The Learning Cycle: #4 The Learning Quotient

This morning, @HuntingEnglish sent me a link via @StuartMaginnis to an interview with Team GB and Sky Pro Cycling Performance Director, Dave Brailsford in the magazine, ‘Cycle Sport’. I read this article a while back so this was a great opportunity to reflect on it once more with my ‘Marginal Gains’ Goggles on. In this article, Brailsford talks about the way in which he uses statistics to inform his thinking and planning. For the data rich environments of schools, this approach to performance analysis is very familiar. In fact, I found it surprising that it was highlighted as such a distinctive aspect of Brailsford’s approach. After all, sport has led the way when it comes to gathering statistics and making informed training plans for athletes. From the time when the very first games, races and competitions were recorded, data has been collated, analysed and interrogated. But there is something distinctive about how Brailsford uses the data available to him. In acknowledging that the website he uses most frequently is not perfect, he makes the following observation,

“There are some flaws in it. For example, a rider will get the same amount of points for a sprint win as another rider will get for a summit finish but they are very different challenges. When you look at the rankings, Cav [Mark Cavendish] has 1,400 points and Hesjedal has 1,200 points but they’ve won them in completely different ways. As riders they don’t overlap at all.” 

Cycle Sport Online May 20122 (

Showing & sharing what progress looks like

So here’s where a learning programme built on the principles of Aggregation of Marginal Gains (see #1) began to resonate for me. By interrogating the data that is available to us and drilling right down into it, we all know that individual learning stories of learners become apparent. What the Marginal Gains approach to learning may give us, however, is an opportunity to very deliberately adapt our teaching to the specific learning needs of students. This will, in turn, enable us to usethe data to inform the teaching of specific learning points and identify the specific skills, knowledge and understanding that will require development. More importantly, if we can find a way to show this and, therefore, share this, with learners, then this will give a greater understanding of what progress over time looks like for them, in the context of a specific topic or subject area of expertise.  With this, we can draw on the learning intelligence available to us and let it act not as a driver, but as a component part, of the conversations we have with learners.

The beauty of all of this is that we have an inordinate amount of innate ‘learning expertise’ that we can draw upon to identify what it is that students need to know and understand, be able to do and  be like in order to be effective learners.

When mapped against the distinctive learning strengths and areas for development required by each learner, students can construct their own learning plan; one that with which they are eager to comply (see #2). In this way, they can really start to lead their own learning and ultimately ‘own their ambition’.

Such a meticulous approach may also result in teachers being able to distinguish between two learners who, in terms of their data, at any given point, may be working at the same level, but working in very different ways, underpinned by very different strengths. This echoes Brailsford’s reservations in the quote above about the data source he relies on so heavily when assessing the ongoing performance of the riders in his team.

By using what we know makes an effective learner in subject or topic (x), we can, as learning experts in our own right, explicitly guide learners to deliberately design opportunities for them to practise the specific elements of their performance that will help them make the marginal gains they need.

In my earliest drafts of Full On Learning (about 3 years ago!) I had a go at designing a progress chart to illustrate this. The progress chart didn’t make it into the final edit of the book, but Brailsford’s comment on the flaws of the data that he uses in the quote above reminded me of it. In particular, his observation that data can inadvertently mask the different ways two people might achieve the same immediate end but hide a gap in the learning history that may be critical at a later date. So, I trawled my archived files and had a go at seeing if it works within the Marginal Gains concept. Here goes…

Seeing and sharing progress over time

The chart is designed to record in a visual way the progress over time of learners as they move through a scheme of learning. We know that APP (Assessing Pupil Progress see: Ofsted: “The Impact of Assessing Pupil Progress Initiative” 04 April 2011) can work really well to identify the specific elements of expertise that learners need to develop within a particular area over a period of time.

The chart provides a way to actually see and discuss the specifics of learning progression, or ‘opportunities for improvement’, as Marginal Gains would define them. The idea is that the chart visualises the learning pathway of every learner in a group. The immediacy of this visual approach to tracking progress over time makes it easy to share with learners exactly what progress looks like. It is designed to be used to highlight specific success criteria and recognise just how this fits into the overall picture of “Being an effective learner in (x) subject)”. In this way, the ‘Why?’ of learning can also be shared it is clear how one single task fits into the on-going learning process.

Every learner can create their own chart to record their progress over time, using it as a reflexive tool. They can identify what exactly they have achieved, what, specifically, they need to do to improve and why they need to do it, rather than simply recording their attainment and moving, unthinkingly, on. Using the chart requires regular opportunities for reflection to be planned to encourage quality learning conversations underpinned by a far more concrete picture of learning.

The chart included in this post is a whole class version that teachers use to identify the specific areas for development that will need to be re-visited. In this example, it is clear that although, in the most recent piece of work, the two students have both attained a Level 8, one of them needs  to revisit the preceding topic to practise the skills, check their understanding and correct any misconceptions. In other words, (if I’ve got it right!), it can be used to show exactly where the marginal gains for each student can be made. The individual charts can be used to see individual progress and can become personal and very specific ‘ambition templates’ for every learner.

Benefits of this visualisation:

  • An opportunity to make progress over time in specific areas  visible to learners and teachers
  • A way to make abstract learning processes concrete and tangible
  • To identify opportunities for marginal gains that may otherwise be masked by ‘most recent performance’
  • To match teaching to individual learning needs and for learners to design their own Learning Plans to which they can comply (#2)
  • To establish a shared start point and the basis for a script to stimulate and support quality learning conversations between teachers, tutors, learners, parents and carers
  • To encourage learners to take ownership of their learning, goal setting and recognition of effort and achievement by designing and recording their own versions
  • To track and compare learners who, in terms of performance data may be indistinguishable

With deliberately planned opportunities for reflection in lessons and conversations with tutors, students can use their charts to recognise their progress in specific areas and set their own goals by recording progress topic by topic and always within the context of a bigger curriculum area.

If you are following these posts, you’ll know that these are ‘think-pieces’ designed to explore how the philosophy of Aggregation of Marginal Gains can be applied to learning. I welcome any thoughts you might have…

2 thoughts on “The Learning Cycle: #4 The Learning Quotient

  1. Ah – Zoe – glad I finally got round to reading this. I like the diagram a lot and can immediately see how this kind of date could be used to powerful effect. The problem is that APP is beginning to be (rightly) consigned to the big bin of failed education initiatives as an unworkable, poorly designed and horrifically implemented nonsense. Or as I tweeted recently ‘complete arse’.

    It’s not that the attempt to break a subject down into assessment focuses isn’t potentially useful (it is, it’s just that there are so many of them – 19 in English) it’s that students just don’t learn and make progress in sub-levels. And when does all this summative assessment happen? If we accept that levelling work has a detrimental effect on learning then we’re in danger of putting the cart (the chart) before the horse (the student).

    But, I’m interested in ways in which this progress chart could be linked to the acquisition of threshold concepts ( I think that much of APP is tediously repetitive but underneath it there are some key areas or concepts that once students ‘get’, the subject opens up for them. If we can map this (and I really thinking levelling or grading really get in the way here – you can either do it or you can’t) then we have a fantastic reason for putting the concept of marginal gains in front of students.

    I will cogitate further…

    • Dear David, Thank you for your thoughtful feedback. I love the you referred me too. The reference to APP I make is really just a nod to the concept of breaking down component parts of skills, rather than a whole-hearted endorsement. I know some colleagues found APP incredibly useful in being very specific about what they wanted to enable students to deliberately develop and find ways to communicate this to them. I have seen some powerful formative curriculum planning using APP where it served to bring the department together and generate some valuable conversations about what mastery looks like within a particular domain. I understand your point of view and I recognise how it has the potential to result in an intellectual exercise that strays too far from the reality of the fluid way in which we acquire and develop new skills, knowledge and understanding. I hope that makes sense! I too will delight in the further cogitation, inspired as always by your thinking. Thank you.

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