unlock the potential in all your pupils, how good could they be? I love the use of the word “can” at the end rather than “could”; “could” is very abstract and hypothetical. “Can” is now, it’s present. It’s what I “can” do today rather than what I “could” tomorrow.

Aim to be the best of yourself. This doesn’t mean working all the time - use your time wisely. Choose the activities or strategies that work for you, and always promote your pupils to not set a limit on themselves.

Get yourself a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, or you can access it for free online if you just type it into any search engine. Have a read and let me know what you think. 

At ease, teachers.

Sally Hill is the CPD Manager at OneStep CPD. She taught History in Manchester for 5 years, with time as a CPD lead and Head of History.


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