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…

The Learning Cycle: #2 Compliance to Your Training (Learning) Plan

Reflecting on the second episode of “The Road to Glory”,  and inspired by a fantastic Twitter conversation with @HuntingEnglish and @macn_1, this is the second of my Learning Cycle posts. See here for #1 and #3. My PLN buddies and I 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 is providing a fascinating insight into the meticulous approach that is needed to be successful at the highest level.

In the second episode, we heard how Bradley Wiggins, the team leader and ‘arrow-head’ of the Sky Pro Cycling Team, had been on a personal journey to get to the point where he was ready to be the team leader and achieve the successes that were to come his way this summer. Interviews with the team psychologist, throughout the documentary, made it clear that the role of Dr Steve Peters was integral to all the riders, but in particular, with Bradley Wiggins. Whilst Bradley’s talent is unquestionable in terms of cycling ability, he has worked with Bradley on his levels of self-belief and, as Peters refers to them, his ‘inner chimp’ to really exploit the potential of his talent. There’s a useful explanation of Peters role and his view of the ‘inner chimp’ on the Sky Pro Cycling website and he’s written about it in his book, “The Chimp Paradox”, which is now on my reading list…! Anyway, the term ‘inner chimp’ is used to describe the emotional part of the brain. I’ve always thought of it as the reptilian part, the amygdala, but I prefer the chimp analogy as it captures just how troublesome it can be when we are ruled by our un-thinking, reactionary emotions when faced with unfamiliar or challenging situations. Consider your first day of school (as a pupil or an NQT) and you’ll soon start remembering not what happened, but how it felt. That’s the chimp for you. it has no language, no ability to rationalise, it is our inner-most hub of feelings and reactions to the world around us. It is this that is often the determining factor in how well, and, at times, if, we learn.

As the trainers talked about Bradley’s approach to becoming integrated into his new  team and responding to his training plan, they used the word, “compliance”. They said that once all riders, including Bradley, had ‘complied’ to their individual training programmes, then success would inevitably follow. In the sequence that followed, this is exactly what started to happen. Even to the point of Bradley surprising everyone when he won his first ‘bunch’ sprint finish on one of the stages on the Tour of Romandie prior to the Tour de France.

But back to our  learning agenda and that word, ‘compliance’. It feels uncomfortable to talk of any form of compliance when we’re discussing learning. For me, it conjures up the concept of ‘yielding’ or ‘acquiescing’ or even ‘subjugation’. It suggests a pathway to passivity, as opposed to encouraging, if not demanding, active engagement in a process or with a system.  So as I watched the programme, I struggled to find a way in which the concept of compliance might ever be applied to learning and what we ask our learners to do. To what, exactly, must they become compliant? But then, never one to walk away from a thinking struggle, I started to play around with the idea and see if there actually was a way to apply the philosophy of ‘compliance’ in learning. So here’s what I’ve come up with…

Perhaps if learners are charged with the task of designing their own learning plans and are genuinely empowered to follow, amend and implement these, for themselves and if they comply to this, their own plan, perhaps that’s a way to adapt the concept to learning? Stephen M.R. Covey talks about the need for us to make an explicit commitment to ourselves as the very first step in achieving trust, in his book, “The Speed of Trust”. Before we can trust others, whether individuals or organisations, we must be able to trust ourselves. This means that when we say we are going to eat our five-a-day, we need to do it. Only by being committed to our own goals and making these a priority, he argues, will we be able to really know what it means to completely trust others to do the same. The “Road to Glory” documentary depicted compliance as a positive act, as a way of reducing intra-personal conflict (with oneself, and particularly, the inner chimp) and of giving in to the ‘best’ way. I had a conversation with @lucysweetman about this and she used a lovely phrase in reflecting back to me what I was saying. For the team of cyclists, their compliance was all about ‘owning their ambition’. I love this phrase and it certainly resonates with the focus of so much of my work around motivation, confidence and self-directed learning. The practical application of this concept would need to be informed by a programme of Aggregation of Marginal Gains…

How manageable would it be to ask every learner to design their own personal learning plan informed by specific, individual goals that incorporate even the tiniest marginal gains? What would this look like? To be an effective learner in (x) subject would obviously have to include knowing the technical nuances of the subject, the skills related directly to this subject and being able to apply these in a variety of different topic areas. In addition, at a micro-level, it would also be explicit about the need to arrive to the lesson on time, with an open-mind and readiness to learn, demonstrated by bringing the correct equipment, knowing what was expected and listening to others’ ideas, contributing to class discussions.

Do learners ‘own their ambition’? Where is this already happening, and if so, how effective is it? Do we ask the learners how effective their learning regime is? What ‘gains’ do their existing plans already include and how could we include some micro-gains? If they are not complying with their learning plan, what can we do to help them engage with it? Who designed the plan and who takes responsibility for monitoring it?

All of this reminded me of the work on motivation by the fabulous Educational Psychologist, Alan McLean. He highlights the ‘Three A’s’ in his work on motivation in “The Motivated School”. These are:

Affiliation – a sense of belonging and of feeling a part of a group and community, where all views and contributions are welcomed and valued.

Autonomy – ability and opportunity to make authentic choices and be self-directed in learning pathways.

Agency – self-belief and confidence that tasks can and will be achieved. Learning is both challenging and achievable.

For me, the only kind of learning plan learners can and should be expected to comply to is one that is overtly underpinned by the Three A’s above. Only in that way, can they truly own their ambition.

Here’s what @HuntingEnglish  said:

“I also like the simplicity of the ‘triple A’ model for motivation.  It gives a clarity to some of my instincts on the matter. I do think the Rosetta stone of learning is motivation – if it can be triggered and sustained then truly anything can happen. 

With all my new teaching groups this week – effort and motivation have been integral to the tone I have sought to establish – which is where the ‘bum warmer’ marginal gain was referenced!” 

Imagine the impact of every learner in a class, year group and school agreeing to ‘comply’ to their very own ‘3 A’s’ learning plan; accountable first and foremost to themselves and their self-selected personal goals. Imagine the quality learning conversations that would happen in the drafting and re-drafting of such plans. Think of the ways in which we could incorporate all of the marginal gains in what we know about learning dispositions, the skills required to be an effective learner as both subject-specific and generic experts and the understanding we have of growth mindsets if we worked alongside each learner to craft such learning plans. I’m not sure yet but this certainly feels that compliance to such a plan would be empowering, energising and motivating. It’ll be interesting to hear what you all think.

Here’s what @macn_1 said in response to this…

“Your second post has really got me thinking about how we could apply this in school – I think there is a definite opportunity for some research here – in our school, I can really see your idea of linking marginal gains to learning plans and ‘owning ambition’ working –  we already have scheduled review meetings and 20 mins of vertical tutoring time every day, so there is lots of potential for conversations to take place, frequently, … lots to think about! It’s early enough in the year to get a project going!

I’d be really keen to work with you further on this/contribute anything I can!”

Next: #3 The Peloton

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.

Harnessing learning power through video


We (a collection of ambitious educators including the marvellous Jim Smith author of “The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook”) ran a student conference in 2008 with 100 students from 10 secondary schools. Their task over the two day residential was to ‘RE-BRAND LEARNING’. Above is just one of the outcomes from one group. Bear in mind, this was a group of learners who hadn’t met each other before the conference and came from very different schools and backgrounds. Yet when it came to learning, they were pretty clear about what they wanted…

The new site launched earlier this month by TED-ED has a call-out for videos to inspire learning and learners in the true spirit of www.TED.com. As you know, I’ve put together TEDucation which attempts to use the wealth of ideas from all the TED talks to reflect on and adapt to learning contexts. This project is a natural next step for TEDsters across the globe. There’s a place to engage through the TED-ED forum and a growing number of questions to respond to.

So, if nothing else, the TED-ED video opportunity could be a fabulous student project, and it could be very naturally linked to the amazing work of the #purposed team (@purposeducation).

“Make your own short film about what YOU think is the purpose of education.” and upload it to a global audience. Now THERE’S an opportunity for some awesome learning.

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.

PLTS Assessment Proformas in Humanities (PLTS NETWORK)

(From an original post on a PLTS network blog: he’d love some feedback on this work, so please leave comments below)
Here are some very practical ways that our Humanities Department is using to introduce PLTS into assessment success criteria and feedback. The ‘assessment feedback documents’ are a way of providing reflection on formal assessment pieces – these specific asssement pieces are taken from Geography. The ‘Humanities Department PLTS’ document is a reference proforma that students put in the backs of their exercise books. The ‘Humanities marking slip’ is a proforma that we use whenever we mark KS3 students’ work – it provides a generic feeback format for all staff to use and ensures successes are celebrated, targets are set and PLTS are reflected upon. This was adapted from the SEAL based-marking slip used at another local school! Any feedback would be appreciated…

PLTS resources created through fabulous collaboration

(Taken from an original post on a PLTS Action Research Blog)

These resources are under development with the PLTS team at the moment….it goes something like this…

(1) Have an idea

(2) Ask, “I wonder if…?” within earshot of team members

(3) Prototype gets developed

(4) Prototype is tested and refined both in terms of its design and its application to task

(5) Prototype becomes a real resource

We are a great team!

The resources are designed to stimulate QUALITY LEARNING CONVERSATIONS, using the language and concepts of the PLTS. We’ll let you know how are ‘field trials’ go.

The dice are designed as one per PLTS, in two versions, one set is to be used reflectively with the prompt of ‘Have you…’ and the other set is to set PLTS targets ‘Try to…’. They are made out of wood and are, in themselves, things of beauty! The swatch cards are for teachers to refer to when they are observing learning, to support the integration of PLTS language and the cards are for learners to use to reflect and develop the PLTS as a shared language for learning. We’ll be road-testing them all with our project teams of Confident Communicators on Thursday, when we’re holding the Presentation Day for the project. The day is being run alongside an LA AfL teacher conference, and the teachers will attend some of the presentations as a CPD workshop to have a go at observing the PLTS in action using ‘Observing Learning’ techniques we’re developing.

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