The power of collaborative learning

#BreakfastClub Marginal Gains and Nudging

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Philip Green has been teaching business subjects in a variety of contexts for 25 years. He has been a member of the Aldenham staff for 10 years. He combines his work in school with being a Curate in the Church of England. Find him on Twitter @revphilipgreen

How Behavioural Economics can help us in the classroom


Question: How did anti-bacterial hand gel and having their own pillows lead Laura Trott and Jason Kenny to Olympic glory in the summer? The answer is that they are both examples of marginal gains. The former Director of Performance for British Cycling, Sir Dave Brailsford, is often credited with coming up with marginal gains theory – the idea that a one percent improvement across every aspect of performance is worth a 100 percent improvement in one particular area.

Brailsford felt that there were no great breakthroughs to be had in cycling – technical specifications for bike and equipment are highly controlled – so the team had to search in other areas for improvements. Keeping the athletes as healthy as possible by using antibacterial hand gel and proper hand washing was one thing, and if they could get an extra few minutes of quality sleep by having their own pillow (and eventually their own bed), it would produce another small gain. Brailsford explains his theory well here.

How many of us have “penny drops” moments – where students achieve breakthroughs in their learning – in every lesson? I know I don’t. And this led me to look at seeking marginal gains in the classroom. Instead of one massive gain, how can I change practice to seek several smaller gains? It’s a bit like that scene from The Great Escape where they are trying to work out what to do with the excavated soil.

I don’t have any massive words of advice here, but a discussion I led at a recent Breakfast Club was really revealing.

One colleague said that he had introduced competition into the speed at which handouts could be distributed. Instead of something taking 3-4 minutes, it was now down to a few seconds.

Another said that in practical lessons, one group on the rota does all the tidying up for everyone, which means that learning for all other students can continue until the end of the lesson.

I mentioned that I have three standard questions I will always ask when dealing with a dataset, and students have these at the front of their file. This means that they are on task as soon as the data is shown to them.

There were many other such suggestions which we could all implement fairly easily – please add your own in the comments section below!

The concept of marginal gains is also tied in with that of Nudging, named after a book, Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, published in 2009. Thaler and Sunstein are largely responsible for mainstreaming Behavioural Economics, which has (finally) found its way into the A-level curriculum. Nudging is simply providing an opportunity for someone to make a small change, rather than forcing them into a larger one. The book became highly influential, leading to the creation of the Behavioural Insights Team in Whitehall by David Cameron.

The idea was that people’s behaviour – such as paying their taxes on time – could be more effectively influenced by a nudge, rather than a shove, in the right direction. (The process is well documented in another great book, Inside the Nudge Unit, by its co-founder, David Halpern.)

I wonder how we might be able to apply the basic principles of nudging – making good choices for students easy, attractive, social and timely – to the classroom.

For instance, do we make it easy for students to access homework tasks? If we do, it increases the time they can actually spend on meaningful learning.

Do we offer them handouts which look as though they were cobbled together in the five minutes before the lesson began?

Do we engage students in collaborative learning, or do we shove them in groups with unfortunate combinations of personality?

Do we take into account that they might actually have commitments out of the school?

Again, if you have any ideas about how to make good use of a nudge in an educational setting, please let us know.

Like most teachers, I am energised when I can take techniques I’ve learnt about in one sphere of my life – in this case, a love of watching professional cycling, combined with an interest in reading popular Economics books  – and use it in the classroom. Nudging and marginal gains might not be revolutionary, but they certainly can lead to great improvements in our schools.

Philip Green



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