Marginal Gains – Is this something that education should consider?

After reading an article on the BBC website some time ago on marginal gains, (if you are interested please find the link).

I considered what would the effect be on applying this concept to teaching and learning.

The theory of Marginal Gains is inspired by the philosophy that underpinned the extraordinary success of Team GB Cycling at the Beijing and London Olympics and of the Team Sky Pro Cycling Team at the 2012 Tour de France. The philosophy is simple: focus on doing a number of few small things really well. To do this in sport you must break down and identify every tiny aspect of an athlete’s performance and then making just a 1% improvement in each area the athlete’s overall performance can be significantly enhanced. By applying this concept of ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ to education could it have a similar effort on it, as it has on the world of sport?

Most tasks undertaken by students have a complex range of skills: from making an original painting in art and design technology and learning a new sport in PE to writing a newspaper article in English. All these complex tasks have a multitude of marginal processes and skills for success. Unsurprisingly, not all students have the skill and therefore they need a little help in breaking down the complexity of the task, making clear the manageable steps to success.

During a training session with staff at my school, we identified the main characteristics, which could improve teaching and learning. If we apply Marginal Learning Gains (MLG) to these factors, what kind of improvement can we have on the learning of our students? As a school we are applying marginal gains by identifying teaching characteristics, to make those small changes, which will have a huge impact on the learning of our students.ff9d018aae83fbc06b5feba5a75d8897_XL.jpgHowever, MLG is just one attempt to make sense of the complexities of learning. MLG seeks to narrow down into the micro-aspects of teaching to see what tiny changes might be made to make a big difference. We all acknowledge that there is not one single effective teaching method that will work for all at all times in all contexts.

As a teacher you soon discover that despite the tiny-steps approach that MLG encourages it is by no means a quick-fix approach. Instead, it is probably better to think of it as a form of micro-surgery. MLG is all about looking very deeply into the smallest aspects of practice in order to secure improve and develop it. I recognise that there may be inherent dangers in presenting such a micro-analysis approach but from the work I have undertaken on MLG already and from what I have seen and heard from our teachers, MLG provides a really manageable starting point for really sustainable improvements than can be deepened through action research, coaching programmes and high quality reflective practice. MLG is proving to be a great starting point for anybody who is either just embarking or well on they’re way to becoming a highly reflective teacher.


Therefore, the approach of MLG is to ensure that for every aspect of learning we take the trouble, time and energy to design, we also take as much trouble and time to reflect upon it. In this way, we can gain as much learning as we possibly can from a simple question-answer session, card sort or organisational strategy so it can be tweaked, adapted, developed and re-applied as integral parts of our practice. When we know why we’re designing learning in a particular way (to build collaboration, to develop a sense of community or encourage autonomy) we start to see how one tiny aspect of our practice can, when combined with the infinite number of other interactions, decisions and thoughts that we experience during any given lesson, day or term can become part of an excellent (or outstanding) learning experience that all reflective teachers are seeking.

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