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York teacher takes British Cycling's marginal gains ethos into the classroom

Breaking processes down effective in helping students set achievable goals and ultimately improve grades

A teacher from York is applying British Cycling’s principle of marginal gains, which has led to Team GB’s dominance in the velodrome at the past two Olympics as well as Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France victory, to the classroom.

Alex Quigley, who teaches English at Huntington School in York, says that he was inspired to follow the example set by Dave Brailsford and his staff after watching a documentary about the success of Team Sky and Team GB on Sky Atlantic.

“The Olympics was an inspiration for a nation mired in an interminable recession and, for a short time, even school fields became as important as the Olympic Park,” he writes in a blog for Guardian Professional’s Teacher Network.

“As the cameras turn away from the glorious procession of gold, ordinary folk, such as school teachers, get on with trying to create a lasting legacy from London 2012. Many teachers, open-minded and energetic types that we are, have tried to harness the Olympic zeitgeist.”

Quigley says that “one simple, but highly effective, lesson learnt from the Olympics has been taken from the story of the brilliantly successful cycling team, and their visionary coach, Dave Brailsford,” going on to explain how the doctrine of marginal gains has already been explored in classrooms and how “after London 2012 that concept has been taken up with renewed vigour.”

According to the teacher, “what is so brilliant about Brailsford's marginal gains concept is that it is so darn flexible. It provides an accessible, precise and useful language for achieving success in a school context various ways.

“It can make for a rousing assembly it is true, but it can also be a tool for sustained improvement: from students improving their learning, to teachers looking to enhance their pedagogy, and, more broadly, school leaders looking to make small, but highly significant improvements.”

He points out that “most tasks undertaken by students have a complex range of skills: from making an original shop front in design technology and learning a field sport in PE to writing a newspaper article in English.”

That means that they encompass a variety of processes and tasks where marginal gains can be employed to ensure success – the trick, he says, lies in helping students break down the task into those individual components and identify where those 1 per cent improvements can be made.

The applications are widespread, with the concept spreading via Twitter, and isn’t just confined to classroom projects – as Quigley says, it can range “from being a self-assessment tool for students to providing the rationale for departmental self-evaluation of examination results,” and he cites the case of one colleague on Twitter who came up with “ the ingenious idea of using self-assessment wheels to help students recognise the key marginal gains for any given task.”

He adds: “I quickly embedded the wheel concept into my pedagogy with real success. My GCSE students were soon spinning their wheels and speaking with the self-reflection of a highly trained Olympian athlete - well, nearly. They really did improve their ability to self-assess their learning and take real ownership of their own ambition.”

Applying the concept in education, says Quigley, can help give students the means and the confidence to make the step up from a C grade to a B and perhaps even an A once the path to achieve that is mapped out in a way that doesn’t seem to daunting. Moreover, kids relate to sporting success in a way that can help engage them more with their subject.

“School leaders are seeing how it can help teachers themselves on their individual journey towards outstanding practice, while subject leaders are seeing how it can become a practical tool for precise formative assessment,” he says. “I am busy with our faculty in making the crucial teaching marginal gains, as well as helping my English students build their writing to match Chris Hoy's thunder thighs!”

Whether he’ll take it forward another step and start getting students to come to terms with their inner chimp is unrecorded.

The doctrine of course can be applied to pretty much any situation – chances are you could look at your own working day and quickly identify some areas where small tweaks could lead to greater efficiency and fewer frustrations; maybe you already do – if so, let us know in the comments below.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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