Four years back, in the heady after-glow of the 2012 London Olympics, the work of Dave Brailsford (now knighted) became of interest to many teachers. He was the face of marginal gains, the training philosophy that took care with even the smallest of details and minor improvements to make a whole series of small gains in performance. I remember doing an assembly on the idea (of course) back in the day (yeah, I was on this stuff early I tell ya), relating tales of taking your own pillow away to athletic events and learning how to wash hands properly to avoid getting food poisoning.
I heard the term used again recently in the educational arena. Although there are some useful ideas that can be taken from the marginal gains philosophy, one aspect of it that doesn’t seem to be discussed is the fact that it was applied to Olympic level athletes. They had one major advantage over us normal mortals in applying these ideas; they didn’t simply aspire to be Olympians, they lived, breathed, and in Chris Hoy’s case vomited copiously in the pursuit of their lifelong dreams. Aspiration and commitment joined at the hip. So what happens if you apply marginal gains to the slightly more uninterested?
Without the driving need to achieve something marginal gains start to lose their effect. We cannot as teachers conjure up that desire (or aspiration, to use that over-baked word) for an end goal that is perhaps so distant as to be an indistinguishable smudge on unknown horizon. If we could, it would be far easier to encourage students towards the maths problems that are the cause anguish for many. Grit and resilience may not just be descriptive of the ability to persist, it may also describe the willpower to achieve something, whether that be form a positive perspective of getting somewhere or from the more negative view of wishing to avoid some outcome.
For the students with the magic ingredients in place, I’m sure there are lots of possible ways to use marginal gains. For the majority of students, the marginal gains become so marginal that I doubt they can be separated from the myriad other factors on an everyday basis that affect student performances. The same probably goes for teaching staff too – a 1 % gain for all students is less noticeable than a larger intervention targeted in the right place. It’s not easy either to translate the marginal gain effects into student level interventions (I could think of students who would perform better in school with adequate sleep for example, but using the right pillow is probably less of a factor than staying up until one am racking up headshots on C.O.D.). Maybe this strategy for elite athletes only works for top performing students. For those with bigger challenges, I suspect it’s more a case of getting on the ‘big gains’ in place first.