- During the Olympics and Paralympics the British Cycling team won lots of gold medals. Some other teams questioned whether everyone was actually playing by the same rules and of course Team GB cycling director David Brailsford was interviewed repeatedly about his strategy. The phrase “aggregation of marginal gains” was bandied about a LOT but as he described – Team GB had focused extensively on the tiny details that could gain them an extra 100th of a second.
- GCSE and A-level results tend to show an upward trend year-on-year (with some exceptions).
Now – some of the things “we” (as in people) are better at with regard to sport than, say, 20 years ago. The duration, intensity, location and timing of training is carefully managed. Nutrition is better understood – not just the need to load up with carbs before an event but the availability of nutrition gels during endurance events. Technology has played a huge part in terms of the physical stuff (carbon fibre bikes, better shoes etc.) but also the impact technology can have on assessing training.
Of course all the other teams have access to this as well (to a greater or lesser extent depending on funding – the velodrome is not a level track for more than 1 reason). However Team GB appear to have investigated every single possible improvement in performance – even to the extent that washing your hands properly means you get ill less.
Now I think we’ve been doing something like this in education for, well forever really. Exam results have got better, and let us assume that Ofqual have done their job properly over the years and that exams have been properly standardised from year to year – i.e. they are not getting easier.
People outside education often scoff about the near constant improvement in exam results. Here are some things schools and individual teachers have been doing over the past few years – some of the “marginal gains” we’ve made. Feel free to add your own:
- near obsessive examination of questioning techniques, types of questions, who is being asked, who is answering, the time between the teacher asking and the student answering
- assessment for learning – types and quality of feedback, who is giving the feedback
- students teaching each other
- nutrition – yes it makes a difference in sport and in education too. Anecdotal: teachers do report improvements in concentration and behaviour when diet improves. Only today in the staff room the science department were discussing how most of the bottom sets don’t have breakfast whereas most of the top sets do.
- data – we have a lot more of it and use it to target students much more effectively
- technology – I don’t actually think ICT is the panacea for everything BUT there are lots of ways in which technology improves the access to learning for many students. Not “the internet” but the differences in the way information is presented.
Of course there have been many negatives – things taken out of education that teachers feel is missing but the way something like AFL starts off as a Big Thing – then becomes so embedded in your lessons you don’t even realise it’s a thing at all is a marginal gain.
The problem is that if Team GB win even more Gold medals in cycling we’ll be delighted. When more students gain better grades – the boundaries are shifted and the whole system is said to be flawed.