The power of marginal gains - Education Matters Magazine
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The power of marginal gains

Education expert, Professor Stephen Heppell, discusses how the tiny details can combine to make a big impact on learning in the classroom.

I’m typing this sitting on our old 1907 oyster smack, which we are sailing along the North Sea coast of England, on our way to a race next weekend. A wet and windy English summer’s day afloat feels a long way from EduTECH 2018. But it is a good place to begin a reflection of my inputs in Sydney earlier this year, for several reasons.

Firstly, sailing these old boats is very much a craft – no pun intended. Experience, wisdom, fresh ideas, very specific skills, better technologies and teamwork all come together in making our boat perform as well as possible. The crew are heterogeneous – they have unique strengths as individuals, but together the interaction and sum of those strengths are important. No two boats are the same – even after more than a century of development, new ideas come along. Not every boat will try out every idea. Boats are different.

Teaching too is a craft; a windy day, a lengthy term, national events, an eccentric personality, all impact on today’s community of learners. Schools too are different. That is all too easily forgotten in the scramble to find the ‘right way’ to teach or learn.

But secondly, we race our boat and, as I reflected often during EduTECH, we can learn much from sport about what is effective practice in learning too. I enjoy working on better learning with a number of our elite Olympic sports; and in doing so, I learn from them too. Much of Team Great Britain’s march up the medal table from Atlanta to Rio has been helped by two big ideas: the aggregation of marginal gains pays attention to every tiny detail, asking all the time, “how may this be better?” It really doesn’t matter what the sport is, those tiny improved details accumulate into a noticeable gain.

Thirdly, for our elite sports stars, it is very clear watching them trackside, or wherever they are performing, that everyone has a voice, offers an input, and is involved in the whole process of doing things better. In the bad old days when Team Great Britain could hardly win an egg and spoon race, let alone medals, there was a rigid hierarchy: coaches told athletes what to do, often by numbers, and that was what they did. Watching today there is a clear sense of dialogue, of opinions built from experience – everyone has a voice. It is often hard to differentiate the coaches from the athletes as they huddle around the data screens on their tablets.

So as we build better learning in schools and elsewhere, both the aggregation of marginal gains and the learners’ voice matter enormously. It isn’t just the meta-cognitive boost of learning about learning that is the gain here; learners have usefully been reflecting on learning for most of their lives and normally have something useful to contribute. As a young lad told me part way through a student led project:
“I’ve been in seven schools in my life so far. This is the first time anyone has seriously asked me how the learning could be better.” Then he paused and added, “But I’ve always known…”

So much of my input at EduTECH this year involved examples of those little marginal gains, and of the power of ‘learner led’. Encouragingly, social media was full afterwards of people reflecting on these practical and easily achievable, effective actions. So let’s explore some of them here.

Noise is a constant challenge in learning environments. Parallel window panes bounce sound, hard floors seemingly amplify it and acoustic panelling is expensive to retro-fit. The research evidence is clear that sounds – both loud or with a rapid rhythm – distract. We know this from multiple sources, for example car safety. For many teachers, maintaining a learning buzz without it becoming a distracting din, is tough. But in the example I showed from a London school, the primary children had, in each learning space, an old tablet on a stand. The tablet ran one of many free decibel meter apps and when the noise in the space exceeded the agreed limit, the children appointed to be sound monitors for that day simply moved to the main source of the noise and pointed out the decibel readings to their peers. The children set, owned and enforced the protocols for sound. When I showed this to children in a NSW school, where noise in the dining room was stressful and intrusive at times, their solution was fun and simple. They placed the decibel meter iPad within sight of the kitchen serving-hatch staff and, if the noise exceeded the agreed protocol for the dining room, the price tags on food were flipped over to reveal a new and higher price. Make too much noise and the price of custard doubles.

Now that all sounds nice and simple to implement and indeed it is. But behind it there are multiple gains. Firstly, of course, things are quieter. But there is science to be learned – decibels roughly double in volume every ten. Then there is the debate about what might be an appropriate protocol for maximum noise. We are never asking here for just a guess, or an opinion; we are asking for research: what is too loud for concentrating? Where do those rapid rhythms come from (perhaps mechanical noise)? And so on. Exploring this with a group of children in Spain, they designed and invoked a Raspberry Pi device that flashed red on their stairwell when the noise from foot walls was too loud. STEM gains too!

A second example is light. Again a lot of data from multiple domains confirm the minimum level for general learning as better than 500 lux. (You can source all these numbers from our learnometer.net research website). Getting good light into learning spaces is a complex task – better refraction levels from paints, removing all paper from existing windows, abandoning tired old interactive white boards that need the blinds permanently lowered, and so on. Teachers are constantly amazed when their truculent group in the dark corner turn out to be bright eyed and bushy tailed once their light levels are boosted.

And so on. Marginal gains from plants boosting oxygen levels (as BYOP schools everywhere are finding), from getting soporific temperatures down, from invoking regular movement, or from standing, from zoning spaces to signal an expectation of different modes of learning (individual research, presentation, collaboration, whole group teaching, etc.) and more.

It turns out, no surprise, that children, like athletes and others, love to be involved, love to make everyone’s learning better, and love to see their own personal gains from this aggregation of marginal gains. As one teacher reflected on Twitter: “We all enjoyed making these effective tweaks to our room and blimey – it works!” Perhaps if learning was an Olympic sport, we might have got to this point sooner.