Using marginal gains to be the best at getting better in developing our students’ learning
‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’
Professor Dylan Wiliam
Teaching is an incredibly complex and intricate profession. It has been defined as a science and as an art and it is most possibly on a continuum between these two fields. Educational experts going back as far as Socrates have sought to improve the effectiveness of pedagogy and there is a whole industry and field of research dedicated to enhancing what teachers do in the classroom. Despite a wealth of research and acquired knowledge, it is, however, challenging to change teacher behaviours and improve learning outcomes in the classroom through professional development.
As with any profession, teaching performance is built upon habits gained over time and these habits soon become engrained. Kraft and Papay showed that teacher performance, effectiveness and enthusiasm can begin to plateau after five years’ experience as techniques and ideas become habitual and harder to break. Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his research in the business arena, also showed that as professionals we often do not implement what we know. Teachers are often aware of what best practice looks like and what the research says we should be doing, but as with any time-poor, fast-paced profession, it takes guidance and clarity to makes these changes. Quite often professional development can fail as there is a lack of prioritisation, a lack of dedicated time and the lack of a mechanism to ensure that any development focus is embedded in practice.
In order to improve classroom practice at Cognita Schools in Spain, Italy and Switzerland, we are learning from the world of sport. Sir Dave Brailsford, who was performance director of British Cycling and general manager of the hugely successful Team Sky, introduced the philosophy of marginal gains into the sport of cycling. This is the theory that small yet significant improvements can lead to monumental results. In other words, an aggregation of 1% tweaks can lead to a far bigger change overall. The cycling team looked at marginal gains they could make in all areas of preparation from bike design to athlete hygiene and wellbeing. This philosophy is totally applicable to education; small tweaks to pedagogy can have a big impact upon teacher performance and ultimately on student outcomes. If one breaks any teaching habit or technique down into its smaller component parts, a teacher can begin to make small incremental tweaks to his or her practice.
‘Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results’
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits
Cognita Europe Learning Pods
In January of this year, we launched the Cognita Europe Learning Pods across eight schools in Spain, Italy and Switzerland with the clear aim of improving practice in the classroom through on-going reflective practice. Coaching is an integral part of the programme and we worked with Dr Sam Sims, a quantitative education researcher and lecturer on policy analysis and evaluation from University College London on delivering this aspect of the training. Dr Sims claims that instructional coaching is the currently the best-evidenced form of professional development. Instructional coaching involves teachers working in coaching pairs to support continual incremental improvement. Teachers follow a very clear approach to probe for a developmental area of focus (a marginal gain or incremental tweak) and then to agree and model an action step. Modelling and rehearsing the action steps are integral to the process. In order that the practice is truly embedded, teachers observe each other and start the process again to fine tweak any changes. The programme, which is delivered online and then followed up in schools through the instructional coaching, is designed around the recent research carried out by the Education Endowment Foundation into effective professional development and makes use of content from Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli’s excellent Walkthrus series of books. These books break down key teaching techniques and ideas into five component steps allowing the participants to make key, incremental changes to their everyday practice. These steps are all grounded in educational research.
Undeniably, it is the quality of teaching that makes the biggest difference to our pupils’ learning and success. If we can encourage all practitioners to continuously reflect on their practice, to make tweaks to their teaching techniques and habits and to give them the tools to eventually embed new habits over time, student outcomes will improve even further. After all, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Sir Chris Hoy were already excellent cyclists, but Sir Dave Brailsford knew that with the aggregation of tiny tweaks they could be even better. He proved that no matter how good you already are, you can still be even better.
Head of Upper School, ELIS Murcia