Marginal Learning Gains #5 pt2: Fostering Expectant Teaching Mindsets (S3)

As I am immersed in Marginal Learning Gains at the moment, I am testing out Tiny Changes that make a Big Difference (#tcbd) and I wanted to follow on from my previous post and share my experience of adopting the thinking-language of expectancy that I used when I worked with a group of teachers very recently.

My enquiry question:

How can I establish a culture of high aspiration with a group of teachers I have only just met and who don’t know each other by using the thinking-language of expectancy SO THAT I encourage really deep thinking, discussion and decision-making (characterised by negotiation, persuasion, consideration and discernment) and elicit high quality responses to a creative thinking activity?

Here’s what I happened…

I deliberately changed my thinking SO THAT I adopted the language of expectancy to communicate my high aspirations for the group. I made a deliberate shift in my thinking as I moved from Hopeful Teaching  (‘I hope they come up with some good responses’) to Expectant Teaching (‘I expect them to generate high quality, well thought-out and considered responses’).

I showed an image and asked the group to come up with a tag line to suit what they saw. Some jumped at this straight away and clearly had lots of ideas as they started talking before I finished my last sentence of explanation. Others responded by lowering their heads in a ‘Please don’t ask me, (I’m not creative at all) and I’ll rely on somebody in my group to come up with something’ sort of way. Pretty typical for any mixed grouping and there’s absolutely no judgement from me for any of those responses. I completely understand and have experienced them all, particularly in staff training and conference workshops!

Anyway, I called an end to the activity by the tried and tested (but vague) wait-for-the-lull-in-the-talk-technique and pulled their attention back to the image. During the activity, I listened very carefully to the discussions and made a notes of the first ideas I heard from the pairings and who they came from. During the activity, nobody wrote anything down or reached for the paper  provided. All of this took about 3 minutes in total.When I asked the whole group for feedback here’s what I noticed:

  1. The responses given were exclusively each pairs’ very first ideas that they had come up (I had noted these down during the task) SO THAT I knew there had been little or no development in thinking from the beginning of the discussion to the end
  2. The ideas that were shared were those ideas that had come from the more confident member of the group SO THAT the less confidently presented ideas lost out to the more confidently expressed ideas.

In the spirit of good research, I then asked them to do the activity again, with a new image. This time I adopted an ‘expectant’ teaching mindset and framed my explanation in the language of high expectations. That is, language that is Structured, Specific and Succinct or S3 for short…

‘You are going to complete this activity in three parts:

First, I am going to ask you to look at an image on your own and think about it for 1 minute.

Second, and you’ll share your thinking with your partner, you will have two minutes only to discuss what you were thinking and together, write down with THREE possible tag lines for this image.

Third and last, still with your partner, you will both have just 30 seconds to create ONE tag line as a pair that shows your best thinking.’

The first thing that happened with the new set of instructions was that every member of the group reached for their pen and paper to make a note of their ideas. This was because they knew they had more than one idea to generate, there would be additional thinking to do and they would have to use all three of their ideas in the second part of the activity.

When the time was up, I asked for their best thinking. This time, I noticed that their responses were much more developed and had clearly moved beyond their first ideas. The final offerings were almost all hybrid versions of the three initial ideas that they had originally generated. Those pairings who had selected one of their original tag lines and not adapted or improved on it justified this by saying that they couldn’t think of anything more or different a it really was the best of their thinking as it was.

The impact of using the language of expectations:

  1. All of them had thought more deeply about the task at hand because they knew they had to generate a specific number of initial ideas within  a structured time frame
  2. All of them made decisions during the process (rather than just going with the first/ loudest/ most confident/ forceful idea) because they were specifically required to justify the selection that they made

To summarise: I used the language of expectations to structure the activity SO THAT everybody demonstrated high levels of discernment and thoughtful consideration as a result of the scaffold of ‘Structured, Specific, Succinct’ expectations.

In being explicit about expectations, we can frame success criteria in a far more purposeful and succinct way. If we want a group to come up with some good questions about a topic, we can start to think about how many questions we realistically, or ambitiously, expect them to come up with. Then we can specifically tell them how many questions we really expect them to generate. If we think they will need about three minutes to do this, we can tell them we expect them to come up with (x number) of questions in (x amount) of time. In this way, we will can be clear about our expectations and communicate our belief in their ability to achieve this at the same time, SO THAT we nurture their personal sense of agency and a ‘can do’ attitude in their learning.

So, “I want you to come up with some ideas” becomes, “I expect each one of you (insert names if needed) to identify six important points in the text and select the three most important in (specific time)”

And, “Some of you might be able to/ could/ should….” becomes, “I expect those of you who are working at level (x) / (insert names if needed) to be able to…by (midway point in the lesson/ end of lesson/)…SO THAT….you can show me/ each other that you can/ understand/ know/…’

Marginal Learning Gain #5 pt 2 = Communicating in the Language of Expectations (S3)

  • Think in the language of expectations SO THAT we communicate what we expect learners to be able to achieve by the mid-point/ end of the lesson/ topic/ unit/ term
  • Design and organise learning SO THAT we ensure learners meet both our own and their own expectations (as far as they possibly can)
  • Communicate through the language of expectations SO THAT learning outcomes are framed as; “I expect (either insert names OR use all/ most/ some of you) to be able to (do/ show/ analyse/ communicate/ create etc) SO THAT …”
  • Encourage learners to adopt the language of expectancy in their own thinking (structured, specific and succinct) SO THAT they start to shape and own their ambition
  • Ask learners what they specifically expect to be able to do/ know/ understand achieve and how they will do this at specific points in the lesson SO THAT they can commit to just this (see Marginal Gains #2 Compliance to learning plan)
  • Ask learners what they expect from the next lesson based on what they can now do and/or what they now know and understand SO THAT they build on prior learning and engage in their own sense of progression over time
  • Ask learners how well they expect to achieve in a forthcoming assessment, by the end of the topic, term, year SO THAT they can record this and use it as their personal learning goals as the year progresses

Being expectant rather than hopeful involves using the word ‘expect’ when we both think and talk about learning. It means we can be structured, specific and succinct in how we design and organise learning SO THAT we create a culture of aspiration and clear expectations. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that we develop a hope-less teaching environment. We all need to be hopeful particularly when we start out on each new part of our learning journey. But perhaps we can deliberately shift our mindset earlier in the process of teaching? By consciously changing the language in which we think and adopting this in our communications with learners from the outset, we won’t have to wait for evidence to reassure us that we really can believe that great achievement is possible. Perhaps this is what we can also encourage learners to do? If they wait for enough evidence to let them know it is safe enough to commit to learning, they may never take that intellectual risk we know/ believe they can. I wonder if this Marginal Learning Gain could be one way to accelerate a sense of agency and self-belief in our learners.

When we are expectant of ourselves and each other, surely then, we will find ourselves enjoying a culture of high aspirations? And if, for some reason, expectations are not met, then I wonder whether enables us to ask exclusively learning-focused questions as to why this hasn’t happened. In this way, we can avoid being left wondering whether a failure to meet a learning goal was because we did not explain the task with clarity, plan it well enough or think it through. We will surely know that, having adopted the ‘Expectant Teaching Mindset’, we certainly made it clear, we definitely planned it well and we meticulously thought it through, then the next obvious step is to respond to the missed goal as being down to a gap in knowledge, understanding or skill development. We can then immediately and confidently adjust our teaching accordingly.

Maybe this is another Tiny Change (a Marginal Learning Gain) that can make a Big Difference (#tcbd) SO THAT we can own our ambition SO THAT we foster the sense of agency at the motivational heart of our learners.

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.

Marginal Gains: “SO THAT” we can squeeze the learning out of LOs (Part 2)

In my commitment to refining and developing my thinking as a reflective practitioner, here’s a couple of additions to the previous post as a result of Tweacher feedback:

@charte shared some learning from Cramlington, where, “…LOs were usually stated as Content…Process…Benefit which I found helpful!”

And @rachaelkp who tweeted,  “..interesting and useful, could be followed by a question to take learner to next LO?” followed by, “…it also puts the learner in the driving seat, great for motivation.”

Which made me think of this as a type of LO equation, which is great for showing progress over time…

[Today’s LO] SO THAT [next lesson’s LO]

or for links to the wider world or longer term

[Today’s Learning] SO THAT [BIG PICTURE OUTCOME: “You understand/ make informed choices/ contribute to…”]

or for connections to a specific skill…

[Today’s learning] SO THAT [application of skill: “You can…”]

or for a differentiated outcome

[Today’s learning] SO THAT [all can…] [some can…] [most can…]

I’m sure there’s much more in this and I hope you understand that this blog post is my attempt to test out and share my thinking. But it seems that if we dissect the LO so we think about it in terms of exactly why and how the learning will result in the intended outcome, “Learning = Outcome”  then we have a chance to be explicit and concrete about why ‘learning this‘ or ‘learning in this way‘ or even why ‘learning this right now‘ is important, relevant and meaningful. I also really like the Cramlington approach tweeted by Chris Harte which puts the process of learning into the equation.

If students can take the opportunity to reflect for themselves why they think they are ‘learning this’, ‘learning in this way’ and ‘learning this right now’ then they’ll be able to give us some invaluable feedback about the level and security of the understanding they have about their learning which we can then use to inform our teaching adaptations.

If there’s a way to really use LOs to drive the learning and work for us, then I reckon that it could well be yet another marginal gain well worth aggregating.

Constructing learning SO THAT it is meaningful and purposeful

Finding ways to make the complexities of learning concrete and clear to learners is a challenge. Ensuring how we design learning that is both purposeful and meaningful is one thing. Deciding just how we translate the often abstract concept of learning we have in our head so that it makes sense and has meaning for others is what makes a quality learning experience.

This is part of my Marginal Learning Gains (#marginalgains) thinking as it involves focusing in on a very small aspect of learning and refining it in order to extract as big a learning opportunity as possible from it. What I have come to refer to as ‘squeezing the learning’.

I’ve been grappling with the challenge of how to construct learning outcomes and /or objectives (which I will refer to as LOs from here on) that are both purposeful and meaningful. For many lessons, LOs often become the empty and unloved dark corner of our learning architecture rather than the engine room of the learning experience we are offering. So, with my Marginal Learning Gains thinking hat firmly on I started to unpick this one aspect of learning design to see if there was a marginal learning gain to be aggregated in the use and construction of LOs.

The “So That…” of learning 

By inserting the connective of ‘SO THAT…’ there is a concrete way to communicate the relevance of learning. This can also counter challenges from those students who, when faced with something new or unfamiliar and are reluctant to take an intellectual risk, ask why they need to learn/ do/ understand/ study this or learn in this way. So it gives us a great opportunity to pre-empt what is, in fact the ‘SO WHAT?’ by making the reason for the lesson in the LO overt and explicit from the outset.

Some of the benefits of using the ‘SO THAT…’ connective I have begun to notice…

  • It forces me to really think through the reasons why I have designed the learning in a particular way and it doesn’t let me off the hook!
  • It makes me explicit about what I intend the impact of learning to look, sound and feel like, so I have front-end evaluation criteria from the outset as part of my outcome-focused planning
  • It sharpens up my thinking about every form of learning or training session I design. After all, if I can’t explain the ‘SO THAT…’ it probably means that I couldn’t answer the ‘SO WHAT…?’ if I was asked
  • It means that anybody who comes in mid-way through will be clear about the purpose of the design and content of the learning experience
  • It provides a prompt for all learners to articulate why and what they are learning in terms of content and the how in terms of the organisation of their learning
  • It provides an opportunity to involve the learners in working out for themselves what the purpose of learning is. In doing so, they co-construct the success criteria for individual tasks and can see how these are directly linked into the bigger picture of learning

And, if you know me well, you’ll not be surprised that I need a visual to show what I’m talking about. So here you go…I’m working with some teachers to see how this goes, so please let me know what you think so we can add, tweak and refine it further if needs be…Image

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…

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.

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…