Assembly: marginal gains and resolutions

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

In this week’s assembly, I’ve been talking about marginal gains and resolutions. I started with the picture above: many students had a go at guessing what these objects were! The answer is that these are ‘bum warmers’, used to warm the muscles of Olympic cyclists before a race. The extra warmth means the cyclists can start one hundredth of a second faster than their opponents.

These curious devices are one example of the British cycling team’s approach to the “aggregation of marginal gains.” This approach means making tiny improvements in lots of different areas, adding up to a big overall effect. Other examples include the the cyclists always taking their own pillows and bedding with them when they travel, to reduce the chance of picking up an infection which might interfere with their training. The team tweak every aspect of the bikes, the cyclists’ equipment and clothing, their diet, sleep, schedule and training regime to try and eke out an extra 1% of performance.

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

It’s an approach which seems to have worked. In the four Olympic Games between 1992 and 2004, the cycling team managed to win eight medals; following the adoption of the marginal gains approach, the team won 41 medals across Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Marginal gains in school

I want us all to think about what marginal gains we could make in school. What small changes could we make to our approach which, sustained and added up over time, could result in a big improvement?

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One change could be in making the most of the time we have. Spending five minutes of a lesson off task – daydreaming, chatting to a friend, looking out of the window – doesn’t seem like too much of a problem. But adding it up over a year can result in a lot of lost time…

  • We have five lessons every day for 190 school days in a year
  • That’s 5 x 190 = 950 lessons per year
  • Five minutes wasted in every lesson is 5 x 950 = 4,750 minutes
  • 4,750 minutes is just over 79 hours
  • That’s over THREE WHOLE DAYS of learning lost per year, just from five minutes in each lesson (three days, seven hours and ten minutes, for precision fans).

Ensuring we attend every lesson punctually, and staying focused when we are there, is a marginal gain we can all make that could add up to a big overall effect over time.

Making a resolution

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New Year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep. This can be because they are too ambitious. But the advantage of resolving to make a marginal gain is that it involves a small change – or perhaps a number of them! Making resolutions to stay focused, to ensure that all equipment for school is prepared the night before, to avoid distractions, or to be more punctual to every lesson…these are not impossible goals to set ourselves, but added up they could make a significant difference.

What will your New Year’s resolution be?

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

 

Thanks to Keith Neville for the inspiration for this assembly.

Mistakes

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Your best teacher is your last mistake (Ralph Nader)

It’s horrible when we get something wrong. Nobody likes it! It can be horribly exposing, and it’s perfectly natural to feel upset, or embarrassed, or even ashamed. But, of course, we make mistakes all the time. They are a natural part of the learning process. So how can best use our mistakes to make progress?

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FAIL: first attempt in learning

The first thing is to accept that mistakes are inevitable. They will always happen. Nobody is perfect. Secondly, if you are doing something difficult – which, in school, we expect our students to do – the likelihood of getting it wrong is much higher. So the most important thing is not getting it right first time, but getting it right in the end.

This video from the Khan Academy shows how, as young children, we aren’t afraid to fall down, fail and try again – for example when learning to walk or ride a bike. But, as we grow, we become increasingly self-conscious and easily embarrassed. This shift can actually get in the way of our learning as we are less willing to take risks and try something new, worried that we might get it wrong, and forgetting that mistakes are a natural part of learning.

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Minnesota Vikings defender Jim Marshall in 1970

We can rest easy that none of us will ever make so drastic a mistake as Jim Marshall. In 1964, Marshall played American Football for the Minnesota Vikings against the San Fransisco 49ers. When one of the 49ers players fumbled the ball, it came loose, and Marshall was able to scoop it into his hands. He looked up, saw the goalposts ahead of him, and ran as fast as he could to the end zone to score what he thought was a touchdown. It was when the 49ers players started congratulating him that he realised he had run the wrong way down the pitch into his own end zone, scoring a safety and conceding two points to the opposition.

How do you recover from a mistake as catastrophic and public as that? Marshall did his best to forget about it, and crucially to learn from it. He went on to recover a total of 30 fumbles for the Vikings in his career, still an NFL record for the most recovered by any single player – and he never again ran the wrong way down the pitch. You can watch a video about Marshall’s experience here.

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At Churchill, to learn effectively, we believe in the value of:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

Having a healthy attitude to mistakes, and having the confidence and determination to take risks in our learning and try new things, are all central to our success in learning. So long as we make sure we’re facing the right way before we set off.

 

Making a good start

I am writing this blog post on Wednesday 19th September, exactly two weeks (or one complete timetable cycle) since the start of the school year. I can confidently say: “we’ve made a good start.”

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Since the start of term teachers have awarded 8530 reward points, set against 482 points for concerns. This ratio of nearly 18 to 1 rewards over concerns shows that our students have begun the year in the right frame of mind, with the right attitude, and they are setting themselves up on the path to success.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect! As ever with the start of term, there have been some issues to resolve and some teething troubles. Some students have had to adjust their behaviour or their uniform, and we as staff have had to make some adjustments to put a few things right. This is a really important process: nobody can get everything right all of the time, but when things aren’t right we are committed to sorting them out. This is what we ask of our students, and it is only right that we lead by example.

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A good start is just that: a beginning. Now that we are through the first two weeks, students have been to every class and lesson, and met all their teachers. The novelty of a new school year has worn away. What matters now is settling into the routine and rhythm of the Academy, maintaining the high standards set at at the start. That means continuing to show those learning behaviours which we know give students the best chance of success in their studies:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

And, even if you haven’t made a good start, it’s important to never give up. The video below shows the 1972 Olympic 800m final, featuring American athlete Dave Wottle (in the white hat). He made a slow start, falling way behind the field made up of the finest runners in the world. But he kept trying, and he never gave up. What happened next went down in Olympic history. We could all do with a bit of Dave Wottle’s determination:

Process over product

 

African Masks

Last week I saw a post on the Art Department Instagram which has inspired this week’s blog.

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Process over product. You art students work mighty hard towards your final pieces, and let me tell you… it doesn't go unnoticed. We call that the process, the hard work (and sometimes downright frustrating part) before we start the final piece. You do most of your learning during the first stages of a project. I sometimes love the development shown in a sketchbook more than the final piece! Shhhh. Amazing pieces of art don't just happen folks. It takes planning, research, and hard work to create a final piece to be proud of. Keep trying, keep working hard. 🤗 . . . Here, yr 7 start making their masks, whilst referring to their sketchbooks. #churchillacademy #Processoverproduct #hardworkpays #masks #ks3art #kidart #creativekids #churchillartacademy #africanart #yr7art

A post shared by churchillARTacademy (@churchillartacademy) on

You art students work mighty hard towards your final pieces, and let me tell you…it doesn’t go unnoticed. We call that the process, the hard work (and sometimes downright frustrating part) before we start the final piece. You do most of your learning during the first stages of a project. I sometimes love the development shown in a sketchbook more than the final piece! Shhhh. Amazing pieces of art don’t just happen folks. It takes planning, research, and hard work to create a final piece to be proud of. Keep trying, keep working hard.

This post captures a key element of our approach to learning at Churchill. At school, every experience is an opportunity to learn. We encourage our students to approach every task with the attitude: “how can I learn from this?” or “how can this task help me to get better?”

With this approach in mind, teachers emphasise what each task is designed to teach, develop or provide the opportunity to practise, whilst students will focus on what the key learning points in each task are. Although students should rightly feel proud of the finished product – whether it be a project, a homework, a performance, an essay, a test, an experiment or a piece of art or design – the learning happens during the process of making it. It is only through rehearsal that a performance can be polished.

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Even when a piece of work is finished, the learning isn’t. There will always be feedback on how to improve, reflection on what we have done well and what we can do better next time. This feedback is the essential ingredient which helps all learners move forward.

Receiving feedback can be hard. If the work has been the result of substantial effort, receiving critique on its flaws can be difficult. “I tried really hard, and it’s still not right,” our inner voice might say.

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The key to overcoming this is to remember that every experience in school is a learning experience. When you approach every task with the attitude: “how can I learn from this?” or “how can this help me to improve?” it means that you are expecting feedback – you need it. The task is not over when you have completed the work; it is only over when you have received the feedback and acted on it in order to improve, and taken the next step forward in your learning. Then you are ready for the next task, to build on the progress you have made.

If we are going to make the progress we are capable of, we all need to shift our mindset away from “it’s finished when I put my pen down.” The final product is important, but the learning happens during the process. That’s why, at Churchill, we always emphasise the importance of the process over the product.

 

Curiosity: is there life on Mars?

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Organic molecules found on the surface of Mars (source)

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface had found ancient organic molecules by drilling down into 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life.

I’m completely in awe of the Mars exploration project. It blows my mind to think that there is a machine, made by humans, rolling around on the surface of another planet and sending back pictures and information. Not only that, but the machine is drilling into Martian rocks, cooking the extracts at 500°C and analysing the vapour.

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A composite selfie taken by the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars (source)

The machine bears the name of one of Churchill’s values: Curiosity. It is this desire to find things out that has driven us on to this incredible achievement. The project combines Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Geology, Design, Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Mathematics just in terms of the exploration programme. The interest in these subjects started for each of the people involved when they were at school. They have built their careers on applying what they have learned to this amazing project, demonstrating creativity and ingenuity at every turn. When I look at the “selfies” taken by the rover on the surface of Mars, or I see the hole in the Martian surface left by its drill, I am staggered at what we can achieve.

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Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 Rover on the surface (source)

There are two more missions to Mars planned in the near future: NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme. What other secrets will they discover about the mysterious Red Planet? These missions are laying the ground work for a manned mission. Perhaps the generation of students currently at school will be the generation that first walks on the surface of another planet in our solar system. I hope they do – and it will be curiosity that takes them there.

 

How believing in others helps them to believe in themselves

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“Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t…you’re right.”

Those words, spoken by Henry Ford, the American business magnate and founder of the Ford motor company, perfectly capture the importance of self-belief in achieving success. His statement underpins a lot of what I know to be true from my long experience in education. What interests me, as a teacher, a leader and also as a parent, is how to help children and young people who think that they can’t, believe that they can.

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One really interesting study into this area was carried out in 2014 by David Yeager, Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues. They studied a group of high school students in America, who all completed the same essay task. Teachers provided written feedback on the essays in the margins and at the end, with suggestions for improvement. The researchers intercepted the essays and added a post-it note to each one. Half of the essays had a post-it note which read: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” The other half had identical post-it notes with the message: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your work.” Neither the students nor their teachers knew that there were different messages on the post-it notes, as the essays were handed back in wallet folders.

The first post-it contains an important message about high expectations, positive regard, and the belief in improvement. The second is a carefully-worded neutral message designed to act as a “placebo” or “control” in the experiment – in other words, it should have no impact on the motivation of the students.

All students in this study were given the opportunity to revise their essays and hand in an improved version the following week. About 40% of students who had received the “placebo” feedback did so, but double that number – 80% – of the students who had received the positive regard feedback chose to revise their work.

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What this study – and others like it – demonstrate, is that showing others that we believe in them makes them more likely to believe in themselves. Twice as many students took time to improve their work and make more progress when they were told that someone believed in their potential. I believe in the potential of every single student at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form to achieve great things. Telling the students that, and showing them that belief in our actions, is the most powerful thing that we grown-ups can do.

Progress

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Academy’s first Exhibition of Progress. This event, organised by Director of English Mr Grimmett, was designed to celebrate students who had made exceptional progress in their learning this year. This doesn’t necessarily mean the students who were getting the highest marks, but rather those that had made a huge leap forward in their learning over the course of this year.

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Learning Ambassadors 2018

Students were nominated by their teachers, and Mr Grimmett took them off timetable for a morning to work with them. His aim, with the students, was to reflect on the progress made and to try and work out what it was that had made the difference. Why had these students made exceptional progress in these lessons?

The question seems simple, but the answers are quite complex. The students themselves weren’t clear to start with – for many of them it had “just happened.” To help them to reflect, students put work from the start of the year side-by-side next to a more recent piece, looking at the improvements they had made. They then followed the leads they found – how had that improvement been achieved?

From the group of students, the following were rated as having the most impact on the progress they had made:

  1. Effort in classwork
  2. Personal determination to get better
  3. Positive relationship with teacher
  4. Effort in homework
  5. Personal understanding of the work and how to improve
  6. Enjoying the subject

Many students said that enjoying the subject led to them making more progress, but of course making progress makes the subject more enjoyable and leads to greater levels of satisfaction – like the chicken and the egg, it’s hard to know which comes first! What is certain is that progress builds confidence which leads to enjoyment which helps progress…it’s a virtuous cycle.

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Students created display posters to compare the “before” and “after” pieces of work, and explain the reasons for that progress. These posters formed the exhibition itself, and it was great to walk round and talk to the students stationed by their posters as they explained how they had done it.

Mr Grimmett pulled three key findings from his work with these students:

  1. Break out of your comfort zone: pushing yourself to do something difficult, or different, is the best way of making progress. Often this was prompted by something – feedback from a teacher, a good or bad result in an assessment, or a personal realisation and decision to change.
  2. Be self-disciplined: avoiding distractions, staying focused, concentrating so that the job gets done well – these are keys that unlock progress. It’s hard – but it’s worth it.
  3. Reflect and think about learning: the power of metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” was a common thread with many students. Knowing how to improve, responding positively to feedback, and developing a bank of strategies and approaches which work, allowed these students to apply themselves more purposefully to their learning.

What’s great about this is that these findings provide a road map and a template for any student who wants to thrive and make exceptional progress. If these students did it – you can too.

Thanks so much to Mr Grimmett and all the students involved for such fantastic work and for putting on a truly inspiring exhibition.

What’s your goal?

What are our motivations when we take on tasks in school? As part of the research I did when writing my book, I found some really interesting discussions about this issue. When we approach a task, the end goal we have in mind can have a big impact on how useful or effective that task is, both in terms of learning and also in terms of our well being.

There are two types of goals when taking on a task in school:

  1. Performance goal: if a student is motivated by a performance goal, then their primary concern is how well they do in the task – how successful they are, where they placed in relation to other students, what their score or grade was. They take on tasks to do well. If they are worried they might not do well, then students motivated by a performance goal might seek a way to avoid the task, fearing that it might expose them as “a failure.”
  2. Learning goal: if a student is motivated by a learning goal, then their primary concern is how the task helps to improve or develop them, through gains in knowledge or skills. They take on tasks to improve themselves, to learn something new, and to develop. If you are motivated by a learning goal, then failure to fully complete a challenging task is an opportunity to learn from mistakes, not a judgment on you as a person.

Students motivated by performance goals focus on avoiding failure. This can result in using tactics to get out of doing tasks that might be difficult, or even engaging in what the researchers call “self-handicapping” so that they can blame someone or something else for why they didn’t do well:  

For example, a student might postpone completing a [piece of homework] until the last minute or stay up late partying the night before an important test. Although the student can now blame failure on a factor unrelated to her intelligence, she has sacrificed the chance to learn and excel.

from Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning 

The research shows that students motivated by learning goals make better progress, are more resilient, are more likely to persist with difficult tasks, and seek out challenges – all features we want to encourage in our young people at Churchill.

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Learning goals at Churchill

At Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, the only time when students have a performance goal is in their final GCSE, A-level, BTEC or other public exams or assessments.

At every other time, tasks are designed and set up with a learning goal in mind.

School tests and internal exams

End of unit or end of year exams and tests are designed to help students in their learning. Revising for and completing the tests themselves are opportunities for retrieval practice, a learning strategy that has been shown to improve memory and long term learning. After students have completed their tests or exams, teachers will spend time with their classes going through their answers and their scripts, helping students learn from where they got things right, mistakes they made, and gaps in their learning revealed by the test. Of course, we want students to do well, and it is important that they try hard to do the best that they possibly can – but that is not the goal. The goal is to learn.

Performances and matches

Performances in drama, dance, music and sports matches are also learning experiences. Of course they are rehearsed or practised carefully, so that the performance is the best it can possibly be, but each performance is a learning experience. Each time a dancer steps onto a stage in front of an audience, it makes them a better dancer. Each football match played against “real” opposition builds the team’s and individuals’ skills and experience, making them better. Winning the match, or putting on a great show, is fantastic – but our aim is to learn.

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Challenges in school

Taking on a challenging or difficult task in school – in a lesson, as part of our extra-curricular activities, personally, or even socially – is an opportunity to learn and grow. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get it all right, or even if we get it wrong – because that’s not the point of taking it on. If we learn from the experience, it’s worth it.

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Transforming the learning environment

Over the past fortnight students have been getting used to a new and improved learning environment in the English department. Over the past year our site team have been working tirelessly, room-by-room, to renovate and refurbish all the classrooms in Hanover, where English is based. Over the Easter break, new carpet was laid in all classrooms and the upstairs corridor. It’s made an amazing difference!

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Before…

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…during…

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…and after

What was once an echoing tiled space is now a quiet, padded corridor. Whereas once the slightest shift of a chair was accompanied by an ear-splitting shriek of metal on tile, now students can focus on their learning without distraction. The clutter of old resources has been removed in favour of neat storage, and classroom displays are now focused on key learning points for English classes.

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The classroom design uses the same template as the Alan Turing Building, based on the Smarter Spaces research and work conducted by our students last year. The “teaching wall” is painted in a bright accent colour, to draw attention to the front of the room. The other walls are in a neutral colour, free from distractions, so that focus remains where it should be – on the learning.

Corridors are now clean and uncluttered. Hard-to-maintain displays have been removed in favour of large, robust photography. The time teachers would have spent on preparing, putting up and maintaining displays can now be spent more effectively on lessons and working with students.

We now have two buildings – the Alan Turing Building and Hanover – in this new internal design. The Athene Donald Building will make a third, and over the coming years we will also roll out the design to Windsor, Stuart and beyond. The future is bright!

We have only been able to achieve these great results thanks to the amazing efforts of our site team, who have completed this work with minimal disruption and a great end result. I’d like to thank them personally for all the work they have done – and continue to do – to transform the environment for learning for our students.

My book: Becoming a growth mindset school

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The front cover

One of my core beliefs as a teacher and as a school leader is that the manner in which we approach learning – our attitude – is the most significant factor in our success. I have written about this subjectrepeatedly on this blog and it is the cornerstone of our approach to learning at Churchill.

At Churchill we believe in the value of:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

In late 2016, I was approached by educational publishers Routledge to write a book about this approach to teaching and learning. What does the educational research say? How do you go about implementing an attitude-based approach to teaching and learning? And what have I learned from the process?

At first, I was a little daunted, but this is a subject that I love. I am passionate about the ways in which learning can transform young people’s lives, and about how small shifts in attitude and approach can yield big improvements in progress and achievement. I felt like I had something to say, and I hoped that what wrote I could make a difference to other teachers and school leaders and, through them, their students. So I agreed!

Nearly eighteen months and over 75,000 words later, the book is finally here. It’s called Becoming a growth mindset school  and it explores the theories which underpin a growth mindset ethos and lays out how to embed them into the culture of a school. It offers step-by-step guidance for school leaders to help build an approach to teaching and learning that will encourage children to embrace challenge, persist in the face of setbacks, and see effort as the path to mastery. It isn’t about quick fixes or miracle cures, but an evidence-based transformation of the way we think and talk about teaching, leading, and learning. It is a celebration of all we are trying to achieve here at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form through the skill and dedication of our expert staff, the support of our community of families, and the wonderful kindness, curiosity and determination of our fantastic students.

And we’re only just getting started!

Read an adapted extract from the book here.

Becoming a growth mindset school is available from Amazon, Routledge and Waterstones.