Video and Marginal Gains

How can we get better at what we do?

Watch yourself. That’s not a threat but a piece of sound advice for teaching and learning.

When we watch ourselves we can learn a lot. It might not be an entirely comfortable experience but it is certainly memorable and definitely behaviour-shaping and shape-shifting.

If we want to improve our teaching then we have to go forensic and starting looking in real detail at what we do and breaking it down into smaller parts.

As Matthew Syed says in his book Black Box Thinking,

“Ultimately the approach emerges from a basic property of empirical  evidence: to find out if something is working, you must isolate its effect.”

Going the extra 1%

Becoming better at anything involves studying your performance and seeing what works and how you can be better, even if it’s only by making the smallest of changes.

If we want to raise the bar in the classroom then we can look outside of teaching to Sir Dave Brailsford, performance director for the Team GB cycling team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

He applied the theory of marginal gains to cycling with remarkable success. Up until his involvement, British cycling hadn’t achieved much at all but his input catapulted performances into golden territory by adopting a philosophy of continuous improvement, focusing on progression and compounding improvements bit by bit.

“The approach comes from the idea that if you break down a big goal into small parts, and then improve on each of them, you will deliver a huge increase when you put them all together.”

He explains that success comes through having a strong CORE: Commitment + Ownership + Responsibility = Excellence.

In classroom terms, effective teachers are those that have an intrinsic drive towards achieving a goal (commitment), they are passionate pedagogues who take ownership of their training and development and responsibility for their performance. This is where videoing can play a key part. Sir Dave Brailsford puts it this way,

If you break a performance into its component parts, you can build back up with confidence. Clear feedback is the cornerstone of improvement. Marginal gains, as an approach, is about having the intellectual honesty to see where you are going wrong, and delivering improvements as a result.

Thinking small, achieving big     

In ‘A Leader’s Guide to Engagement’, Professor Damian Hughes talks about taking a ‘small win’ and ‘little by little’ approach to what we do and this makes perfect practical sense.

“Aim for a daily SAP – Smallest Achievable Perfection. Pick one little thing to perfect in a single day – one move, one action, one chunk. Work on it until it’s polished, until you can’t not do it right.”

We can apply this to teaching and this is where video can help.

We can focus on one change at a time. The video you make might only be a couple of minutes long.

For example, the introduction to any lesson is crucial – film that. Compare and contrast your ‘opening ceremonies’ and get under the skin what makes a good one tick. Is there anything you are doing that gets everyone on board right from the outset? Is there something you are doing that doesn’t? Watching yourself is also about flip-flop moments. Can you do something differently and turn it on its head? Is there something that needs elbowing?

Videoing ourselves isn’t about achieving perfection but getting better at what we do, breaking down everything that goes into teaching, celebrating successes, identifying weaknesses and then improving elements by 1%.

Videoing can lead to better teaching and more effective learning. This approach is about experimenting and making small improvements which could be as simple as where you stand to the tone of voice you use.

In their book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer analysed 12,000 diary entries from 238 people in 7 companies and found that the common trait of highly successful people was having a ‘small wins‘ and slow gains mindset, aiming for little, regular evolutions that add up to big things over time.

Videoing lessons enables us to ‘measure backwards’ in order to make forward gains and progress by unearthing the invisible and latent problems so we can consciously consider what we can do to make a little more improvement. Videoing ourselves and watching what we do is an opportunity to  make adaptations and create marginal gains.

Reflection using video is genuine reflection because it is attention to detail focused on continuous self-improvement through ‘kaizen’ or continuous incremental improvement.

Lean On Me

Videoing draws our attention to what makes a ‘lean’ education.

Dr David Parsons, National Postgraduate Director at The Mind Lab by Unitec, discusses how the concepts of lean production might transfer to an educational context.

He talks about the value stream and that every step in the educational supply chain should deliver value to the learner. When videoing ourselves we can ask:

  • Does this part of the curriculum deliver value?
  • Does my attempt at being humorous add value?
  • Does my intervention in this group task deliver value?
  • Do my extension strategies deliver value?
  • Does the ‘chunk and chew’ strategy deliver value?
  • Does this form of assessment deliver value?
  • Does the use of ‘wait time’ deliver value?

Drawing on some of the principles associated with the Toyota Production system of the 20th century, being a lean educator means be constantly on the lookout for ‘muda’ or waste that we can remove from the value stream.

Videoing enables teachers to look at their behaviour and practice and see what waste can be eliminated immediately.

Lean teaching isn’t something that exists in isolation. Teamwork is essential and applying the theory of marginal gains across the school is important which is why having video learning teams is important.

Working in a VLT enables us to examine what’s working and not working and to focus on, how things are being done. Successful school teams identify what the marginal gains are for  individuals and the school as a whole. When teachers reflect on their practices using video, something Professor John Hattie refers to as micro-teaching (with an effect size of .88), they are more likely to see what actually happened.

Video is a powerful professional development tool that can be used strategically as part of a marginal gains approach and lean way of working in order to make learning more effective and efficient.

Marginal gains video work focuses on continuous improvement, efficient communication and problem solving.

If all teachers working in a school embrace and adopt ‘selfie-videoing’ then little improvements would be made here, there and everywhere which collectively would make a big difference and allow the conditions for good teaching to thrive.

Everything a teacher does should add value but without self-reflecting and seeing ourselves in motion then we might be unwittingly tripping ourselves up and pupils and that would be a real waste.

Videoing sits naturally within a marginal gains approach because it helps us to get better through liquid thinking and a ‘Do, View, Study and Adjust’ way of working.

Teachers can’t be wired, programmed and enhanced like a Formula One car but they can get better by watching themselves, making some tweaks and self-editing.


Syed, Matthew (2016) Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance


John Dabell writes for Lessonbox

Video is a powerful tool to enhance teaching and learning. Staff, students, leaders and parents can now engage with video in ways that were unattainable several years ago.

© 2018 Lessonbox Ltd.