Tag Archive | Marginal Gains

School Improvement – The Dave Brailsford Model


Today there is a great article on the BBC website about the inexorable progress of the Sky cycling team under the expert stewardship of Dave Brailsford – see here. The ‘aggregation of marginal gains approach‘ is now well known and can be easily summarised as identifying those small performance factors that, when aggregated together, can have a significant cumulative impact. This can apply to teachers tweaking their pedagogy to transform their practice; students breaking down their tasks to focus on the constituent parts to improve; or school leaders aligning their school priorities. The article takes the process a step forward by focusing on the key developments for moving from good to outstanding as a team.

The first quote from the article that immediately stood out was the following:

“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.”

This seamlessly applies to a school context. Rather than investing in yet more teachers; or seeking the expensive intervention strategy of paying more for ‘top’ teachers, or even paying for extra teachers to make class sizes smaller, we should invest in quality coaching. We should aim to find more of that most crucial, but expensive, commodity for teachers: time. We should help our existing teachers become better, rather than looking to import in super-teachers, or other imported quick fixes. Coaching is a cheap and crucial method in improving our core business, helping teachers improve their pedagogy. We should question how can we develop better coaching?

So how did Brailsford lead team Sky to become “the most admired sports team in the world“? Being well funded helps, and it helps schools. Team Sky stay in the best hotels, with the best pillows etc. – we benefit from having the best school buildings and the best equipment – it is common sense really; however, less expensive marginal gains are also at work.

Hone in on the important data:

“Every turn of the pedal a Team Sky rider makes is recorded by a power meter, analysed using performance software and then benchmarked against Kerrison’s “power curve” models.

Last year, for example, Wiggins’s training was assessed against a template for a Tour/Olympic double. The gaps between these two lines on a graph – where Wiggins was and where he needed to be – were where Team Sky directed what Kerrison describes as “coaching interventions”.
Measuring power and using it as a training tool is not unique to Team Sky – and neither is it new. But what sets them apart is their total faith in it.”

Yes, obviously we are not teaching machines, although our assessment outcomes sometimes make us feel like we do! The lesson here is concentrating on the right data. There are swathes of data models for schools to the point where teachers become swamped. We should simplify our data collection and recording. This post exemplifies using data as a school leader brilliantly, but the rule applies more broadly. We should question what is the best data and how do we use it?

Slow the teaching and learning down, aiming for high quality mastery over quantity:

“But even with squads that large, most teams race all season, go on holiday in the autumn and then start training again in the winter. There is not much room for coaching.
Not at Team Sky, though. Their top riders race fewer days than their rivals and they structure their seasons to accommodate mid-season “training blocks”. For Wiggins, Chris Froome, the rest of the Grand Tour group and even the 10 riders targeting the Cobbled Classics in the spring, that means time off to train at altitude on Tenerife’s Mount Teide.”

Under pressure from OFSTED, curriculum specifications etc. we often try to cover every minute detail of every subject – we often become overly content driven in the fear of missing the minutiae of a potential exam question. What we must do is slow down the learning. There is a movement for this very ideas – see here. Excellent practitioners, such as David Didau have advocated ‘Slow Writing’. In our department, we are moving towards rooting DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) into our daily pedagogy. Much better to do 80% of a job brilliantly than 100% of it badly! We should reflect on what should we not do – like Dylan Wiliam implores – we should stop doing too many good things! We should question what can we drop out of our curriculum to allow for real depth and quality to occur?

You get what you pay for:

“All teams have costs they cannot avoid – hotels, petrol and so on – but given the correlation between wages and winning, most keep their “operational spend” down to a minimum, typically allocating 90% of their resources to salaries. It is the cycling equivalent of putting the best possible XI on the pitch at the expense of everything else.

At Team Sky, however, that split is 80/20, with greater investment in non-riding staff, research and training camps. “You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one,” is Brailsford’s rationale.”

Rightly or wrongly (I say wrongly whole-heartedly!), budgets are tight. We should ask the question of every spend in our school: what impact does it have on teaching and learning? This should drive our choices, whether as a subject leader or school leader. People may question the relative wealth of the Sky Team – comparing it to some Wellington or Eton School equivalent. That is true to some degree, but at the head of the innovation team (the ‘Secret Squirrel Club’) is Chris Boardman – a man who devised the world’s fastest bike with the tools in his garage! Great things can still be done on tight budgets, they may just require greater ingenuity! We should question deeply what we spend our money on and we should challenge the government to invest further in top quality education.

Regular communication:

“We’ve got good at conference calls,” said Brailsford, adding these are not just any conference calls. These are mandatory Monday morning conference calls, with standardised minutes.

But as good as these virtual meetings are, you cannot beat an old-fashioned, face-to-face chinwag, which is why one of this year’s innovations will be the establishment of a permanent performance base in Nice, staffed by Kerrison and Shaun Stephens, until recently the head coach of the Australian triathlon team.”

The question should be how do we best communicate? How do we best make use of technology to drive improvement in our practice: such as using blogs, email communication, meeting and training time? Again, what should we not do? Are we wasting our time and that of our teachers with excessive meetings? Or, should we adapt our currently meetings to ensure the hone in relentlessly on teaching, learning and pedagogy?

The “elephant in the room” for cycling may well be the spectre of drug cheats that casts a lengthy shadow over achievement. Our ghostly apparitions may be OFSTED, exam boards (and the tricky shenanigans of grade boundaries!) or our curriculum model; but they are things we cannot control – mere apparitions and even media driven crises blown out of true proportion. We need to follow Brailsford’s model and keep the main thing the main thing – refusing such distractions from our core business of teaching and learning.

Making and Sustaining Habit Changes in Education


As a teacher I am always looking to take on the Sisyphean task of changing the habits of my students to make them better learners. What I have also realised as a subject leader, and as a reflective teacher, is that I am also looking to improve and change my own habits, my practice, and to support my colleagues to improve their practice still further too. Better teaching requires sustained changes in our habits – a very difficult process! Now, I am a great believer in deliberate practice as a path to mastery. I also whole-heartedly prescribe to Carole Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach – and the view that grit and effort, and not some divine talent or inspiration, is where most creativity and innovation is to be found. All that being said, I also think that our core habits are rooted deeply within our egos and our motivations are predominantly emotional rather than logical. I was therefore struck by the outstanding book which articulated many of these issues, ‘Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard’, about how to make changes to habitual patterns, for individuals, or groups and organisations through connecting with our emotions and tweaking the environment. Although not a book about school organisations as such, the book speaks directly to schools, and leaders at all levels of schools and education; and teachers, looking to make those habitual positive changes with their classes.

What the book does so successfully is to give a simple pattern to initiating change and sustaining change – particularly changing the habits of individuals and organisations (with lots of excellent examples). I have always thought that teachers are a particularly habitual bunch! Dismiss it as cod psychology, but we have returned to settings which replicate much of our childhood, so there must be a psychological pleasure we get from the school environment, something that runs deep within us emotionally (I won’t even mention the emotion invested in coffee cups or seats in the staff room, or our class room spaces!). Perhaps this is why we can be so resistant to change? Or maybe we just like to be in ultimate control – we are commanders of our classroom ship so often that perhaps we just fail to allow anyone else to steer and guide our ship to fresh waters!

The pattern for change derived from Chip and Dan Heath (yes, they are American, how did you guess?) is described below. Obviously, I am most interesting in the applicability of this pattern to educational contexts. Forgive some of the jargon, I can’t explain it all; however, a simple explanation of the ‘Rider‘ and ‘Elephant‘ analogy is required. They actually borrowed the analogy from Jonathan Haidt’s book, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘. Put simply, the ‘Rider‘ is our logical, organised and rational self – steering us appropriately; whereas the ‘Elephant‘ is our powerful emotional self, ready to unleash terrific power at any moment! The tensions between the two are obvious. As the Heath brothers describe, the two both need to be influenced for sustained, habitual change to occur.

1. ‘Direct the Rider’:
– Find the Bright Spots: investigate what is working and clone it;
– Script the Critical Moves: think in terms of specific goals, not a big picture (too vague);
– Point to the Destination: change is easier when you know where you are going.


2. ‘Motivate the Elephant’:
– Find the Feeling: knowing/thinking something isn’t enough to change it, make people feel something;
– Shrink the Change: break down the change so it isn’t too daunting;
– Grow Your People: cultivate a strong sense of identity and instil a growth mindset.


3. ‘Shape the Path’:
– Tweak the Environment: when the situation & the environment changes, so does the behaviour;
– Build Habits: when behaviour is habitual it doesn’t tax the ‘rider’ as much – encourage new habits;
– Rally the Herd: behaviour is contagious – help spread it.


For me, starting with ‘finding the bright spots‘ is key. Too often we aim to get people to change by focusing on what is ‘broken’, or bringing in the ‘expert’, having a whirlwind training session and then expecting long-held habits to simply fall away. It just doesn’t work. Change needs to emerge from the ground up, otherwise we just don’t have the emotional investment required to really change our habits. As a subject leader, I have realised that when people have tried something themselves and seen it work it has many more times the impact than watching some ‘outstanding’ lesson by another teacher in another part of the school, no matter how good and illuminating that lesson may be. Such is the power of the ‘elephant‘ our emotional selves simply switch off to such external stimuli is presented to us – no matter how valid or persuasive. I see so many teachers readily dismiss success from another school with a cynical jibe at the catchment area or the selective nature of another school, rightly or wrongly. People need to feel the change and see it working around them to believe it (sometimes people need to know and feel the problems with not changing). Colleagues in a department observing one another and coaching one another, with close specific focus on a manageable area of pedagogy, can be so powerful because the ‘elephant‘ essentially feels safer and more receptive to new information and advice; more so than being given expert advice by any external party, be it the subject leader, or leaders from the SLT. A learning walk is looked on with cynicism by many, we must provide the conditions for genuine sharing of new habits, such as new pedagogy. There is definitely a place for external experts too – I am a firm believer that we should all undertake educational research, as we would expect of our best students, but we must put them into practice in our context, with our colleagues, in a habitual, supportive fashion. Put simply, imported solutions most typically fail – change is organic and must be cultivated from the soil up.

Scripting the Critical Moves‘ is a key early step to initiating change. Leaders need to lead and people will follow when the goals are explicit and ambiguity is removed. Given a great deal of choice we simply become paralysed! When we have an excess of choice that paralysis leads us to simply fall back into our own habits. It is why students in class love explicit parameters of timings, behaviour and methodology. It gives us comfort too and we safely fall in line and ‘follow the herd’. Given common sense advice, like asking teachers to ‘work towards outstanding teaching and learning’, simply fails because it is simply too ambiguous and frightening (and hard work!) – our ‘elephants’ have too much wiggle room, so we never make the difficult move towards forming a new habit – we avoid the challenge in an act of self-preservation. Too often people fail to change, not out of resistance, but out of sheer miscomprehension. If we want teachers to become outstanding practitioners, and sustain it, we must provide marginal gains on the path towards that mastery – these need to be scripted with utter clarity – right down the the steps of core pedagogy. Then the marginal pedagogy needs to be practised and honed. The critical moves must also involve a clear destination. If you are wanting yourself or your department to move towards becoming outstanding, define the goal with absolute clarity. Make the outcome something like: ‘by the Summer of 2014, 70% of all lessons will be observed as outstanding and 30% as good’. Put like that, the idea doesn’t seem so outlandish! If you begin to ‘shrink the change‘ down to coaching targets for the department and a focus upon ‘marginal gains’ regarding key pedagogy, like questioning and oral feedback, then the change becomes emotionally accessible and even less frightening for the ‘elephant‘ – even to teachers with the most pronounced ‘elephant syndrome’! Once the pathway is established strip away everything that is extraneous to the desired outcome, make the time, hone in on the ‘marginal gains’ with utter clarity. Celebrate each step of the way – every success and even every failure – if we learn from failure we can get further down our desired path.

Emotional motivation is perhaps the most essential aspect of making and sustaining change. I have written before about habits and about confidence. The more I lead my brilliant team of teachers the more I realise that the key part of my job is emotional support (forgive me if I am stating the obvious!). ‘Finding the feeling‘ is the key to all change. Now, you could put the fear of god into teachers to motivate them to change – OFSTED inspections are often the stick with which to beat – however, to really sustain change, positive emotion must be instigated and this positive emotion sustains and helps build persistence in the face of challenges (take note Mr Gove!). Perhaps, instead, you insulate your team and support them with every confidence, encourage their risks and guide them with as much capacity building as you can muster to attempt to achieve your collective goal. What people like Gove ignore is that real change, that makes for real greatness, is powered by positive emotions: by confidence, trust, respect and self-belief. It may sound mawkish but it is true. Change founded on fear and coercion is brittle and short-lived.

At the recent SSAT conference I listened to the brilliant Emily Cummins – a young woman appealing for more real world challenges and projects in our school curriculum to really motivate students. Seeing her impassioned story of working with her grandfather as a child, to becoming an inventor of global repute, often despite her schooling, struck a chord. Working with my Y11 students writing a real letter for local and national newspapers (which was drafted over and over), I saw a new spark in some students, provoked by the potential of the real audience. Seeing the pride some students had in their work reminded me of Emily Cummins. I began to feel the need for curriculum change to something that had more real world applications, to a project based learning approach that involved choice and creativity, that involved technology and a global audience. I encountered a feeling with more purpose than I had felt before. It is something I have kept burning and it will inform the changes I lead as a subject leader and in any future educational pursuits. Too easily we can simply fall back into our habits in education – genuine creativity, really open briefs, co-construction with students – are all laudable pursuits we agree, but we pay them lip service and then return to our default position of our safe habits. Often teaching as we were taught in our turn – an emotional withdrawal to our past. Ultimately, we must experience a real emotional shift if we are to undertake a habitual shift. People need help and sustained emotional, and sometimes physical, support to change. For my mother to quit smoking she aimed to wean herself off the habit by using nicotine patches, although ultimately, it was her love for my father, and making sure he quit too, which is what made the habit stick – she certainly ‘found the feeling‘.

We can help by ‘shrinking the change‘, making those crucial ‘marginal gains’ which are much easier to tackle than hulking great challenges; supported by ‘tweaking the environment‘. Since I have been subject leader we have made little but significant tweaks to our classroom environment with pedagogical intent. A couple of years ago, we moved from an array of seating arrangements, most typically rows, to a common arrangement of group tables in every room. That one small shift initiated a sequence of changes to our pedagogy that made us all ensure that our group work and peer interaction was more thought through. Our seating plans became more nuanced to suit the group dynamics. In short, we shared ideas to deal with the tweak and we subsequently planned better lessons. Buoyed by that change to the environment, we added further tweaks, such as multiple whiteboards on the walls, to create more flexibility in the room and more opportunities for ‘visible learning‘. We initiated an iPad pilot for more enriched, multi-modal group collaborative work. Such technological innovation was quite frankly alien to some of our department, but the tweak to the environment meant people were trying new innovations in their pedagogy, and they were being forced to shift to new patterns of pedagogy the quickly became a new normal. The ‘herd mentality‘ was also a powerful force. We shared training time to build confidence and becalmed the ‘elephant’. Some colleagues unexpectedly attempted the changes with gusto and the positive response carried people along for the ride – habits were changing, not by force, but incrementally and by choice, from the soil up. Tweaking the environment works!

By following these steps and planning with precision, we can make positive changes to teaching groups, to our practice, to leading departments and indeed schools – making our job as teachers in the heady future of 2013 a little less Sisyphean a task!


Questioning – Top Ten Strategies


“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.”Albert Einstein

Questioning is the very cornerstone of philosophy and education, ever since Socrates ( in our Western tradition) decided to annoy pretty much everyone by critiquing and harrying people with questions – it has been central to our development of thinking and our capacity to learn. Indeed, it is so integral to all that we do that it is often overlooked when developing pedagogy – but it as crucial to teaching as air is to breathing. We must ask: do we need to give questioning the thought and planning time something so essential to learning obviously deserves? Do we need to consciously teach students to ask good questions and not just answer them? How do we create a ‘culture of inquiry’ in our classroom that open minds and provokes truly independent thought?

Most research indicates that as much as 80% of classroom questioning is based on low order, factual recall questions. What we must do is put questioning back to the core of our pedagogy and planning – we need to create is a climate of enquiry and engagement in high quality, high order questioning if formative progress is to be identified effectively. We need to carefully formulate questions with precision, as well as targeting the right questions with the right students. One key issue is that we teach in a ‘answer focused culture’ – students await to be spoon fed answers; they await the secrets to an exam that is typically closed to any breadth of thinking (many of our exams are awful – the English Literature AS level exam appears to have reduced the greatest literature known to man down to a reductive shopping list!). The entire system we work within appears to reinforce a close-minded ‘answers culture’; inquisitiveness, time to explore and think are rail-roaded into a one track exam system. Controlled assessment after controlled assessment – judgement after stultifying judgement. Yet, we can change the system from the inside: we can make our schools and classrooms a world within a world – one where we maximise creativity by encouraging the asking of good, thoughtful questions; one where we crucially foster a culture of enquiry. In a culture of enquiry, questions are no longer the domain of the ignorant; a tool to trip up the teacher – they become dynamic – more about critical involvement, stretching knowledge and enriching understanding.

Effective questioning is key because it makes the thinking visible: it identifies prior knowledge; reasoning ability and the specific degree of student understanding – therefore it is the ultimate guide for formative progress. It allows for flexible adaptations in the learning and the righting of misconceptions – it can be the key #marginalgain in any given lesson in terms of time, but it is often the key hinge point between students making progress. My top ten list is roughly organised by transitions within a lesson: beginning with 1 to 4 being questioning that initiates the learning process; 5 and 7 being core questioning techniques to develop the learning; and finally 8 to 10 being questioning strategies that are evaluative in nature:

1. Key Questions as Learning Objectives: what better way to foster a culture of inquiry than to spark the whole shooting match off with a big question that gets students thinking critically about what they are going to learn? By asking a big question you can initiate thinking and group discussion that immediate engages students in their prospective learning. By framing it as a question, it can raise motivation, as students feel like they have invested choice in their learning – and by getting students to subsequently formulate the learning objective they really begin to think about the nuances of what they are to learn and why.

2. ‘If this is the answer…what is the question?’


Taken from ‘Mock the Week’, this simple little technique sparks the inquisitiveness within students – just by quickly reversing the standard question and answer dichotomy it can deepen their thinking. It could be a relatively closed answer, like ‘3.14159265359’ (the numerical value of pi); or something more open and abstract, like ‘religion’ (a potential powder-keg that one!). They can be given the idea by showing a short clip of ‘Mock the Week from’ on YouTube – but I would advise you to vet the video carefully first!

3. Thunks – These little gems are great to initiate deeper thinking, with seemingly simple questions opening up a complex array of higher order thinking. Thunks, such as: “If I ask if I can steal your pen and you say yes, is that stealing?” Or “Can I ever step on the same beach twice?” are great fun and thoughtful starters. These clever questions (see Ian Gilbert’s excellent ‘Little a book of Thunks‘ or the website: http://www.thunks.co.uk/ ) can simply be used to spark thinking or dialogue, or they can be more targeted towards the topic or subject at hand. As the students become familiar with thunking (they really enjoy it in my experience) they can begin to formulate their own thunks – a great way to get them to think about higher order, open questioning.

4. ‘Just One More Question…’ (said in the style of Columbo!): Given any topic or subject, they have to work collaboratively in groups to create an array of quality questions. They can then be given a series of challenging question stems to broaden their range of questions, using the following: What if…?; Suppose we knew…?; What would change if…? Suppose we knew…? If they write the questions on post it notes then they can be collated and saved – with the teacher returning to them further thrown the learning line. As the topic develops students can add ‘just one more question’, as well as answering the initial questions as their understanding grows. By following this method you can continue to foster the crucial culture of inquiry in the classroom – encouraging questions as a matter of course. Generating a range of such questions is a great way to initiate a topic, as it helps highlight miscomprehension immediately; it can foster collaboration and it can give the teacher precise and immediate formative feedback to shape their subsequent planning for the topic.

5. Socratic questioning and Socratic Circles – The old dog really can teach us new tricks! Socrates himself believed that questioning was at the root of all learning – and it is hard to disagree. The six steps of Socratic questioning creates a critical atmosphere that probes thinking and once more gets the students questioning in a structured way. There are six main categories:

Q1. Get your students to clarify their thinking, for instance: “Why do you say that?” ….“Could you explain that further?”
Q2. Challenging students about assumptions, for instance: “Is this always the case? Why do you think that this assumption holds here?”
Q3. Evidence as a basis for argument, questions such as: “Why do you say that?” or “Is there reason to doubt this evidence?”
Q4. Viewpoints and perspectives, this challenges the students to investigate other ways of looking at the same issue, for example: “What is the counter argument for…?” or Can/did anyone see this another way?”
Q5. Implications and consequences, given that actions have consequences, this is an area ripe for questioning, for instance: “But if that happened, what else would result?” or “How does… affect ….?” By investigating this, students may analyse more carefully before jumping to an opinion
Q6. Question the question, just when students think they have a valid answer this is where you can tip them back into the pit: “Why do you think I asked that question?” or “Why was that question important?”

I like to exemplify the probing nature of Socratic questioning with the attack dog of relentless questions – Jeremy Paxman – and his logical stripping down of Michael Howard!

I am thankful to @dailydenouement for the following document that presents a really clear set of instructions to document the Socratic circles strategy:
This approach is a fantastic way to structure dialogue and to involve all students in exploring and developing their arguments. It creates a variety of roles and stimulates collaborative thinking and learning. Once more, it is another way to get students to reflect upon the very quality of the questions and not just the answers, with the critique of students from the outer circle.

6. Pose-pause-bounce-pounce – This is a brilliantly simple but very important strategy. The thinking time at the ‘pause’ point is crucial – there is a great deal of evidence about how the quality of responses, and the confidence levels of students, is raised by even a short amount of thinking time. The ‘bounce’ is also crucial in that, once again, students are expected to constructively build upon the ideas of one another, which gives the teacher the crucial formative assessment information required. I will hand you over to Dylan William and his excellent explanation of the strategy and the importance of quality questioning:

7. Hinge point questions – This simple but effective question approach does what it says on the tin, but in terms of progress, planning using hinge point questions can be pivotal for formative assessment. These questions really are crucial to identifying formative progress. These can be relatively closed questions, such as in this History exemplar question:
In which year did World War Two begin?
A: 1919
B: 1938
C: 1939
D: 1940
This allows for a very swift hinge point diagnosis of student progress. But, you can deepen the thinking by asking a ‘Why’ question about the origins of World War Two. You can ask students to orally explain their rationale, or you can add further complexity by having two ‘right’ answers to a question. Regardless of the strategy, again the precision of the question is key to the answer, and the subsequent direction of the learning. Too often teachers plough on regardless to meet the demands of their brilliant lesson plan, when all the formative assessment shouts at them (sometimes literally!) to move in another direction. We should not be frightened by going back steps to consolidate the learning – repetition is at the heart of acquiring knowledge – and without knowledge, skills become meaningless. Like the Green Cross Code tells us, we need to ‘stop, look and listen’ to the quality of the question, and the quality of the answer, before we go anywhere.

8. Question continuum – The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ (from ‘closed factual questions’ to ‘open, conceptual questions’) – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. Having the questions very visible means you can also flexibly rearrange, such as selecting the ‘best’ nine questions and creating a new ‘diamond nine’ formation. As you can see, the possibilities are endless.

9. Questioning monitor: Once more, this technique constructively involves students in the evaluation and reflection of the questioning process – fostering my now well worn refrain of creating a culture of enquiry. A monitor, or a pair of monitors, would be given the responsibility to track and monitor the frequency of questions: teacher and student – open or closed: factual or conceptual. You can have them monitor for a given task, or relate more cumulative research by undertaking the monitoring over a week or two of lessons. By exploring the evidence you are signalling to the students that you value evidence, and you are diagnosing the quality of your questioning, and that of the students. You will then have the evidence to know whether you really do have a culture of enquiry – and if not, it illuminates some of the steps you need to take to develop one. The activity sends very powerful messages to students about how highly your value quality questioning.

10. The Question Wall (a design upgrade for a well-used technique) Many educationalists have put forward sound reasons for using a question wall, or a learning wall. The ‘Question Continuum’ clearly overlaps with regards to pedagogy with a question wall, so I would be wary of trying both concurrently with groups, as it could potentially confuse them. The ‘Question Wall’ in this instance is a working space for students to communicate questions about their learning. By giving students post it notes and asking them to commit questions to writing typically eliminates those questions that reflect a sense of ‘learnt helplessness’ – the ‘how does you spell such and such’, when they have a dictionary on their table; or, ‘what do we have to do’, in response to your lengthy and erudite explanation you have only just imparted! The question wall helps foster independence and, once more, makes the students think a little more about their questions. To add a level of nuance to the wall, consider creating simple quadrants with simple labels: students can be advised that closed questions are placed on the left of the wall, whereas more open questions are placed progressively to the right hand side. A vertical axis could indicate the timer he student would expect was needed for explanation: placing questions that need a high degree of support, and therefore time, higher up the wall than those shorter, typically more closed questions. This simple visual representation of their questions allows the teacher to make a quick visual judgement about what questions they have time to address, or may want to prioritise. It helpfully indicates the level of ‘stuckness’ of the student, which is important feedback.

*Note: You may have noticed that the vast majority of these techniques require, or could benefit from, the use of post it notes. I am a supreme convert of the humble post it! We have just invested in stacks of the larger post its (they are broader than the usual) to ensure they work more effectively as tools for the above strategies and more.

Added Extras:

Schools across the world are taking the basics of questioning and learning and making outstanding progress happen, with high order critical at the heart of learning. Other countries, like China, are hunting down education systems that foster a ‘culture of inquiry’ so that they can create their own system that helps create creative and critical thinkers. With this pursuit in mind, I found this interesting case study about project based learning in schools in Jerusalem, with their ‘Communities of Thinking’. There are some great questions to be found here at the root of some really interesting pedagogy:


New Teaching Ideas – Making the Marginal Gains

My most recent post on #marginalgains was an attempt to move my thinking forward and explore what I view as the most important marginal gains for my teaching, as well as exploring what I see as the essentials of teaching pedagogy. The two key areas I see as being the key ‘hinge point marginal gains’ (marginal in terms of shaping often lengthier learning activities, as well as being usually only one of two minute spells in the overall lesson time, but crucial in terms of making progress) are questioning and oral formative feedback.

See: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/using-hinge-marginal-gains-to-go-from-good-to-outstanding/

I see these two areas of pedagogy as essential in oiling the wheels of learning and making progress visible. I want to continue to make marginal gains with a laser-like focus upon these two areas of pedagogy. With this in mind, I am making these explicit in my planning for the coming half-term.

The following teaching strategies were partially inspired by Harvard’s ‘Project Zero’ thinking skills approach to learning. I am planning to trial them all over the course of the next half-term:

1. Oral Formative Feedback and the CSI routine


Now, apologies for my false advertising, there is no criminal investigation, no Who music dramatically emerging from the speakers to herald the activity (although that may actually be a good idea!). It is simply an acronym for the thinking routine – ‘Colour, Symbol, Image’. With any given idea or topic, students can show their understanding by making simple, but potentially sophisticated relational links to the idea/topic. I see it as a simple oral feedback approach, perhaps conducted through a ‘think-pair-share’ approach to oil the wheels still further, undertaken quite swiftly. It is a simple but precise approach that may work better with certain topics and ideas, but is eminently flexible and a great hinge point to identify progress.

2. Oral Formative Feedback and the 3-2-1 Routine

This strategy is similar to the ‘CSI routine’ in that it provides a quick and precise language, and a routine for feedback (students love a good sign-posted routine!). The 3-2-1 routine stands for ‘3 thoughts or ideas; 2 questions; and 1 analogy‘. I like this step by step approach as it can provide effective differentiation in their level of response – with the the questions and the analogy clearly stretching student understanding. Once again, the quality of response clearly demonstrates how much, or how little, progress students have made with a given topic or idea. It can therefore provides a real hinge point to the lesson.

3. Questioning and ‘Creative Questioning’

A very simple idea in many ways, but I think it is an effective strategy for generating creative questions and getting students to generate their own questions that can be imaginatively transformative. For any given object or topic students can work in pairs to create an imaginative list of questions, using the following prompts:

– How would it be different if…
– How might it be used differently…
– What would change if…
– How would it be different if it was used by…
– Suppose that…
– How would it look differently if…

In the past I have had students make brilliant Dragon’s Den style persuasive sales pitches to sell a plastic bag or a left shoe to great effect! Given the new possibilities, students can select a question to magi natively explore, thinking around the new possibilities. It could provide a stimulus for writing a narrative, creating a piece of art, devising a drama piece, or a new design technology creation. The question prompts exemplify students the imaginative and transformative impact simple questions can have upon their learning.

4. Questioning and the ‘Great Question Continuum’

This involves reflecting upon questions deeply in a very visible way. A few weeks ago I noted some great questions related to the English Literature staple, ‘Of Mice and Men’, on Twitter (from the sage David Doherty aka @dockers_hoops). It involved asking which character would and should be the next American President; followed by which character would you least like to sit next to in class. These ideas were brilliant gems that got me thinking how far an original question can take the learning. The continuum involves the students first devising questions, in pairs or groups, on any given topic or idea. Then the continuum is created very visibly, either on the whiteboard, or more semi-permanently on a display board (great to resume the strategy in future lessons) – with student questions being on post it notes for added flexibility. The horizontal axis would represent the ‘Interest Level’ generated by each question – that is how likely the question is to inspire new thinking and new possibilities, and simply the interest level it generates from the group. Then the vertical axis could be flexible in a variety of ways, should you wish to include a vertical axis. The vertical axis could represent ‘Complexity‘ – that is how far the question would deepen their understanding and generate complex thinking. Students could feedback their opinions, shaped by the teacher, to identify the best questions – which then could be the subject of further exploration. By reflecting deeply upon question quality and the breadth of thinking inspired by the question the students could better independently consider different responses and interpretations – a definite marginal gain, and potentially definitive one, for their continued learning.

Using ‘Hinge Point Marginal Gains’ to go from Good to Outstanding

Over the last few weeks I have been considering how to apply David Brailsford’s ‘aggregation of marginal gains‘ approach to help teachers, myself, and our English and Media Faculty included, move from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ in their daily practice. I think the whole concept of ‘marginal gains’ is so useful because it is simply about the pursuit of excellence, with precise language and rigour, and there is also a very engaging story of real success underpinning the idea. I think the pursuit of improving ‘marginal gains’ is something we all do, and have done in many areas of our life. It is not new. It is not advanced Astrophysics even! It is a direct and effective language for our best practice – it is a concept that can give clarity to our pursuit of excellence – or ‘outstandingness‘!

Now, I am interested in those crucial margins that make for outstanding teaching and learning. That is where we all wish to be as teachers. I am most interested in the tipping point between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’, because I think improving in that area could be transformative for our students and their experience of school – exam results etc. positively would follow. The most recent evidence across all the key stages, undertaken by OFSTED, states that 70% of lessons in English were rated ‘good’ or more in both phases of education, with only 15% being judged as ‘outstanding’ – source: ‘Moving English Forward’ (OFSTED, 2012). In the equivalent Maths report: ‘Mathematics – Made to Measure’ (OFSTED 2012) – 11% of lessons were deemed ‘outstanding’; 43% were ‘good’; with 42% being judged ‘satisfactory’. By extrapolating these findings across the span of the curriculum it could be judged that the vast majority of teaching is bumping around the ‘good’ judgement area – which is a very positive starting point for developing teaching and learning. That is not to say the third of lessons that are not deemed ‘good’ in English, with more so in Maths, are not crucial. Indeed, they require explicit attention from teachers and schools to address the matter. Yet, the vast majority of teaching is ‘good’, and despite what Daily Mail editorials tell us, we are striving to be even better. In such a context we are all aiming for outstanding, therefore collaborating to the best of our ability to share our best pedagogy should be a priority. We should be looking to achieve every ‘marginal gain’ possible – not only that, we should have a rigorous focus upon the marginal gains that have the greatest impact upon student attainment.

Last week, the peerless teacher-blogger, David Didau (his Twitter guise being @Learningspy for those people who have not discovered his epic blog back-catalogue of pedagogical goodness!), had been in pursuit of those crucial gains that help teachers strive from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’. He quickly combed the expertise of Tweachers by crowd sourcing #marginalgains for teaching and learning from an array of experts – coming up with an intriguing list in the following blog post: http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/10/14/outstanding-teaching-learning-missed-opportunities-and-marginal-gains/.
Like most teachers, I looked at the list and thought long and hard about each point. I considered why I agreed with some more than others – before doing what most males thought about doing – putting the list into an order, even creating a top five! It isn’t just Nick Hornby who loves lists, he is speaking for many of us mildly obsessive male types!

I thought for days about those key marginal gains in lessons. I got thinking about what I viewed were the ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ – those gains which I believe have the most significant impact upon progress in learning – which ultimately makes the difference from a ‘good’ lesson to an ‘outstanding’ one. What most teachers know is that there isn’t a huge difference between the two judgements – it is, of course, marginal. It often exists in those seconds when a task is being outlined; feedback on student answers is being given or one crucial key question is being answered…or not being answered as the case may be!

We often miss those key ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ in our planning. In our preparation we may spend twice as long preparing a photoshopped image, for example, than we spend on forming the crucial question for which the progress of the lesson hinges. For instance, why is it that a department could all use the exact same scheme of learning with any given ‘outstanding lesson plan’; one that the resources should “make a marked contributions to the quality of learning” (OFSTED Criteria); “expert subject knowledge is applied consistently” (OFSTED) in the plan; where student behaviour and attitude is such that they “are aspirational and…are determined to succeed” (OFSTED) – but yet for one teacher the lesson is deemed ‘outstanding’ and for another it isn’t? I would expect that for many observers the key differences are far from obvious. What we must do it eradicate the mystery of those marginal differences. We must pull back the veil and share the findings.

I don’t think that the marginal difference between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ is to be found in the varying quality of resources, or the varying technological tools, or even the choice of task necessarily. Each and every element of a lesson has a degree of importance obviously, but I think the more flexible elements of a lesson, not always explicit in the plan, are the most essential. Those essential elements are questioning and formative oral feedback. These, I believe, are the key ‘hinge marginal gains’ that are the drivers of outstanding teaching and learning – they are the most significant difference in that hazy margin between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’. They are the grease that the oils the progress of learning. This may be why Wilshaw sagely stated in his speech to the NCSL that:

“Ofsted inspectors will not arrive with a preferred teaching style or model lesson.
Lessons, of course, should be planned, but not in an overcomplicated or formulaic way. A crowded lesson plan is as bad as a crowded curriculum. We don’t want to see a wide variety of teaching strategies unless they have coherence or purpose.”

Yes, I am quoting Wilshaw! He does have moments of clarity and good sense! We may be implementing every innovation under the sun, we might have technology invading every fibre of our lesson – but “rapid” progress in learning and students acquiring knowledge and developing understanding “exceptionally well” comes down to asking great questions, receiving answers, acting upon that information and shaping the next steps in the learning. They give ‘coherence’ to learning that engenders the rapid knowledge and understanding required for students. Reflecting upon this further it is clear that questioning and formative oral feedback are inextricably linked. We must define and unpick those links carefully.

As Dylan William stated, perhaps we should stop doing so many ‘good things’ in our daily practice! See his speech: http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=wKLo15A80lI&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DwKLo15A80lI.
Perhaps we should instead hone in upon improving the ‘hinge marginal gains‘ as our priority for developing our pedagogy and our lesson planning. With planning, departmental coaching, whole school teaching and learning development, we could focus with absolute rigour on this pairing – then those marginal gains we experience could make that marginal, but highly significant aggregated gain for our students, and we may well be judged as ‘outstanding’.

In following posts are what I see as a good starting point in addressing the crucial ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ :








Crafting and Drafting – Creating a Culture of Excellence

Firstly, may I say that this post is directly inspired by Ron Berger’s book, ‘An Ethic of Excellence: Building A Craftsmanship with Students’ and ideas related to the concept of #marginalgains.

My starting point is my current work with my Year 11 GCSE English group. We are undertaking mock exam preparation, but not in the conventional way. We are not drilling away at endless past questions, tweaking tricks of timing and poring of examiner feedback. We are writing an extended letter for a real audience over a period of hours, with drafts and revisions aplenty. What I want students to develop is an ‘ethic of excellence’ in their writing. Early on in Berger’s book he states the power of ‘transformational work’ and how being motivated by the highest expectations is essential to success:

I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry. When the teachers at the Austine School for the Deaf pointed out to Sonia that many students wouldn’t obsess over their work as she does, her reply was quick: This school has ruined me for life, she said. I’m never satisfied with anything until it’s almost perfect. I have to be proud of it.” (Berger, ‘Ethic of Excellence’ – p8)

I’m not attempting to assert my students have undergone such a life-long transformation, but I am certainly going to groove their habits for writing to be marginally better than they have ever been before. I stated to the group that their writing will not be finished until it is at an A or an A* grade. Many of the students have a target grade significantly lower, so they are naturally daunted by the prospect. Now, I reassure them that it may take five drafts, with students carefully supporting and critiquing one another, with some precise support form me, to improve still further to that final point. They are still surprised by the expectation level being significantly higher for their work than what they are used to producing. Indeed, the gap between a C grade and an A grade can often appear insurmountable. That is where the ‘marginal gains’ approach proves so useful. We breakdown and define successful writing, and therefore A* writing unsurprisingly, using the wheels of marginal gains – where each spoke of the wheel becomes a small element of their writing that they can improve – to reach a successful whole piece of writing – the completed wheel (see my previous blogs on #marginalgains for examples of such wheels). The small steps make success more manageable for students and therefore they become more motivated and far less likely to give up.

So many students suffer from what Carole Dweck terms the ‘fixed mindset’ – a deep rooted sense that they will inevitably fail; therefore, to preserve their sense of self, they avoid trying their to do their best in their learning in case they confirm their deep rooted fears about their lack of ‘ability’ – which they view as fixed. By using the narrative of ‘marginal gains’, used so successfully by David Brailsford for the British Olympic cycling team and the Team Sky cycling juggernaut, students are assailed by a ‘growth mindset’ approach to their learning. The small improvements and targets are achievable for students and they can see the steps to success that preserves their often delicate sense of self-confidence. As Berger states:

“We can’t first build students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow.” (Berger, ‘Ethic of Excellence’, p65)

In the process of setting up the task I showed the students a piece of writing I had recently composed. I showed students the email I was sent asking for a “chatty style” with “student anecdotes” in the piece. This perfectly linked to their task, as they too were writing for a real audience with a real purpose (so important in enhancing student motivation). They were given the task of writing either one of the following letters:

‘‘Write a letter to the York Press (letters@thepress.co.uk) arguing for or against the view that the media promotes the wrong role models for teenagers’


‘Write a letter to the Guardian newspaper (letters@guardian.co.uk.) arguing for or against ‘Reality’ television.’ (full school address / telephone number required for submissions)

My piece of writing was not too dissimilar, so students were able to critique my work and I discussed openly how I had drafted my writing multiple times. This was similar, but not nearly as impressive, to Berger’s example, where he worked on architectural prints for designing his house for over a year…ok, my example is nowhere near, but the principal is the same! I was open about my initial failures and struggles and I articulated that I expected them to suffer the same…and that that was a very fine thing – failure was the very path to success! What they need to be able to do on this path is to self-assess and judge their successes and failures as they draft. Berger, again, brilliantly articulates this as the “assessment inside students”, which in many ways is infinitely more important than the external assessments we are obsessed with. If they know what outstanding work looks and feels like they can replicate it. Doing one great piece of work goes a long way.

The students have only completed their first draft – we have a fair few lessons, and drafts, to go I estimate. They will hopefully make many marginal gains as they go through their drafting process – each the reflecting upon details like writing techniques, their paragraph structure, proof reading etc. We will not send those emails (and we will eventually send those emails – just like my Year 11s last year sent their letters of complaint to David Cameron about his erroneous claims about ‘broken Britain’!) until we have crafted our writing – until it can be the best they can possibly produce. I will also display the work on the school website and the English and Media Faculty blog – as any learning or project work on display for a real audience immediately heightens the quality of the learning, and the end product, for students. Exam preparation can wait – we have real writing to craft first!

In honour of Ron Berger, I used a craft analogy with my group as we discussed the task. I spoke to them about crafting a fine antique piece of furniture. That they would first need to source their wood (research & plan ideas); cut and plane down the wood and sand it into shape (write the sentences and adding the appropriate rhetorical devices); nail the pieces together with care (paragraph their writing); then varnish their piece (draft it to improve); let it dry and varnish it see more (more drafting!); before finally adding some finishing touches (those final key tweaks and rhetorical tricks). I know the analogy needs a little refining – doesn’t everything – but I think the message was received! Each stage of the process has multiple opportunities for marginal gains – so we will make timely peer and self-assessment stops on the way to make those gains.

I am looking forward to those finished crafted letters. I expect they will be excellent!

Many thanks to @Fullonlearning and @Pekabelo for their ideas today in shaping much of this post. Of course, thanks to Ron Berger too – I would highly recommend you buy and read his great book that I have taken the liberty to quote repeatedly!

Using ‘Marginal Gains’ for Self-Assessment (with useful resources)

Today I got to properly embed the concept of #marginalgains into my practice as an effective self-assessment tool. After the fantastic spectacle of the London Olympics I was determined to utilise the powerful narrative of effort and commitment with my students. I began using Olympic anecdotes almost straight away to try to foster a growth mindset with my new students. Beyond my ringing repetition of ‘effort’ being key to success, I felt that the Olympics was simply a passing idea that would gradually fade. After watching ‘Team Sky – Road To Glory’, about the brilliantly successful SKY cycling team, led by their great leader, David Brailsford, I had a Twitter conversation with @fullonlearning and @macn_1, which inspired us all to take the idea further. Suddenly, the narrative of cycling golds and Brailsford’s successful approach to being meticulous about every piece of the puzzle to achieve ‘marginal gains’ became something that could become useful to learning in class. Today I got to apply it beyond simply using the language of #marginalgains, where it became an effective tool for self-assessment.

Twitter once more triggered the next stage of my thinking. I saw last week some great wheel resources, created and used by @liplash_mason, that were applied with real skill as a self-assessment tool: http://bit.ly/yEdi9v

I wanted to use the wheels for my Y12 English Language group, as there are so many margins to improve, with the many linguistic terms and nuanced skills, that it seemed the ideal way to trail the concept. I then thought that I had used the concept of #marginalgains with my Y10 English group in anecdotal form, so it would prove useful to continue using that language as a way for them to reflect upon the skills and knowledge they had gained during the work towards their ‘Moving Image’ English Language GCSE writing assessment. I therefore prepared the followed PowerPoint resource to explicitly introduce the concept – linked to the process of writing (again – the great wheels from @liplah_mason):

Improving Marginal Gains in Moving Image CA

Interestingly, the students considered the image ordering task on the PPT with even clearer thinking than I had! They considered having the coach first, then the ‘bum pads’, then the cyclist (Chris Hoy) – as that sequence followed the plan orchestrated by the coach. It was one of those nice moments when the learning takes an unexpected turn.

Students were then asked to note their writing #marginalgains on their photocopied wheel. They were asked to review their class work and their writing from the last three weeks – noting their targets from my marking of their work, to noting the skills we had honed and their knowledge of writing techniques required for the specific task:

Example 1:

Example 2:

Example 3: Colour coded

The students were well focused and really enjoyed completing the wheels, which was a simple but powerful method for them to both review their progress and self- assess their skills and knowledge. They were then asked to colour code their wheel to make relational links between the skills, techniques and their targets. We showed examples of these wheels through Apple TV, using my iPad, and through the ExplainEverything application. The ExplainEverything app allowed me to visually ‘cycle’ their wheels around on the whiteboard to review their targets and give individuals feedback.

The next step, now they have reflected upon their skills and their progress so far with their wheels, is to transfer that knowledge to their GCSE planning sheets later in the week. I think the wheels were highly successful, as they provided a simple but creative method of getting students to reflect and actively self-assess their progress. I want to refine this process further. I will still look to transfer the concept to my AS Language class, creating a #marginalgains display, to give a language to their learning. But, after today’s lesson, I am very positive about the impact of the #marginalgains concept and I’m looking forward to take it further across a span of my classes. Give it a try – it works!



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: