The aggregation of marginal strains

Maybe I am just over-thinking things at the moment.  Today I saw a boy sitting on his own with his hands holding his head.  He’s fed up. Stressed.  Lonely.  I don’t really know, of course, but that’s what is going through my mind.  So many people are suffering from the cumulative impact of COVID, and I just assume that this is another boy feeling the strain.

Marginal Gains

An excellent read is ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear (2018).  It describes the importance of building the right habits and breaking the bad ones.  One fascinating anecdote from the book describes the success of the British cycling team.  Between 1908 and 2003, the team had won just a single gold medal in the Olympic Games.  However, things quickly turned around when David Brailsford was appointed as the performance director in 2003 and introduced a principle he called “the aggregation of marginal gains“. 

“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”. (Brailsford, 2012)

Brailsford set about breaking down the objective of winning races into its component parts. He was on the look-out for all the weaknesses in the team’s assumptions, all the latent problems, so he could improve on each of them.  For example, by experimenting in a wind tunnel, he noted that the bike was not sufficiently aerodynamic. By analysing the mechanics area in the team truck, he discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So he had the floor painted pristine white, in order to spot any impurities. Diet, sleep, weight, fitness, training, conditioning, clothing…no stone was left unturned in the search of 1% gains.

The result? Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won a remarkable 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, in London, the team set nine Olympic records and seven world records. And the relentless success was repeated again in Rio in 2016.

What happened after 2016? Well, after the rapid rise there followed an inevitable big fall for British cycling. Allegations of bullying, sexism, discrimination, and a culture of fear were all bi-products of the doctrine of marginal gains. It transpired that each glorified 1% gain was shadowed by an unsustainable 1% strain.

Marginal strains

Whilst there have been incredible gains in dealing with the COVID situation – vaccines, remote-learning, circuit-breakers – it is also not difficult to see the cumulative strains in our students, staff, and leaders. Here are some that immediately come to mind:

Cumulative strains for students

  • Adapting to constantly changing COVID-safe arrangements
  • COVID-fatigue
  • Cognitive overload – different ways of learning and teaching
  • Social learning, interactivity, play
  • Missing friends, family
  • Loss of loved one
  • Exam uncertainty – stress and anxiety
  • ‘Falling behind’ narratives – stress and anxiety
  • Fear – fuelled by constant COVID news

Cumulative strains for teachers

  • As above
  • Increasing working hours – also impacting on physical health
  • More plates to keep spinning – more cognitive overload (not sure that’s a thing?!)
  • Increased scrutiny – stress and anxiety
  • Managing student stress and anxiety

Cumulative strains for school leaders

  • As above
  • Increased accountability
  • Inevitable depreciation of goodwill from staff to keep all the plates spinning
  • Managing staff stress and anxiety

Individually, each of these strains is possibly manageable. But it is the aggregation of each of these strains that is clearly impacting schools and the mental health of each and everyone of us, albeit this will differ depending on where in the world people are living with COVID.

As as a school leader myself, I am acutely aware that I need to do all that I can to mitigate against these strains. One way, of course, is to focus on 1% gains. If we took each of the items above and came up with something that made things just 1% better, would that be enough? Perhaps we introduce more mindfulness activities for the students (maybe good for students, maybe not so good for teachers who need to create all the new resources and then deliver them)? Perhaps we pay teachers more? Perhaps examining boards and governments could provide clarity over the running of exams for the next few years (and then stick with it?). Perhaps we schools employ more professional staff to support mental health? Perhaps…

3 things on my mind

  1. For every 1% gain, I can see that we are almost always introducing another 1% strain into another part of the system.
  2. Surely something has to give? We can not expect to continue with the mindset that we can carry on doing everything in schools the same way as we did before. There is an uncomfortable truth we need to face – as things stand, there is some complicity in the rise of mental health issues. We want students to cover the same curriculum, sit the same exams, keep doing home-learning… we want them to stay on the horse. I think we will need to step back and be prepared to make some courageous decisions (perhaps take some fences down?).
  3. Mental health is not a new phenomenon. It did not arrive with COVID. And nor will it evaporate with COVID. So how will schools need to adapt to become better at supporting mental health? How will schools be able to demonstrate that they do this well?

What about the boy?

So I asked the boy what was going on. He told me he had lost some of his lego and didn’t know where to look for it. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

Brailsford, D. (2012, August 8). Olympics cycling: Marginal gains underpin Team GB dominance.

Clear, J. (2021) Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. New York: Avery.

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