Aggregation of Marginal Gains – why cycling and education are so similar

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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
  2. assessment for learning – types and quality of feedback, who is giving the feedback
  3. students teaching each other
  4. 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.
  5. data – we have a lot more of it and use it to target students much more effectively
  6. 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.


4 thoughts on “Aggregation of Marginal Gains – why cycling and education are so similar

  1. I wonder if there’s another interesting parallel between medals and grades. The point of an Olympics is to determine who is best of the contestants in that year: gold for 1st, silver for 2nd, even if four years before or after those contestants might have been much worse or better than the medal winners.

    In our education system, it’s not completely apparent what grades are for. Are they just a differentiator within that year group (this is the main purpose that universities look at A-Levels for, and employers too) — in which case it makes no sense for more students to get As over time, but grades cannot then be used to judge quality of education. Or is it meant to be some long-term fixed benchmark against which all students are judged and get the appropriate grades? I feel like the government has never really decided between the two purposes.

    • That’s a very good point. My own feeling is that exams are more like world records. In a race, everyone could break the world record if they are good enough but only the fastest will actually win the gold and be the record holder. For the others who have managed an amazing achievement – it’s just bad luck. So in a particular year you could have ALL the students in a cohort working harder than ever and getting much better results – but we seem to feel that only a proportion of them can get the top grades. Maybe it’s just that to say “hard luck” to several thousand students is harder than to say it to the athlete who watched the winner speed past them.

  2. I really like this, and some of the points you make are obviously true. But, the flaws are to 1) accept that Ofqual have been doing the job properly (what evidence have we for assuming this?) and 2) to state that exams haven’t been getting easier. This may or may not be objectively true but the focus of what is examined and how marks are awarded has certainly changed enormously since 1988.

    What’s annoying is that if Ofqual (or whoever) HAD been doing their job properly and if exams were properly standardised then we would be able to see evidence of the aggregation of marginal gains exactly as you suggest. Sadly this isn’t the case and it’s almost impossible for anyone on any side of the debate to find valid evidence for their arguments.

    • I agree we have no data to support either the standardisation of exams or the arguement that exams are getting easier or not. However the point of this post is not to discuss exam standardisation but to suggest the other things going on in schools that could be pointing towards “better” results.

      I don’t think you can measure whether exams are getting “easier” with any reliability. Topics are dropped from syllabi all the time and other topics introduced. The criticism is almost always that the hard topics are dropped. However even teenagers are individuals and some find a topic easier than others.

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