Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Difficulties of Marginal Gains

Marginal gains is a concept of improving through specific details that, when all added up, will make a huge change for the better. This was originally applied to the Olympic Cycling team by Sir Dave Brailsford who managed to professionalise the team implementing small changes like making the wheels were a perfect circle and ensuring the team washed their hands to avoid illness. It has since been written about in depth by many bloggers and probably best by Alex Quigley and Zoe Elder. We can apply the concept of marginal gains to our students, as I did with my Y11 class last year, where the small changes in their controlled assessments, made all the difference to their overall marks. We can also apply to our own practice and one which I plan to use next year in depth.

However, if you're reading this, you probably know all this. You know how bloody brilliant marginal gains is. But during the last week, I've stumbled across an analogy which brings up some difficulties with the concept.

I am terrible at golf. I had lessons when I was much younger and got OK, but didn't apply myself to the sport perhaps as much as I should have done. Last week, I played a full 18 holes for the first time in 10 years and realised how much I had declined over that time. I was playing with my dad who I used to be  much better than, but who was absolutely destroying me hole after hole. 

I tried to remember all the tips that I recalled from my lessons when I was younger. Try to make a 90 degree angle with your back and legs. Head over the ball. If you're topping it, focus on a blade of grass a millimetre behind the ball. Follow through. Don't try and hit it too hard. However, as soon as I hit a decent tee shot, my approach play would bring me in direct contact with sand. A wonderful pitch to the green would be followed by me missing the ball on the next tee shot. Why could I easily play a wonderful shot one minute, then a horrendous one the next when, in essence, they were no different? 

This (I promise for all of you golf-haters) is where the analogy comes in. As soon as I focused on one marginal gain, let's say head over the ball, then I forgot to complement it with another, following through. Putting all these specific details together meant that it was very rare that a decent shot would come together never mind a decent hole or a respectable round. I wasn't able to process all the marginal gains at the same time resulting in a poor shot most of the time. This can be equally applied to learning. As soon as a student masters the use of an apostrophe in one piece of work, they completely forget when to use capital letters. They master how to analyse in depth, but somehow don't use paragraphs when doing so. Just as I wasn't able to process all the details at the same time, students cannot process all the marginal gains at the same time. How do we solve this problem as their teacher/golf coach then?

I like to think that I was consistently pretty good at putting when we played. I was sinking short putts without a problem, had a decent conversion on medium range ones and would putt the odd long range one too. I think this is partly because I have putted since playing 10 years ago. At university, I had a putting machine and usually played crazy golf when on holiday if it was available. It was something that I could practice, make adjustments and improvements on despite me not playing 18 holes regularly. This meant that those marginal gains were still being applied and being practiced for my putting but not on the other parts of my game. This can be equally applied to our students.

They need to be regularly practicing their marginal gains in context so they have time to use these gains almost unconsciously, like I can now do with my putting. This needs to be done over a prolonged period of time, not just once or twice. David Didau's idea of interweaving does this as does any scheme of work where the gains are practiced year after year. This shouldn't be done with activities where the gains are practiced without a context but instead used on extended writing pieces so that they can use practice the gains at the same time. It is no use for our students to successfully be able to point out where they should use apostrophes, or what an apostrophe does, if they cannot successfully use it in their own writing along with other specific improvements. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect - Vince Lombardi.

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