Student Learning Using ‘The Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ Model

After watching ‘Road to Glory’, about the inexorable progress of the Sky Pro Cycling team, it foregrounded the mantra of “The Aggregation of Marginal Gains” that is at the core of David Brailsford’s philosophy. In essence, it is the drive to perfect every controllable detail in the process of performance – the ‘marginal gains’ – with the result being a cumulative significant gain. Watching Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France, as well as the Great Britain cycling team in the 2012 Olympics was nothing short of inspirational – like most teachers it was considering how to harness the idea to make it useful in my teaching.

The other evening, after – ‘Road To Glory’ – I had a fruitful Twitter conversation with @fullonlearning (author of the brilliant ‘Full On Learning’) and a fellow teacher @macn_1. We discussed ideas related to the ‘marginal gains’ concept; how it related to learning and how it may be useful for grouping students etc. One idea I was struck by from @fullonlearning was how it could be used to promote “learner effectiveness”. Throughout the summer I have been thinking about how ‘learning’ should actually given as much focus, if not more, than ‘teaching’ – a subtle semantic shift. The ‘marginal gains’ model therefore become not simply another teacher motivational mantra (which, sadly, too often become verbal wallpaper for students), but how it could become a model for nuanced and revealing self-assessment and potent reflective learning.

My idea is to share the concept with my group (I am trailing it with an English Language AS group – because the skills and knowledge of the terms are so naturally small and incremental to fit the model of ‘marginal gains’), and then I want them to record the ‘marginal gains’ on a regular basis. I actually want to use it as a lesson by lesson plenary. Students could design a wheel based diagram (I am thinking one wheel for skills, another for specific knowledge, like English Language terms), or something simpler, that records those small, but important, learning steps. Hopefully it would promote a higher value on their efforts too – with the skills being honed in homework or group work, for example, being given consideration and reflection. We can too easily dismiss metacognition in the hurly burly of our everyday teaching, but we must give time over to reflection of what they have learned, so they understand deeply what they know and the skills they have developed. At the end of the taught components of the course it could be a great time to reflect on their learning by creating an ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ display – sharing our progress – perhaps we mock up some cycling images of us all! This idea could work with any class in any subject area really.

The ideas are still in an embryonic stage, and I’m sure they’ll be subject to revision, but I think the reflective progress, the simple concept, and the inspirational narrative of the cycling method of Brailsford and his team could prove very useful. Plus, I need to get the ‘pre-race bum warmer’ example into my teaching to inspire motivation! I can see how the model can translate easily across subject areas, from PE (obvious links there!) to Maths or Science. I don’t think you need to be a cycling expert, or even a lover of cycling, to appreciate the simple power of the ‘marginal gains’ method. Plus, who doesn’t appreciate having a better understanding about how to become successful?

I have related ideas of how the cycling ‘peloton’ can be applied to a model for group learning – again, devised in collaboration withthe perceptive insights of @fullonlearning and @macn_1. I’m interested in how the cooperation and collaboration can work hand in hand with competition in the cycling peloton; how the roles of ‘team leader’, ‘sprinter’ and ‘domestique’ etc. could be related to group roles in PBL or extended group tasks. The cogs are whirring and I will blog more on this.

Hopefully my AS Language students will be sitting pretty like this come next August:

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About huntingenglish

I am an Assistant Headteacher and English Subject Leader at Huntington Secondary School, York. I like to read, write and talk about teaching and learning. I blog regularly about my main interests: successful teaching strategies, coaching, teacher improvement, with some political arguments and miscellany along the way. I am currently writing a book for new English teachers, to be published next year.

3 responses to “Student Learning Using ‘The Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ Model”

  1. Adam Lewis says :

    We’ve just started using this idea with our Year 11 for their English Language course but promoting it as the ‘secret squirrel club’ with Chris Boardman as the face of it using the little details of the cyclists washing their hands and Boardman making the wheels as round as possible as examples.

    The pupils seem to understand that they don’t need to vastly adjust their writing but make those little changes which can make the world of difference.

    • huntingenglish says :

      Love it – yes, I remember the ‘secret squirrel club’ stuff from an Olympic little section on the GB team. You’re right – giving them the knowledge the little details can make a big difference is really empowering for them. Plus, you can’t beat referencing a bit of sport! I think it has real potential as motivation. Let me know how it progresses.

  2. sylvia Walker says :

    Exciting idea. I am a trainer, coach and mentor in the field of career education and guidance. I use a coaching ‘Wheel of Life’ to help students assess their progress in a range of areas e.g. knowledge (of self , post 16 opportunities and the world of work)’ confidence / motivation(e.g. Writing a cv, giving a presentation, attending an interview) their support network (peers, parents, tutors, employers) etc etc. When we have goasl and a sense of direction we become more motivated (which can improve grades as well as their life chances) You can find life wheel templates on the Mindtools website.

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