Marginal Gains #5 pt1: High aspirations and expectant thinking

As I came back from London earlier this week, I reflected on the last remaining signs of the Olympics and Paralympics still in evidence around the city. I remembered the feelings I had experienced as the entire summer of sporting excitement had gained momentum starting with Wimbledon, The Tour De France, the Olympics, the Paralympics, The US Open and the Ryder Cup. I reflected on how the sense of hope that we shared grew into something new, as one outstanding sporting achievement after another hit the headlines. Hope morphed into expectancy. In particular, I started to wonder about the mindset of those performing.

How ‘hopeful’ was Dave Brailsford on the morning of the first leg of The Tour De France or on the morning of the first cycling competitions in London 2012? Did he hope that Bradley Wiggins would win or did he expect it? Did he hope that Team GB Cycling would reach their targets on the medal tables or did he expect it? More to the point, did he and his team communicate an expectation of success to the riders, or simply pat them on the back as they cruised to the start line and then say that they hoped they would win? This got me thinking about the relationship between thinking and speaking. The language in our heads and the language we use to communicate. There’s probably a heap of NLP stuff I should be reading up on about this, so I’ll add it to my list. For now, I’m just going to work this through here and see what you make of it. The question this raised for me was this:

How would our actions as educators change if we adopted a mindset and, therefore, a language of expectation rather than hope? And these musings led me to think about many conversations over the years with teachers during planning and reflective sessions…

Conversations in particular about how to incorporate and communicate high aspirations for learning in the design of lessons. Always, however, it has been incredibly difficult to unpick exactly what aspiration looks, sounds and feels like. Trying to actually establish an aspirational learning environment is dependent on knowing exactly what characterises it in the first place and then being able to design the environment according to those characteristics. We know that when we meet people who have high aspirations, we feel it, sense it and, therefore, we know it. They are inspirational and energising to be around. But replicating exactly what this ‘aspiration thing’ is so that we can both feel, communicate and teach for it through the learning we design is a massive challenge.

So here goes my attempt to give it a go. And as always, I begin with questions…

How do we establish a culture of aspirational learning through the language of learning that we think in and use?

What practical strategies do we need to implement in a culture of aspirational learning?

How can we deliberately develop learner aspirations through our teaching?

How do we know when it’s working?

Well, one thing I have been trying to do lately is be much more conscious about the language I think in. A tiny thing to try, hence it sits within our suite of potential marginal learning gains. I have had a go at removing the word hope from my language when I am thinking about and discussing learning intentions, objectives, success criteria and outcomes. Instead, I have tried to replace it with ‘expectation’. Admittedly, this feels a little uncomfortable. It puts you on the line and suggests a certainty in what you are intending to happen. But I wonder if it is a case of ‘fake it ’till you make it’? If we think in terms of high aspiration and use words that reflect an expectation that something will happen, then maybe that’s worth trying?

Whenever Year 10 and Year 12 students embarked on their courses, fresh new exercise books at the ready, I used to say to them that that they should get to a point during the course when they couldn’t wait for the exam itself to happen. I told them that they should feel excited and energised about it as opposed to dreading it and fearing what was about to happen. They always looked at me quizzically at this point (well, they did so most of the time, to be fair) but I would reassure them that if they knew and understood everything that we were about to cover and could articulate their thinking, ideas and arguments with confidence, then there would be nothing to fear when it came to the examination itself. In fact, they would see it as an opportunity to show off their immense knowledge, skill and understanding and hence be fidgeting with excitement at what they were about to encounter.

In thinking and talking in highly aspirational ways and trying really hard to avoid using the word ‘hope’ and with it, ‘might’ and ‘should’, I am in no ways advocating ‘hopeless‘ teaching or, indeed, a strict, no-compromise rigid and inflexible all-or-nothing succeed-or-fail approach to teaching and learning. Far from it, so please bear with me as I think this is where our marginal learning gains will come to the rescue…

Marginal learning gain: The language of expectation frames our thinking.

Often, when planning lessons together, teachers state that they hope that the students will get to the (x) task. When reflecting on lessons, teachers often say that they had hoped that the group would have achieved (x). But I wonder what might change if instead of hoping, we very deliberately thought about expecting the learning we intend/plan for to happen? What effect would that have on:

(a) How we plan and select learning activities

(b) How we deliver and structure learning

(c) How we communicate our expectations to learners

What if we thought in terms of expectation and then overtly communicated this through the language we use, as opposed to hope/ might/ could SO THAT we can create a ‘culture of expectation’ and foster a sense of agency for all our learners?

I’m still working on this, so I would really appreciate any feedback on this if you want to give it a go. There’s another post to follow, where I will share with you what happened when I noted how thinking in expectations directly informed the structuring of learning.

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 (http://www.cyclesportmag.com/features/inside-the-mind-of-dave-brailsford/)

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…

The Learning Cycle: #3 The (Learning) Peloton

It’s amazing what one Twitter conversation can do. This is the third installment (see here for: #1 & #2)of The Learning Cycle inspired by (1) “The Road to Glory” documentary on Sky Atlantic HD that followed Performance Director of Team Sky Pro and Team GB Cycling as he lead the cyclists to the incredible success of this Summer in the Tour de France and London 2012 Olympics and (2) The conversation between @HuntingEnglish and @Macn_1 that followed the programme.

After we’d discussed Brailsford’s philosophy of ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ (see #1 in this series for that!), we started discussing more generally the way in which the peloton works in cycling races. It’s worth noting that pace-makers in athletics and most recently, in the midst of significant controversy, in the triathlon in London 2012, such an approach has been adopted to increase the chance of victory. The details of the roles in the peloton are new to me and @HuntingEnglish shared a far better understanding and knowledge of exactly how it works. Moreover, he came up with some brilliant ideas about how the model could be used to ensure quality collaborative learning opportunities, which he has already written about here.

For me, the peloton model of cooperation sparked up an old favourite of mine…the difference between cooperation and collaboration. When learners are asked to work ‘together’ what do we expect from them? How can we ensure that there is genuine collaboration in a group, rather than simply cooperation? And does it really matter?

A few years ago, I was shown a film clip that has since done the rounds at leadership conferences and network meetings. The film follows a flock of geese who work together to travel vast distances as part of their seasonal migrational behaviour. I particularly like the ‘honk’ school of encouragement but I particularly dislike the irritating music, but you can’t have everything.

“…I think the parallel with the geese ‘V’ is entirely appropriate. I think…it will spark more interest in the concept of the peloton – rather than filling in all the gaps – denying people the pleasure and purpose of learning it for themselves!” @HuntingEnglish

With cooperation, we may see group members consigning themselves to the path of least resistance. We may also observe some individuals remaining as individuals within the context of the group, and doing what needs to be done to get by. For our most able learners, this may be to adopt the time-honoured role of scribe. They do all the writing needed and, in doing so, move the ‘group’ through the task in the way that they decide is best and most effective. The remainder of the group co-operate with the scribe to enable this to happen.

If, on the other hand, we observe genuine collaboration, we will hear and see energetic discussion, an excited exchange of ideas and, hopefully, an equal distribution of workload throughout the task. The peloton and the geese demonstrate how this authentic collaboration can work to achieve safety, efficient energy output and attainment of a shared and mutually beneficial goal.

This video from The Business of Learning Conference (a truly collaborative project I worked on with Jim ‘The Lazy Teacher’ Smith (@thelazyteacher) and a team of amazing ASTs a few years ago shows exactly what it means to collaborate. Please take a look. It’s under 2 minutes long of pure genius and emotion about what learning is all about, from the learners’ point of view. Best of all it was created by a group of 10 learners from 10 different schools who didn’t even know each other less than 24hrs before. The post explains what the conference was all about.

So when it comes to assessing the quality of group work, we can, I think, learn a lot from the peloton model. Perhaps it will work well to share it with learners as a way to communicate our expectations of what ‘quality collaboration’ looks, sounds and feels like. In this way, they can check out for themselves whether they are truly collaborating or merely co-operating at any point during the learning process.

The characteristics of authentic collaboration could also be used to inform our overall programme of aggregation of marginal gains and explicitly shared with learners as they design their own to individual learning plans to which they agree to comply.

Next: It depends on the next episode…

Research and Development: Learning About and Learning From

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in some of the very best learning conversations. I recognise these as the ‘best’ learning conversations because they are characterised by those (seemingly) luxurious and in-depth reflections on existing practice and observations. They are characterised by a meticulous observational analysis of learning and they are punctuated with frequent checks against assumptions and generalities. The way I know I’m really in one of these quality learning conversations is that the flow of dialogue is interspersed with an exchange of phrases such as, “…that reminds me of the work of [x]…” and “…ah, you should read the report on [y]” and “…I don’t know if you’ve come across it, but, I think you would really love the work of [z]”.

The on-going challenge of plate-spinning in the day job means that simply finding the kind of relevant research from leading thinkers and academics to draw on during these conversations is a task in itself. Actually having the time to make sense of the research so what we can apply it to daily practice is a whole other challenge. I am constantly fascinated by the wealth of research available to educationalists but it can feel like a full-time job to keep up with it all; a job I welcome with open arms, eyes and mind, nonetheless.

The power that external research can have on thinking and practice cannot be underestimated. But when it is coupled with internal research and contextual evidence, the potential for innovation is massive.

That’s why I am so excited about the rapidly growing numbers of individual teachers and whole school communities (staff and students together) who are already experiencing the benefit of designing professional development and learning opportunities around their own action research projects.

With that in mind, I am building (very slowly…these things take time!) a page of readings and resources that I hope will be useful for anybody wanting to develop their work in this area. I hope that these readings will be helpful in their own right, but they come from organisations and sources where some great work is happening, so if you have the time, I recommend going to the point of origin to see what else you can find. If you have any other recommended sources, please let me know so I can add them to this site for others to find.

My role over the next year includes some discreet projects and opportunities to be immersed in working in this way and I am really looking forward to sharing some of it here and reading about your experiences through your feedback.

Where practitioners and whole school communities are actively encouraged and supported to collate evidence from the learning they design, deliver and see everyday, the establishment of schools as communities of learning will become more commonplace. If in-school research can be married with external research findings, this can only be a good thing.

In Religious Education, there are just two attainment targets: “Learning about religion” and “Learning from religion”. I have always really liked the simplicity of these two targets. I wonder if they can be applied to the development of reflective practice? Something like, “Learning about research” and “learning from research”…?

The task of becoming a reflective practitioner is not an easy one, but it is certainly one that time and time again, reaps long-term sustainable benefits to both teaching and learning alike. It all promises exciting times ahead for professional development and innovation…

A vision for learning and the importance of GRIT

From The Young Foundation

I have written about the idea of GRIT before, inspired by creative thinker and writer, Jonah Leher (@jonahleher). His website is well worth a visit, not least because it is a thing of beauty.

This morning, I came across this report all about GRIT, from The Young Foundation, which provides a really detailed analysis on both the importance and benefits of developing GRIT and RESILIENCE in all our learners. With an array of useful links, case studies and practical applications to curriculum redesign. If you are currently developing your vision for learning, this is a great place to start.

 

The best teachers are the greatest learners & vice versa

I have always loved the work of the Innovation Unit. One of the most inspirational talks I have ever heard was from Valerie Hannon at a Cape UK where she delivered a powerful keynote speeches at a conference about 4 years ago. It was here that she referred to the need, in the 21st Century, for the ‘Expert Pedagogue’. It is this concept that I had been working on for many years, but framed as she did on that day, I was use her words and thinking to bring together a whole range of ideas and approaches that have continued to shape my thinking and my own work to this day.

Anyway, rather than go on here about the great work of The Innovation Unit, why not go and take a look at some of their projects? A good place to start is their partnership with The Paul Hamlyn Foundation on ‘Learning Futures’ (with @DavidPriceOBE).

But before you leave this post, take a look at this video (you’ll also find it on their site).

What a way to promote the essence of excellence in learning and education and big up, deservedly so, the qualities of all the fabulous educators around the world. I’m sure I’ll be using this as an inspirational film ahead of INSET and twlights…I’ll let you know what happens when I do! If you use it – please let me know!

Collaboration: as with all learning, is too important to be left to chance

Jane McGonigal presents a great argument here that attempts to demonstrate the potential force for good that could exist within games-playing. Games like World of Warcraft require a commitment on the part of the participants to collaborate with their fellow players in order to achieve their goals.

For me, this brings me back to considering the power of games-dynamics in themselves and of the need for students to get as many opportunities as possible to learn together, in groups. The structure and integral components that underpin interactive games-playing might be translated into a some form of taxonomy of learning design. Here’s a very rough draft of what it might look like:

  • Identifies what needs to be done in order to achieve goals
  • Recognises that attainment of goals cannot be done independently of others
  • Identifies who and/or what can help in the attainment of such goals
  • Adapts own behaviour so as to foster collaboration from others
  • Collaborates with others to achieve own goals
  • Works effectively with others to achieve own goals
  • Is prepared to offer collaborative expertise to achieve goals of others
  • Recognises that working with others is more effective than working independently
  • Actively seeks out further collaborative opportunities with others

And so on.

And what if we created a game-scenario that was intended to solve some of the world’s greatest problems and handed this over to our students? How might this encourage learners to engage with the wider world and begin a process of problem solving from which innovative solutions might emerge? We know it works, after all. Consider the way in which The Human Genome Project finally unlocked human DNA, or the creation of WIkipedia or…well, you know what I mean.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we should ditch the curriculum and get students to start playing WoW. What this talk does make me think about, however, is how collaborative skills need to be deliberately practised just as much as skills in calculus, research or reading. As I’ve said before in posts and what I’m writing about in other forms at the moment, if we can design learning in such a way that it offers engaging opportunities for students to mindfully practise the skills required to collaborate, then surely that’s one step closer to their readiness to both give and take from the world everything it has to offer?

Other TED Talks on related to this and that have similar connections to learning include Seth Priebatsch and Tom Chatfield.