We are not elite cyclists

Marginal gains. The stuff from which whole school INSET dreams are made. Interesting story? Check. Intuitively makes sense? Check. Seemingly applicable to the classroom? Check. Celebrating British success and ingenuity? Check (though the recent TUE controversy does throw some shade on things).

For those not aware, marginal gains is an approach popularised by Sir David Brailsford, a cycling coach who was in charge of the gold-medal machine that is Team GB’s cycling team and is still manager of Team Sky who won the Tour de France in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. In Brailsford’s words:

“The whole principle [of marginal gains] came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”.

By making lots of small improvements, tweaks and changes in a range of previously unconventional areas, Team Sky and Team GB were able to achieve an edge over their competitors. For instance, athletes were shown how to wash their hands correctly by a surgeon in order to minimise the chances of illness. Hotel rooms were scrubbed down before athletes arrived in order to reduce the possibility of an athlete contracting an illness. Famously, the same type of mattress  and pillow that athletes would use when at home were taken with them when travelling in order to help ensure a good night’s sleep for athletes. Such changes alone may be insignificant but together they have been credited with helping to produce a golden era of British cycling. For the reasons outlined above, the principle has been championed by those outside cycling as a way of improving performance in a range of fields including teaching. However, this thinking is flawed.

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Constantly striving for improvement and considering innovative and creative ways of improving performance is to be commended. Indeed, a key component of professionalism in the teaching profession is seeking to reflect on and improve what we do. However, we are not elite cyclists. A marginal gains approach is not right for us.

There are over one billion bikes in the world. Even dividing this number by 10 and assuming there are 100 million cyclists, Team Sky cyclists make up the top 0.00001% or so of cyclists in the world. Even the very best teachers in a given school are almost certainly not in a comparably elite category simply on the basis of probabilities. The cyclists Brailsford oversaw were at the top of their field, as were their competition. Their nutrition was already very very good. Their training protocols were world-class. Their technique was exceptional. They had been living the life of an athlete and dedicated thousands of hours of practice to their sport from a young age and were incredibly genetically gifted. They literally had no other way of improving their performance and gaining an edge over their rivals other than to go down these non-conventional routes. The marginal gains approach made a difference because all of the athletes from all of the teams were doing everything else right. No amount of hand washing will make up for even a slightly sub-par nutrition, recovery and training schedule. Marginal gains worked because substantial gains had already been made.

Another area in which I am keenly interested is diet and nutrition. People focus on meal timings, no carbs after seven, paleo, organic, skip breakfast, don’t skip breakfast, high fat, low fat, high carb, low carb or consider buying the latest thermogenic fat-loss supplements. These things may make a difference, but only once the basics are in place and have been adhered to for a substantial period of time. If people seek to alter their body composition they should control how many calories they eat as their priority. After that they should control how much protein they take in. For 99% of people just doing these two things, combined with a sensible exercise programme, will see them making far more progress than if they ever would by worrying about balancing the carbs in their evening meal. If everything else is in place and being successfully adhered to and has been for a long time then the timing of breakfast might make a small difference to a person’s body composition, but securing the substantial gains first has to be the priority and will be enough for 99% of the population. If calorie control is not in place, no (legal) thermogenic supplement in the world will make a jot of difference to how a person looks.

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Back to the classroom….we are not elite cyclists and there are significant substantial gains we should all make as classroom teachers before we start even thinking about gains at the margins. For Maths teachers, I strongly believe we have two areas in which as individuals could all make substantial gains. Firstly, thinking about and literally rehearsing how we explain concepts to students will lead to dramatic improvements in learning if done consistently lesson in, lesson out for an extended period of time. Mathematical explanation is a skill and takes time and effort to practice and perfect and is sadly underrated, especially given that it lies at the heart of what teaching actually is! Secondly,  actively taking the time to really consider students’ misconceptions for each and every concept in each and every lesson will have a similarly large impact (hat tip to Craig Barton for the superb training session he delivered on this in Kuala Lumpur last month).

These are my potential substantial gains. Whilst I try and do both of these, I do not do them with the consistency and frequency with which I could and I know of no colleague that does (especially the former). This is where I should focus my energy rather than trying to implement a number of small changes that will aggregate to an improvement in learning far smaller than I could achieve by spending more time carefully considering my explanations in lessons. I could spend time adopting a triple-colour marking approach that, along with a number of other approaches, might lead to a small improvement in learning. Instead I will focus on better content in lessons that supports weaker students whilst still stretching stronger students because there are still substantial gains I can make here and I suspect that there are similar substantial gains staring most teachers right in the face; certainly I don’t know of any colleague who makes a point of really considering in fine detail every explanation for every single concept in every single lesson.

Putting my armchair psychologist hat on for a moment, I am also inclined to think that from a behavioural perspective we are less likely to be successful if trying to change a large number of small things in our classroom practice a la the marginal gains approach rather than one or two larger things due to being better able to form habits when only focusing on a small number of things.

The real lesson from Team GB’s and Team Sky’s success is the same lesson that can be drawn from any successful team or person in any field. Success requires practice and perseverance over time and doing things consistently well. Whilst the marginal gains approach is a far more appealing whole school INSET than a story about someone having the discipline and determination to eat, sleep and train cycling for 20 years, it is this that we should be focusing upon as teachers. Once you have achieved truly elite status, then start worrying about the marginal gains but until then, consistency is king. Don’t look substantial gains in the mouth by worrying about small things at the margins. Get brilliant at the basics and keep getting better at them over time. We are not elite cyclists- we are (hopefully) decent teachers trying to get better.

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2 thoughts on “We are not elite cyclists

    1. I very much enjoyed reading this post. There are lots of well constructed and convincing arguments within it. Your points around building on the basics are spot on and the idea of improving practice through considered reflection and adaptation is entirely convincing.

      I am also taken in by your argument that “practice makes perfect”. I think that this has become something we’ve lost along the way in education. As we constantly push on from one thing to the next in our overweight curriculums, we all too often forget to revisit knowledge, concepts and skills that need to be repeated and fine tuned if they are to become inculcated.

      I am interested that this idea has been framed around the notion of teachers not being “Elite Cyclists”. Of course you’re right. They’re not. I’m just not sure who in their whole school inset is suggesting that they are.

      Maybe school leaders around the world are currently pushing out marginal gains initiatives with their staff and exploring how diet, classroom furniture or timetables can be minutely adjusted to improve performance, but I very much doubt it. This notion reduces the idea of looking outside one’s profession for ideas to innovate and improve practice to be a very simplistic “watch and copy” type approach. Flat pack it up from Team Sky and unpack it in Team Maths. By suggesting this we completely miss the point. I’m happy to admit that I’ve included mentions of Brailsford in school talks I’ve done. I’m also confident in saying that my reason for doing so was not because I wanted to change the cushion thickness of classroom wheely chairs in a misguided and top down drive for improvement.

      To stick with the cycling example, Brailsford and Team SKY (TUE’s not included, I enjoyed that reference in the blog) are much more interesting than marginal gains. This is a tiny element in a much richer story. Marginal gains is just the bit that got the most press. Brailsford’s ideas and successes in distributed leadership and creating “out performing teams” are disruptive, fascinating and importantly, much more likely to offer fertile ground for transfer, innovation and development in school leadership. That doesn’t mean we have to use them as is, it just presents us with some potentially useful learning.

      Learning about, reflecting upon and debating new and interesting ideas is a healthy part of progressive dialogue. The beauty about dialogue is that it leads us to better informed decisions. Opening our own and others eyes to innovations from sport, the arts or business does not automatically mean adopting them. Whilst I am in no doubt that there are school leaders out there that may do this, we really must be careful that we don’t paint in too broader strokes.

      Teachers are not elite cyclists. They’re also not coders, engineers or electric car designers but that should not mean that we shut down the idea of looking to Google, Tesla or Dyson for transferable concepts and ideas that may help us to improve what we do. If we only look at teaching we close down a huge range of potential learning.

      I love your phrase “get brilliant at the basics”. There is a great deal of value in this. After all, It’s this foundational stuff that creates the platform for us to become better. Let’s do that, and in fact, let’s spend most of our time there. We definitely have much common ground here. However, let’s also be careful not to confuse innovation with simply taking an idea wholesale and repeating it in a different context. That is, as you quite rightly point out, flawed thinking.

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