Marginal Learning Losses

If you want to read about Marginal Learning Gains, look no further than Zoe Elder’s blog. Zoe introduces it here – giving a succinct summary of Marginal Learning Gains – or you can go straight to the MLG blog here. David Didau also has a collation of ways that MLG can apply to the classroom here. Marginal Learning Gains is a concept inspired by Team Sky – our British professional cycling team. Essentially, making everything a tiny bit better will yield huge improvements overall.

This blog looks at ways we’re doing the opposite – how we make tiny losses, which all accrue and result in stunted progress. I’ve called these Marginal Learning Losses. I have no idea if this has already been done – if so, please send me details, and I’ll read and link.

Marginal Learning Losses are tiny little disruptions to teaching (and therefore learning) which impact on our overall success.

Marginal Losses in the classroom – teachers, displays and seating.

Ruth Walker’s blog on Teacher Led Disruption looks at all the ways that we cause disruption in our own classrooms. I was so often guilty of derailing my own teaching – little asides, jokes, and anecdotes that only serve to muddy the water. I’ve really pared this down in my own practice, since reading Ruth’s blog, but I have to continually remind myself of it. Marginal Learning Losses can be reduced by being mindful of such self-centred disruption.

Peps Mccrea’s Memorable Teaching made me reconsider my own teaching space and displays – for we should think about how displays can detract from learning, rather than add to it. When I had my own classroom, I moved the clock to the back of my room and minimised the distractions at the front of the room, as much as I could. Busy, highly decorated rooms result in Marginal Learning Losses.

Seating layouts are important. If there’s another teenage face gazing back at each of our students, we’re never going to have their full attention. This doesn’t mean that we can’t do groupwork (and this blog is not about groupwork, so we’ll leave that to one side), but we should be moving our tables for groupwork, with standard practice being that the board is visible to all. I am yet to see a classroom with groups in which some children don’t need to twist their necks to see the board. Far easier (and more comfortable) for them to look at the person sitting opposite, and therefore lose concentration and learning time. We lose minutes of every lesson to such distractions – more marginal losses.

Marginal Losses at the door

After safeguarding, teaching and learning must be top priority for us. Interruptions at the door should be kept for emergencies. I know of schools where it is common to have regular and frequent knocks at the door during lessons – regardless of key stage – for reasons including, but not limited to, the following:

– “Please tell X that his PE kit is at reception”

– New school uniform deliveries

– Deliveries of stationery orders

– Messages to phone mum at breaktime

– Teacher X wants to see Y at lunch

– Post delivered straight to the teacher (rather than put in the pigeon hole)

– Requests for work for Office Duty students

– Requests for a child to return a lunch pass

– Notices from tutor-time, which were not given out at tutor-time

– Requests for sports teams, usually with a list of names to read out

Every time we’re interrupted like this, we lose a little bit of teaching time. It can feel relentless. The pupils hate it; I’ve had KS4 classes who have asked me to put a “Do Not Disturb” sign at the door. This is an easy culture to shift – just make these interruptions unacceptable. Ban them.

Interruptions at the door cause problems because they send everybody in the room off-piste. This is not a behaviour management issue. I know that sometimes, the interruptions can cause a wave of whispers, but those are easily quashed. This is about focus, attention, and deep thinking. If pupils are unpicking a key quotation, or solving an equation, or piecing together the details of three sources, then a knock at the door sets them back to the beginning.

I fully appreciate that schools often need to take statements and investigate incidents, and pastoral staff can’t be expected to give up their own lunchtime for this. These are (should be!) exceptional events, though.

Marginal Learning Losses in the corridor

Lateness to lessons is, in most cases, due to dawdling. Dawdling costs minutes. Minutes add up. These are Marginal Learning Losses. One warning for lateness is often worth the joy of an extra few minutes with friends, and creates a stop-start atmosphere at the start of the lesson, thus losing minutes.

This is a whole-school issue and needs tackling in whichever way works for your school. We have a method using bells and timings. It’s creative and has eliminated lateness. It’s too long for this blog, but it has highlighted for me that we don’t have to just accept Marginal Learning Losses to lateness.

Marginal Learning Losses from unnecessary lesson withdrawal

It can sometimes feel that our pupils are being pulled in every direction. It’s absolutely true that they get to Y6 and they’re given responsibility and leadership. They’re fully functioning, responsible members of their primary school communities. They then start in Y7 and they look tiny, worried and unsure of their positions. Any school worth its salt will aim to further the work of the primaries with leadership opportunities and opportunities to show responsibility.

I’m worried that some of these opportunities are just examples of schools using kids as skivvies. It’s worth reflecting on whether you’re giving real opportunities, or giving out menial tasks, with dubious links to leadership. Examples to follow.

Of course, we need to get our students to contribute to the school community. They need to care for their surroundings and get involved in looking after the school. I just don’t think that this needs to be done when they could be learning, and I definitely don’t think that it’s okay to interrupt a lesson when they get sent back to class.

All of the examples below are context dependent. I’ve given a list just for reflection on your own context. Which of these are chipping away at your lesson time? Which of these cause interruptions to other pupils’ lesson time, when students are sent back? Which of these need to be done by pupils – and of those, which truly contribute to the development of the children and their learning? How many hours are taken for these, and how are students catching up with the same quality experience as those who were in the lesson? Done without thought, these sort of activities lead to Marginal Learning Losses:

– School Council.

– Putting away assembly chairs.

– Office duty.

– Open morning tours.

– Interviewee tours.

– Department review student voice.

– Litter picking.

– Library duty.

Some of these are undoubtedly worthy activities – promotion of oracy, democracy, and community responsibility are evident in many. Some of them are not. Stacking chairs, stuffing envelopes, running errands – these aren’t work experience. They’re mind-numbing, and anybody who argues that they are acceptable during any lesson time needs to really dig deep and evaluate exactly what we’re here for.

The union Teacher Workload Agreement springs to mind (stay with me on this!):

“A) Does the task need to be done at all? B) Is the task of an administrative or clerical nature? C) Does it call for the exercise of a teacher’s professional skills and judgement? If the answer to A) and B) are ‘yes’, and the answer to C) is ‘no’, then the task should be transferred from teachers”

This was an attempt to strip away pointless administration from our professional role, in order to allow us to teach, plan, prepare, and assess. I propose that we need something similar for pupils, to protect them from the little, ostensibly innocuous tasks that we give them, which all accrue and result in Marginal Learning Losses.

Here we go:

A) Does the activity need to be done at all?

B) Can the activity be completed by an adult, or out of lesson time?

C) Will the activity result in the loss of learning?

D) If so – does other valuable learning take place in its stead?

If the answer to A) is ‘no’, and/or B) is ‘yes’, then we should not be taking students from lessons for the activity. If the answer to C) is ‘yes’, then the answer to D) must be ‘yes’ and the original lost learning must be recaptured without additional workload for the class teacher.

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