If you're seeking to improve teaching, the sports field might not be the first place you look for inspiration. But, Hannah Gillott argues, the lessons learned by professional athletes can be just as applicable in the classroom.
Nowadays, British Cycling is synonymous with success. Such is the team’s domination on the world stage that from 2007-2017 British cyclists won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic and Paralympic gold medals, and five Tour de France victories. Its leading figures are household names and Sports Personality of the Year winners, despite the fact that most of us would struggle to name all of the individual events for which medals can be awarded.
It was not always so. Until 2004, British cyclists had won just one gold medal at the Olympic Games, and no British rider had ever won the Tour de France in the 110 years since it began. In ‘Mastermind: How Dave Brailsford Reinvented the Wheel’, Richard Moore describes how British cyclists were so poorly viewed that one leading bike manufacturer refused to sell bikes to the team for fear it might hurt sales if their product was seen to be used by Brits. But in 2003, British Cycling appointed Dave Brailsford as its new performance director and the transformation began. In 2004, Great Britain finished third in the cycling medals table at the Athens Olympics, and by 2008 the team were top, six gold medals ahead of second-placed France.
The team’s transformation under Brailsford has deservedly become part of sport lore, and his methods are the subject of numerous articles, books and videos. But what does any of this have to do with teaching?
Brailsford believed in the power of marginal gains: the notion that a series of small, 1% improvements across numerous areas added up to one big improvement. As teachers, we know just how true this can be for our pupils — how many times have we optimistically requested a re-mark in pursuit of the one extra mark that might push a grade up, or watched as one minor mistake early in a response unravels an entire solution? Or, indeed, breathed a sigh of relief when a single adjustment to the seating plan transforms behaviour in the following lesson…?
The potential in marginal gains, however, should not be reserved for our pupils. As professionals, many of us long for more opportunities to discuss and plan as a department, rewrite curriculums and schemes of work, or spend unhurried periods watching one another teach. We can only imagine what we might achieve given unlimited time, but in its absence we might look to Brailsford for the alternative.
British Cycling’s upturn came about through a desire to seize every tiny opportunity to make improvements. Brailsford went so far as to commission custom-built mattresses for his cyclists to use every night on the Tour de France, each one bespoke to its user’s way of sleeping, in the belief that no one performs at their best after a less-than-optimal night’s rest. Headteachers reading this need not worry that I am about to suggest setting aside hard-fought budget for new desk chairs in every classroom. There are plenty more cost-effective ways for schools and departments to factor small, impactful changes into their daily routine.
Often, the phrase ‘CPD’ conjures images of conference rooms, cover requests, and a day of checking your emails under the table to see how many of your Year 10 will need to be set detentions on your return. The high cost means only one or two members of your team will likely be able to attend and, despite returning with a thick ream of notes and the zeal to disseminate them, they will then need to distill a day of talks and workshops into a twenty minute feedback slot at the next department meeting. CPD days are often brimming with expertise and inspiration, but rarely can this be enjoyed in full by the whole team without an opportunity-cost of lost learning time and a huge dent in the budget.
At La Salle Education, we’ve tried to challenge this by running our #MathsConf on a Saturday, for a far lower price, and —when Covid-19 meant we moved online — sharing all the workshops afterwards on our Teacher CPD College, alongside our existing virtual courses. We believe this model makes CPD accessible for all teachers, not just those chosen to attend a mid-week, in-person event.
But let’s imagine for a second that we’re describing this model to Dave Brailsford. Teachers, we would tell him, receive a day of training, which they then go and implement in the classroom.
“What happens next?” he’d ask. “What happens every day? How are teachers supporting each other in identifying new targets for improvement? How are they ensuring they scan every area of their practice, continually, for the 1%?”
And he would be right. Improvement happens gradually over time — it’s rarely linear, and you can rarely pinpoint the exact moment it occurs, just as you can never see the grass grow. Yet with the right conditions in place, it happens. Our attitude to CPD should reflect this by turning the traditional model of ‘workshop leader in a room with delegates’ into a continual dialogue, whereby knowledge is not stored in a cupboard to be opened every now and then but instead shared out, in small doses, as often as possible to as many teachers as possible - and refreshed when needed.
Finding the 1% shouldn’t mean hours and hours of effort —it resides instead in small, sustainable, everyday efforts that add up to something much bigger. Think, for instance, about the notion of morning meetings. These usually take place over ten to fifteen minutes, and are primarily reserved for admin: announcements, notices… in other words ‘things that could have been an email’.
What if we reclaimed them?
Imagine the new morning agenda. ‘Ten minutes to share something that worked really well yesterday, and you think others should try today.’ ‘Ten minutes to share a problem or puzzle you’re encountering with a class, and to hear others’ suggestions.’ ‘Ten minutes to discuss the most common misconceptions from the last assessment’. ‘Ten minutes to share key takeaways from last week’s CPD’. Suddenly, marginal gains aren’t just part of the agenda —they’re all of it.
This time does not, of course, need to be constrained to the morning —but identifying a regular slot, with a pre-determined focus, could be transformative. When a team commits not to a meeting but to a process, even a passing conversation in the corridor can be powerful.
In the last edition of ‘#AskMark’ , Mark McCourt expounded on the various stages of differentiation. He writes, “Purposeful practice keeps the pupil at the limit of their competence and, therefore, creates the cognitive conditions for learning to occur…Deliberate practice is also goal driven, but draws upon what is already known in a domain to improve performance.” Teaching something so that pupils understand it and can recite it back is one thing, but learning can’t truly be said to have taken place until pupils can apply their knowledge independently through practice. The same can, of course, apply to us as professionals —one might argue that a conference or webinar has no value until its takeaways have been applied in the classroom.
If we are to commit to the notion of marginal gains, then we need to challenge ourselves on a daily basis to push the boundaries of our teaching. This doesn’t just mean trying new things gleaned from CPD or morning meetings, but also seeking feedback on their effectiveness. Feedback can come from all directions —pupil voice, a drop-in observation by a colleague, or reflecting on pupils’ work at the end of the lesson. For it to be truly meaningful, it must also be linked to a goal or objective for the class in question. In this way, every teacher is continually developing and improving their pedagogy to best meet the needs of the pupils in front of them at any given time.
As long as time and space is created firstly to set goals, and later for feedback and reflection, then leaders can trust that their team will be improving, a little at a time. As Dave Brailsford’s example proves, lots of little adjustments can lead to huge overall improvements.
Brailsford didn’t just oversee a shift in the performance of individuals, but also in that of the team as a whole. He describes in one interview how over time every member, from the mechanics to the athletes themselves, felt empowered to share suggestions for improvement, regardless of whether it fell into their area of responsibility or not. Far from seeing this as criticism, team members instead viewed it as part of their collective responsibility to find ways of optimising performance.
Feedback in a school often flows from top to bottom, but if departments are serious about adopting a continuous 1% improvement model then every member needs to feel empowered to speak up if they see an opportunity to do things better. This requires an enormous level of trust, and a belief that even teachers early on in their careers have valuable insights to share. At La Salle this is one of our guiding principles, and explains why we offer the same platform to teachers with many different levels of experience at our #MathsConf. Truthfully, it might sting when someone new, or at the start of their career, sees something we hadn’t, but it doesn’t invalidate our experience or undermine our expertise. Accepting feedback, or even criticism, instead marks out a teacher filled with confidence and secure in the knowledge of their own progression.
Too often, especially in the field of EdTech, the solution is of more interest than the problem. Shipping customised mattresses to various hotels in France is a novel idea, but it only holds value if it works. Innovative technology, flashy graphics, or impressive conferences are of no use to schools unless they result in better teaching, and consequently better outcomes for both pupils and teachers. This might sound strange coming from an employee of an EdTech company, but it’s easy for that message to be lost — especially as we emerge from an intense period of innovation, driven by school closures.
There will be times when it’s better to rip the whole thing up and start again, but those times are few and far between, and even then often occur against a backdrop of time and budget constraints. A committed team, who share the same goal of becoming better practitioners for their students, can go a long way even without much time or money to spare if they embrace the power of 1%. That's precisely why La Salle exists: our company was founded by teachers wanting a better way to support their colleagues. Why is that so important to us? Because, put simply, when you empower educators they improve more than just their teaching — they improve the lives of the pupils in front of them, too.
We recently heard from a school using our Teacher CPD College to run a ‘CPD Book Club’ — watch out for a future blog exploring how they did it. We’d love to hear from other schools using our platforms to run similar initiatives. Tell us in the comments where you’re finding your 1%, and we’ll share your journey in future blogs.
This article explores the idea of 1% marginal gains in more detail.
You can hear Dave Brailsford describe his approach first-hand in this video.