Research School Network: More than ​‘Marginal Gains’

More than ​‘Marginal Gains’

by Kingsbridge Research School
on the

A few years ago the educational conference scene was awash with inspirational (and expensive) speakers pointing to the success of the then Sky Cycling Team and how their medal winning cyclists went about their incredible achievement170px-Bradley_Wiggins_and_Michael_Rogers,_2012_Tour_de_France_finishs. The subsequent doctrine that emerged was that if wemake small incremental marginal gains’ then these will add up to significant improvements.

When it comes to Olympic cycling, it’s fair to say this approach might have worked. There is no denying the success of the Team Sky in 2012. Strictly speaking, we can’t know for sure that it was the shaved legs in the velodrome that gave them the additional aerodynamics needed to speed away from their rivals. However, even if we assume for argument’s sake this was indeed the case, is it an analogy that we ought to apply to education?

Sports science is as impressive in its depth and complexity as it is vital to sporting success in the modern era. But teaching? Teaching is so incredibly complex we will never truly master it. Dylan William points out that we couldn’t do this even if we had two lifetimes! The good news is that we’ve chosen a profession for ourselves that will never lose challenge. Furthermore, mastering the art of teaching itself isn’t the only challenge we need to contend with – there are the workload pressures, behavioural issues, the mental health of young people, the seemingly ever-moving goalposts of external assessment etc. In truth, if we had a hundred lifetimes it wouldn’t guarantee we were able to achieve all of the things expected of us day-to-day in schools.

So should we really be talking about marginal gains? Surely not when the marginal gains’ being talked about relate to new and novel ideas for how we might (or might not) squeeze an additional 0.2% of progress out of our students at any and all costs.

But many teachers know where the more-than-marginal gains can be made and they don’t come from the educational equivalent of leg-shaving, whatever that is [**breathes sigh of relief**]. In other words, there are a half dozen or so key ingredients to teaching and learning that still present plenty of gains in high-impact areas. Furthermore, we know this because teachers have tested them out in classrooms not wholly dissimilar to our own. Here are some examples of evidence-based approaches from within those key ingredients:

  • Understanding what metacognitionreally is and helping students to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning more effectively.
  • Refining the feedbackwe provide so that it is specific accurate and clear g. It was good because you…” rather than just writing correct” or giving extended comments about errors instead of students working out for themselves how to correct a mistake.
  • Transforming unstructured paired or group work into collaborative learning that ensures the equal participation of all our pupils.
  • Making better use of our incredible Teaching Assistants working with a variety of students in the room and ensuring that as teachers we do not substitute TA support for helping SEND students access whole-class learning.
  • Using manipulatives in Maths through to Key Stage Three, helping pupils of any age to understand the links between them and the mathematical ideas they represent.
  • Using dialogic teaching in English to allow students to learn through dynamic open-ended discussion and more dynamic teacher-learner response models.

No one is saying we shouldn’t be testing out so-called new and whizzy’ ideas. Indeed, big organisations such as the IEE and EEF are doing just that and these ideas may gain traction as their impact is evidenced, thus becoming tried and tested’. But until this happens, we have more-than-marginal gains to focus on in aspects of our existing practice already familiar to us.

Furthermore, our increasingly school-led system has an army of incredible teachers sharing practical strategies that work in the classroom. If we can take these evidence-based strategies, many of which are different ways of working rather than more ways of working, and marry them up with our desire to improve learning in the classroom then pupils can make real gains from our teaching. Not that we’ll ever master of it course.

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