The Learning Cycle: #1 Aggregation of Marginal (Learning) Gains

I’ve been trying to craft this post since watching Team GB Cycling over the during The London 2012 Olympics and, prior to that, the success of the Sky Pro Cycling Team in the Tour de France. Last night, a Twitter conversation with @HuntingEnglish and @macn_1 spurred me into getting on with it, or at the very least, starting it. We had all watched the first two episodes of “The Road to Glory”, a Sky documentary about the quest of the Sky Pro Cycling Team to be the first British cycling team to win the Tour de France. Led by Team GB Cycling Performance Director, Dave Brailsford, the documentary provides a fascinating insight into the meticulous approach that is needed to be successful at the highest level.

There’s a useful article about the Aggregation of Marginal Gains from 2010 here but to summarise what the first two episodes of “Road to Glory” have covered so far, Brailsford’s underpinning philosophy is that by identifying every component element of what it takes to win at the highest level and ensuring that each of these elements, however seemingly inconsequential, is deliberately attended to, you can put these tiny gains together as a whole so that the marginal gains result in one BIG gain. And that’s the win.

For Team Sky when preparing for the Tour de France (and, for that matter, for Team GB Cycling when preparing for Beijing in 2008 and for London 2012), every part of the team’s mechanical equipment, personal nutrition plans, hygiene and sleep regimes are discussed, analysed and attended to. In itself, this isn’t dissimilar from other high performance teams and systems. But Dave Brailsford’s approach illustrated in “The Road to Glory” explained just how precise this preparation is.

Team Sky have a customised bus with state of the art seating and lighting to ensure the idea conditions for race preparation and recovery. A dedicated team driver who ensures that the team arrive at various venues when training and in races in good time; a team chef who co-opts every hotel kitchen they stay in to ensure there’s no danger of food poisoning and that exact menus are followed, a massive team base in Belgium that houses every piece of mechanical equipment to construct every combination of bike parts to get the best out of each rider. There is also a team of trainers who get to the hotel ahead of the riders on a race day to replace all the bed linen and mattresses with hypo-allergenic linen, individual pillows and an air conditioning unit that cleans and cools the air, all of which is designed to ensure a good nights’ sleep, excellent recovery and reduce any risk of infection. There’s also a dedicated psychologist who employs the latest neuroscience to provide riders with FMRIs (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to identify psychological reactions to stress in each of the riders and provide the necessary cognitive tools to address these…and so the detailed list goes on.

What struck the three of us about this approach was the potential application of ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ for learning, from right across the whole school right into individual lessons and for individual learners. The conversation led us into what exactly it takes to be the most effective learner in any given subject or topic.

@HuntingEnglish and @macn_1 started un-picking this at a ‘marginal gains’ level and we shared ideas about how this could be communicated to learners. We talked about creating an info graphic or leading discussions, students designing information charts, diagrams and analysing samples of work at this very micro-level and build this into personal learning plans for learners so that they were able to identify, at this meticulous level, in every subject, what they needed to:

(a) Know and understand

(b) Be able to do

(c) Be Like

The application of marginal gains is already in evidence in effective practice, not least with the amount of information we are able to draw on for individual learners so we can help shape their curriculum provision to meet their needs. But it is the aggregation of marginal gains approach that has prompted me to think a bit more about this. I wonder if there’s an opportunity here to be really overt and specific in communicating to learners exactly what it is they need to do, how they need to do it and probably, as is always the case, why they need to do it at this micro-level. In addition, it may provide an opportunity to tie-in how other elements of their experiences, which may well appear to be completely irrelevant, can be attended to and can contribute to learner effectiveness. If nothing else, it does seem to resonate with a highly aspirational approach that fosters a sense of agency for each and every learner.

Here’s what @HuntingEnglish wrote when I was putting this together:

“What really resonates with me is your point about ‘learner effectiveness’. I think the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ concept could be a powerful way for students to reflect upon their progress. We often make visible the learning objective, such as honing a given skill, then refer back to it in subsequent lessons; however, too often this process is too teacher led.

The ‘marginal gains’ approach to self-assessment could be a powerful, and simple, way of students recording their learning in incremental steps. I am thinking of a wheel diagram again, with students reflecting (perhaps as a regular lesson plenary) upon what skill they have honed, or what new knowledge they have gained. I think such precise AFL could also be motivational in a whole host of ways; from making visible the power of home learning; to illuminating how many skills they are developing in any given PBL task; to adding a competitive element to self-reflection and metacognition – a rare thing indeed! This self-reflection, with such specific focus, really has the potential to have real impact.

That idea is really sparking some ideas, from co-creating a display with a cycling spin etc. I love it when something triggers a flow of ideas! I think I am going to trial the idea with my AS English Language group, as there are so many small knowledge and skill steps to master. I will definitely put a plan into action and share how it goes.”

And @macn_1 responded as follows to the first draft of this extended learning conversation:

“I really like your emphasis on aggregation;  as you mention, most of us already applying it in everyday practice, but not linking all those smaller gains together into a holistic picture of a pupils’ progress. I think most schools now have some sort of ‘progress review’ for tutors/pupils, where we are looking across the range of subjects and pupils are setting cross-curricular targets, but lacking a sense of how these can be achieved and the understanding of the  wider impact a number of smaller adjustments could make to their overall learning and success.

 As you noted, it’s the really overt, specific nature of the concept that makes it work and could have a big impact for us – e.g. we have ‘L2L’ targets for students which they set at their review with their tutor, some are practical and some are cognitive. I’m not sure that we are entirely successful in helping students understand the potential impact of these targets, when taken together…. I’m not sure that I’ve actually ever  linked them all together either …  not sure if I’m digressing here!

I can certainly see some sort ‘record’/chart forming here, where students could note down a commitment, or ‘pledge’ (?) to make some small alterations to their learning, how they can achieve it,  and the potential impact it could have?

So much potential with this concept! Definitely interested in exploring this further/collaboration –  I have some colleagues in my dept who I know would also be keen to get involved! We’ve just finished a project with Exeter Uni around ‘Grammar for Writing’  (the name is misleading, it was really exciting!)  and I sense this could be next! Action research??”

There’s lots more to do on this and I sense it may be a case of a crowd-sourced approach via Twitter to pull all the ideas together.

I’m going to convert this post into a PDF and place it on my Learning Goggles Page with a view to it becoming a downloadable resource as it builds.

3 thoughts on “The Learning Cycle: #1 Aggregation of Marginal (Learning) Gains

  1. Thank you for this post, Zoe. It’s got me thinking about ways in which I could apply the approach you have outlined to my English teaching. I am very interested in teaching my students how to become better learners and you have certainly provided some food for thought here.

    • That’s great, Tom. I’m pleased that the post has been helpful. I’m developing a heap of work as a result of this. It’s such a great way to think about pulling everything together that learners need to know, be able to do and to be like and then un-pick the component parts to help them make sense. I look forward to hearing about how you get on. Best wishes, Zoe

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