Making marginal gains to drive school improvement


Inspired by England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph, Ben Solly argues that the biggest impact on teaching and learning comes when schools focus on those ‘marginal gains’.

Reflective educators are always exploring ways of improving their practice. They are lifelong learners, with the desire to continually improve and a determination to succeed. 

What is apparent, however, is that simply working harder is not the answer. There is no magic wand that we can wave at a group of students and expect them to achieve. We are forever reminded of the mantra “work smarter, not harder”, and for some teachers this is a real challenge.

Shortly after the 2003 Rugby World Cup, I saw Sir Clive Woodward open a Youth Sport Trust conference with an inspirational speech. He demonstrated to the audience how he and his coaching team had done absolutely everything in their power to ensure their squad was the most meticulously prepared group of players at the tournament. 

He used a principle of “Critical Non-Essentials” – CNEs – that he had learned from Australian dentist Dr Paddi Lund to develop a culture of success and high expectations within the playing and coaching staff. 

He identified the core aspects of what was required to win a World Cup, these being world class players who were all fit, and a world class coaching team. The challenge was that there were three or four other teams at the tournament who also possessed these qualities.

So, along with his coaching staff they identified more than 100 CNEs, little things that they could ensure they did more effectively than every other team, and all these accumulated to develop a confidence within the players that their preparation was by far the most comprehensive.

He used an example with the audience to demonstrate one of these CNEs. We watched two clips of Jason Robinson running with the ball, in one clip he beat several players and was then tackled, in another he again beat several players and passed, resulting in a try.

“What is the difference?” asked Sir Clive. Many answers were offered, all of which were reasonable suggestions, but not the explanation he was looking for.

He explained that after analysing hours and hours of footage in which Jason Robinson was tackled, in the vast majority of cases the tackle was made because an opponent was able to grab hold of his shirt and drag him down. So Sir Clive ensured each England player wore a tailored, skin-tight shirt to reduce the chance of being tackled in this way. 

Did this win England the World Cup? Of course not, but it was part of a meticulous approach to ensuring every minute advantage was capitalised on.

British cycling’s performance director Sir David Brailsford has a similar system – he calls them “Marginal Gains”. This is something that education has started to discuss too.

Zoe Elder (@fullonlearning on Twitter) has developed a comprehensive guide to using this approach in education to improve and refine teaching methods in order to achieve more precision and accuracy when demonstrating student progress in lessons. David Didau (@learningspy) has also eloquently detailed how marginal gains can be used to develop teaching and learning from “good” to “outstanding”.

Marginal gains in practice

It is evident that re-inventing the wheel is not the answer to achieving success under the new Ofsted framework. However, to meet the demands of what is now required it has never been more important to be self-reflective and clinical in analysing what we do as individual practitioners, departments and institutions. 

By dissecting our practice in the classroom at a fine level it becomes apparent there are several aspects that are essential in order for learning to take place:

  • A positive learning environment.

  • Exciting, engaging, varied and relevant learning opportunities within a well-structured and appropriate curriculum.

  • Simple and transparent assessment, feedback and feed-forward.

  • High expectations of all learners.

For example, let us imagine that we have a department, and within every classroom all these aspects are present. We also have supporting this a comprehensive scheme of work and a catalogue of resources at the disposal of every member of the department. Why then, will there always be a variation in the quality of learning occurring, dependent on who is teaching the students?

In-school variation is one of the toughest nuts to crack, and school systems are only as good as the people implementing them. A major influence on the quality of learning can be attributed to the attention to detail teachers put into their planning and the clinical way in which they structure learning opportunities for students.

The importance of planning

Many of these reasonably small additions to a lesson can result in high yields for learners. For example, starting a lesson plan with the “big picture” (what you want students to have learned and achieved at the end of the lesson, or series of lessons) is a much more advisable way of planning than beginning the process with what you think the learning objectives should be.

This is not revolutionary, but I speak to many teachers who have always started their planning process with the learning objectives and then moved forward with what activities students will do, rather than beginning the plan at the end point and working backwards. 

By planning this way, you can unpick each task and analyse where students might get stuck or not understand something. I have found this way of planning particularly useful, especially when using the “five-minute lesson plan” by teaching and learning guru Ross McGill (@teachertoolkit).

When I completed my PGCE, the headteacher of the school quoted the three most important aspects of teaching to be “planning, planning and planning”.

Eight years on, his words still resonate because the difference between good and outstanding can often be down to the smallest of margins, and this is often due to the “smartness” of the planning.

I have observed some good, but not quite outstanding lessons where if the teacher would have just tweaked one or two aspects in the final third of a lesson then learners would have made greater progress and the teacher would have been able to demonstrate this more explicitly to everyone in the room.

As a teacher, you all will invariably have spent hours creating a resource of which you are extremely proud. Your laminator will have been in overdrive and you will have marvelled at the beauty and genius of your resource. You will then probably have seen students greet it with indifference and disregard.

Are there marginal gains to be made in the creation of such wonderful resources? Maybe – but there are definitely more to be made in planning the type of questions you will ask students, on which crucial aspects of learning might be hinged.

Ofsted does not want to see lesson plans now apparently, and this has been welcomed by many. However, the most significant marginal gains will certainly be made where the teacher has prepared strategic questioning, assessment, feedback and feed-forward opportunities with skill and consideration, to effectively demonstrate that students have made progress – and this has to happen during the planning process.

So what are the drawbacks of using a marginal gains or CNEs approach? The temptation is to become too fixated on certain minutiae and consequently neglect the bigger picture.

There is also the risk of spreading yourself too thin by trying out and playing with lots of different approaches for a short period of time, but then reverting to type as it is ultimately easier. 

So the critical aspect of using this type of approach is to ensure these marginal gains add value and directly contribute to the broader goals of a department or institution.



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