Ensuring Impact: The Aggregation of Marginal Learning Gains

So, I am now well into a reflection-development phase of the Marginal Learning Gains work. This has to centre around, as with all educational endeavours, “What impact will the Marginal Learning Gains approach have on the quality of teaching and learning and how will I know?”. It is early days, I know, but I am a front-end evaluation sort of thinker and I like to be clear about the intended impact and outcomes from the outset. I am always looking to refine and learn and to do that, I have been asking a few questions of MLG. My own experiences with MLG mean that I have been part of a launch of MLG and I am privileged enough to have been made aware from feedback to this blog, emails, ‘actual’ (!) conversations and through Twitter that many, many people are also now well underway in developing Marginal Learning Gains as a way to reflect and develop their own practice with colleagues and staff.

This post is an acknowledgement to the amazing amount of MLG interest, positive feedback, ideas and fantastic sharing of thinking over the past few weeks about the implementation Marginal Learning Gains (MLG). People have been sharing how they are already using MLG to develop quality learning opportunities in individual practice, within teams and across a school.

Although it is tempting at this point to simply say, “Just try it and see” or, “Take a look at what people are saying in their blogs and tweets about how they’re using MLG and the impact that is having” that’s not enough for the evidence-based researcher in me.

Marginal Learning Gains: The missing verb

When it comes to impact, there is one word missing from my blog posts, our tweets, the marginal gains hashtag on Twitter and even the Marginal Learning Gains website itself that is most likely to provide an answer to how we will see and know there is impact. Although described in the original Dave Brailsford documentary and in his interview here, the one word missing from MLG is the verb, “AGGREGATION“.

For it is in what we DO with the many small Learning Gains we identify, analyse and develop that will lay the foundations for sustained improvement. This will also avoid the inherent danger that some people have rightly noted and commented in our discussions of recommending Marginal Learning Gains as a way to ‘just find some (possibly random) little things to improve’ which may result in pressurising us into implementing a frenetic series of disconnected teaching activities that will only serve to confuse, disrupt and overwhelm. Which is the exact opposite of what MLG is all about. It is designed to give clarity to what we want to develop and improve so that we can think, reflect and discuss what great learning needs to look, sound and feel like for our learners. Have a look at the Ofsted survey on the Learning Goggles section of this blog, placed at Number 4: ‘Some myths about teaching and learning’. This has a description of what might constitute ‘over-teaching’ on pages 12-15 of the Ofsted Survey and illustrates this point about ‘overwhelm’ with teaching strategies.

Criteria: what is a Marginal Learning Gain?

A Marginal Learning Gain is one that can be identified as one small constituent part and incorporated into the whole of a teacher’s practice and used to enhance the daily learning experiences of learners. Ultimately, if there is to be an authentic sense of AGENCY and AUTONOMY in this process, the MLG is entirely up to you. It is for you to reflect on your own practice so that you can select what to focus on as what you believe will make the greatest difference. Drawing on your own wealth of expertise and the advice and observations of others around you is probably the best way to select your first few Marginal Learning Gains.

Here are three possible sources of evidence you may choose to use to refine your definition of your own Marginal Learning Gains and make an informed selection:

1. SELF AWARENESS: The here & now: What and where are the missed opportunities that we frequently observe in our own and each others’ lessons, see in written work or notice during learning walks? What are the small adaptions we could make that would avoid the reflection, ‘…if only…’ in response to how learning is delivered and organised. Where we know we could have provided students with opportunities to think more deeply, make connections across and between topics, discuss with confidence, synthesise their prior and present learning and apply their expertise to new situations?

2. EXTERNAL RESEARCH: The known & reported: What does research say really makes a difference to the quality of learning outcomes? Which of the most powerful teaching techniques or approaches are worth really making a part of our standard practice?

3. JUDGEMENTS: The accountability framework: What does Ofsted say aids (a) the flow of learning and (b) the quality of progress over time of every student? How do we avoid trying to do everything listed be discerning about the few things we can identify in our own context, analyse these and develop them accordingly?

There is an inherent danger in taking an ‘only-do’ approach to MLG in that although it may well lead to identifying some (possible very small) aspects of teaching that, if given attention, can be analysed and then developed, this may not be something that, when aggregated, makes s direct contribution to the ‘whole’. There is one level of impact in reflecting in this way, for sure. The trick is, as is always the case, to consider how to make this learning gain an ACTUAL GAIN and with this, ensure that it is sustainable and can be aggregated (incorporated into the whole so that it has impact). The key to the MLG approach is to ensure that every learning gain made can be embedded and sustained as part of everyday practice, ensuring that this will not be one of those ‘missed opportunities’ at a later date.

So here goes…the Marginal Learning Gains approach with a methodology to accompany it. One that can be used time and time again so that gains can indeed be aggregated. As Dave Brailsford says, it is only when you put the marginal gains together and embed them as part of your standard practice, that you will start to see the TOTAL impact. In this case, on the quality of teaching and learning.

So this is my first attempt (of several, I am sure) to explain just how integral and manageable ‘MICRO‘ action research is as an integral part of the Marginal Learning Gains approach. It is an approach I have used for years and as part of the MLG process, I can only see how will benefit anybody who wants to ensure that MLG thinking will have a sustained impact over time for quality teaching and learning.

For me, any form of research is about developing a reflective mindset and with this, it has a direct a impact on practice. In working and thinking in this way, we get to the point where we are confident enough to implement the small but meaningful changes (MLGs) in teaching practice that will make a big difference in learning outcomes.

The MLG tool: Micro Action Research

Micro action research is the methodology that is most suited to implementing Marginal Learning Gains in your practice and ensuring that the aggregation happens. If Marginal Learning Gains is the philosophy, then micro-action research is the methodology. At the end of which, the Learning

Gains can be pulled together (aggregated) to ensure sustained impact. There’s clearly a synergy between the methodology and the philosophy of MLG.

In micro action research, you focus on developing just one aspect of pedagogy (which you have identified from one or all of your three evidence sources listed above) with a specific group within a limited timeframe. Once you have developed this one aspect, embedded it and sustained it as part of your practice, you simply identify another key component and apply the same process. That’s where the Aggregation of Marginal Learning Gains starts to really take a hold.

This is how it works…The Micro Action Research Question

Rather than asking, “How can I improve my teaching from (x) to (y)?” and with this question, getting frustrated because you feel that you’re doing everything you know you should be doing, micro action research requires you to reframe the question in SPECIFICS, so that you can easily and systematically assess the impact of any specific changes you test out. So your question will sound more like this,

“To improve my teaching from (x) to (y)…” becomes…

“How can I use [SPECIFIC STRATEGY] (e.g. paired discussion) SO THAT I see an improvement in the [LEARNING OUTCOME] (e.g. quality of learning talk) with [FOCUS GROUP] (e.g. five Year 9 boys) over [TIMEFRAME] (e.g. three lessons) ?”

The handy thing about this approach is that the research can be undertaken without making massive changes or requiring hours of pre-planning. By adopting a reflective mindset in the first lesson, you are using the Marginal Learning Gains (IAD) approach at a meta-level and in doing so, embedding it in your own thinking.

In your first lesson, you IDENTIFY what your focus needs to be. Between the first and the second lesson, you ANALYSE the characteristics of what you EXPECT when you listen to ‘quality learning talk’ in this instance and then, in the second and third lessons, you can DEVELOP those specific characteristics through the small changes you implement.

In doing this, you don’t have to undertake a whole-scale re-programming of your  teaching preferences and style but instead, you are free to focus your attention on a specific aspect of your repertoire. You can then engage in a highly reflective process that will not only develop this specific aspect of teaching but, more importantly, shape the way in which you design learning at the outset.

If you merge this with some developmental lesson observations as part of a focused MLG coaching programme, then you’ll have a model for teaching and learning development that is sophisticated in terms of depth of thinking and quality reflection but simple in terms of manageability. This is a Low Input: High Impact model for professional development. And if you want to know more about how the developmental coaching programme works, I’ll be posting about that soon.

7 thoughts on “Ensuring Impact: The Aggregation of Marginal Learning Gains

  1. I really like the way theis article has enabled me to ahve clarity of though about how to move my practice forward. since joining twitter in the summer I have picked up so amy valuable ideas re: improving my teaching and therefor the pupils learning. I love the marginal gains idea especialy coming from a cycling mad family ( Mark Cavendish was nearly a relative – but that’s another long story!) nut I have had a sense that trying to embed the new ideas i’d come across was lacking coherence and,for one who loves structure, uncomfortable. Uncomfortable but not in a out of my comfort zone new learning is happening way. I was beginning to feel like the lesson where I observed an NQT who had lots of activities that ticked the ofsted boxes but nothing flowed or linked together I recognized I was in danger of falling back into the familiar safe territory of doing what I’d always done- which was pretty good but was never going to make me the outstanding practitioner I claim I want to be. This article is like a spot light in the dark fro me and I can now see a clear way to implement the changes I want to make. Like all the best ideas is is so simple it seems obvious and makes me wonder why I didn’t think of it ( as if!). I couldn’t see the wood because I had my nose up against the tree. Zoe thank you so much for shining a light in the dark for me and showing me a route through the forest of great ideas I find myself in.

    • Fiona, thank you so much for taking the time to reflect so deeply on this post. I am pleased that you have found value in what I am writing here and that you are striving to ‘own your ambition’ to design and deliver outstanding learning experiences for your learners. I look forward to continuing sharing and, when there’s time, maybe you can tell me about your ‘nearly relative’?!!

  2. This has really helped me to think about the way I can use MLG – I’m intuitively happy with “make tiny changes” (it’s very similar to the kaizen model of continuous improvement that I teach about in Business Studies) but have struggled to work out HOW to implement it. The section on micro action research has really brought home how small-scale this can be. For instance, since Big Day out and reading more on MLG, I know that I want to improve my questioning skills, but have been trying to change for every class, which has been less successful than I’d hoped. By focusing on my questioning of just one collection of pupils in one of my classes I should be able to make much more progress.

    In terms of aggregation, I suppose the key thing is whether the marginal change is completely assimilated into your teaching arsenal* or falls slightly by the wayside once the identify-analyse-develop process is complete. It almost needs to become identify-analyse-develop-practise to ensure each change is fully bedded into your skill-set, before identifying another MLG that could be made. Maybe this is obvious and covered by the ‘sustain’ in your diagram, and it’s just me who has brilliant ideas that slip into obscurity three weeks down the line as I flit off to flirt with another exciting idea I found on t’interweb…!

    *that’s not the word I mean, but I don’t know what the actual word I mean is. It’ll come to me. Probably at 3am tomorrow morning. Cheers!

    • Thank you for your comments and for taking the time to reflect on this and the whole of the MLG approach. I know that I now use the IAD method in all that I do to ensure that I follow-through with questions and analysis of what is working and where the impact is. I am pleased that in writing about micro action research, there may be a way for you to manage your idea-generation and find the ones that will ‘stick’. I look forward to hearing about how you take this forward. Thank you again.

    • I know what you mean about having ideas that slip off the radar three weeks later! I think this post, and the twitter chat following it, have helped clarify for me too, and am definitely going to put this into practice this week to take a more defined research approach to improving practice.

  3. Pingback: Micro-research for maximum impact « Staying with the question

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