Marginal Gains and Resolutions

Dir. of Middle School, Rob Waldron
At today’s Middle School Assembly, I asked the students and the teachers to work out what these are … 
The answer is ‘bum warmers’, and ‘bum warmers’ are used to warm the muscles of 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 what they refer to as 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 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 nutrition, sleep, schedule and training regime to try and eke out an extra 1% of performance.
The whole principle 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.
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 Middle School
I asked the students 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?
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 approximately five hours of lessons every day for 190 school days in a year
  • That’s approximately 5 x 190 = 950 hours of learning 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 Math fans).
Ensuring we attend every lesson punctually, and staying engaged 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
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 engaged, to ensure that all equipment for school is prepared the night before, to avoid distractions, or to record assignment and homework information … these are not impossible goals to set ourselves, but added up they could make a significant difference.
So, my challenge to our middle-schoolers was to not set overly ambitious New Year’s resolutions but to consider how they will go about making small improvements in lots of different areas this term that will assist them, and will, ultimately, have a big overall effect and impact on their learning.

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Founded in 1972, The Country Day School is a co-educational private school offering programs in JK-12 and located on 100 acres north of Toronto in King.