Assessment: Three lessons for radical improvement

Written by: Alistair Smith | Published:
Photo: iStock

Sir David Brailsford changed the world of British cycling by rejecting tinkering and opting for radical reform. Alistair Smith draws three lessons for schools’ approaches to teaching and assessment

“A combination of stability and incremental change which allows the traditional model of schooling, and of bureaucratic school systems, to adapt continuously to all kinds of external reforms is well able to deflect the disruptive potential of almost any innovation, no matter where it is coming from.”
21st Century Learning: Research, innovation and policy, OECD, 2008.

To radically transform our education system for the better we should think again about how we assess and recognise the performance of our pupils. It is the big idea no-one seems willing to deal with.

Our current methods are narrow and archaic, at odds with what we know about learning, and in denial of the real worth of technology. Arguing endlessly about life after levels is tinkering. Tinkering, endemic in our approach to educational change, deflects from any radical change.

For inspiration we should look to sport. One inspirational figure brought ambition and a vision of what was possible to a ruthless willingness to use whatever was needed to secure unprecedented success.

Sir David Brailsford changed the way our nation thinks about preparing for performance at the very highest level. He was knighted for his stand against tinkering! He brought insights into performance management, science and technology into one place. Education needs to do the same. When he first became involved in British Cycling, Great Britain had won one gold medal in 76 years. The annual budget was less than some schools spend nowadays on supply. The sport was stuck in the past. Brailsford changed all that.

Through his leadership of British Cycling and more recently Sky Cycling, he has transformed the sport in this country. The medal table over the last two Olympics reads: 17 golds, six silver and four bronze. Sky Cycling have won three out of four Tours.
Yet many have learned the wrong lessons from Brailsford, embracing his idea of “marginal gains” in the belief that small changes will somehow accumulate and make a large difference. This is tinkering at its most naïve.

The cycling experience required something more radical to challenge the inherited assumptions around performance and had to start with the basics and the big ideas. Brailsford offers education three big ideas to help us challenge our inherited assumptions around how we assess and recognise the performance of pupils.

Lesson 1: Outrageously ambitious outcomes

When British Cycling accessed lottery funding it was to be tied to “podium performance”. Come fourth down to eighth and your funding was withdrawn. Brailsford went public with this approach. Going public ties you into a contract to deliver. At Sky he adopted the same bold approach, identifying and investing in outrageously ambitious outcomes, including winning The Tour with a British rider within five years.

For schools the lessons are the relentless and public pursuit of the most ambitious outcomes for every student, ensuring all staff behaviours align around securing those outcomes and each subject discipline is able to nail the essential performance points – the critical must haves – at each stage of an individual’s learning journey.

In English rugby, an electronic system designed by Sir Clive Woodward (called Captured) allows coaches and players to build their own profile. Sky cyclists do something similar: in Brailsford’s words the process is what matters – “it’s about noting progression not chasing perfection”.

All schools ought to be able to help pupils do the same. Honest conversations about learning – “where were you? Where are you? Where do you need to be?” – should be a constant.

At Honywood School in Essex pupils are asked those very questions when “showcasing” their learning. Showcasing is an opportunity for pupils to share what they have learned, how they learned and what makes it relevant. Pupils use apps such as Showbie and Book Creator on their iPads and then load their evidence on to their personal portfolio called My Learning Journey.
Following Showcasing, pupils can opt to use a school-designed app called My Learning Choices to book into a schedule of supplementary tutorials. It works in the same way you would book a seat on a plane. All of this activity builds onto the learners personal portfolio hosted on the school learning management system.

Lesson 2: Understand the human in the performer

Brailsford once had to deal with an Olympic medallist, who, paralysed by anxiety at a major tournament, was unable to leave the hotel room.

In response, Sky employed Dr Steve Peters, a forensic psychiatrist and created a post of head of winning behaviours to maintain a focus on excellence and all the contributory human factors. She designed an in-house app to ask each team member “what’s your net effect on the winning mentality of the team?”.

On a daily basis cyclists and staff use their mobile phones to give feedback about their mindset. It has had a massive impact. It is a live, iterative feedback system which gives responses to statements under five areas: self, team, communications, performance, and improvement.

The technology allows an informed peer-led discussion about the mood in the camp and how people are coping with the pressures of a big event. It puts the “human” back into human performance. The key is each cyclist understanding the workings of the brain. Dr Peters says: “Insight alone is very powerful.”

Cognitive science and a better understanding of the brain can help schools apply more effective learning methods.
As learning professionals, we now know more about the importance of building on prior knowledge, checking for erroneous assumptions, lodging key information beyond working memory, active engagement, self-regulation and meta-cognition, asking searching questions, iterative feedback and authentic purpose.

We are better informed about the “human” in human performance than at any time in our history and yet we have tied ourselves into a 1950s paper-based, exam driven one-chance-only model of how we assess and recognise performance, which is neglectful of much that we know.

Lesson 3: Use data and scientific analysis to give your performers traction

Sky Cycling seeks to aggregate marginal – or one per cent – gains in four areas: training, rest, diet and equipment.

Here the mantra is “Ideas have got value not rank – everyone’s ideas are weighed and valued”, and once the basics are in place little additions do make a difference.

Training and preparation is individualised with accurate sports performance data fed into the design of each programme.
Sir Bradley Wiggins’ Tour win came on the back of a redesign of his training after sports scientists recognised he needed to increase his physical load.

Rest and recovery are critical when you are in an event lasting 22 days. Each rider has their own mattress which is taken from hotel to hotel. Each bedroom is cleaned and has dust extracted by Sky staff. No-one shakes hands as this transfers germs. Nothing is ruled out.

In education the aggregation of marginal gains is a popular form of tinkering. Without a better assessment system with what we know about motivation, performance feedback, learning and cognitive science built into its design, we will not give our performers “traction”. We will be adding tinsel to an old tree. Technology is already providing answers.

A system which provides live information over time to help us assess and record the progress and performance of individual pupils would be transformational.

It would stay with a pupil across phases and beyond school. It would be a source of pride for the pupil and a mechanism for building self-knowledge and curating experience. It could provide an evidence base to reduce the need for terminal high-stakes testing. It would be a driver of performance. It would be our big idea.

  • Alistair Smith is an experienced educational consultant who works with schools, the Football Association and Frog Education. Sir David Brailsford presented on Podium Performance to the FA UEFA Pro Licence in October 2015.


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