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[The importance of improving the way you do things]

The year 2003 marked what has to be the most spectacular turnaround in sports history. For more than a century, the British cycling team had performed so badly, that they had not won a gold medal since 1908 or the Tour de France in 110 years! Then Dave Brailsford took over.

Brailsford introduced an interesting new strategy, which he called ‘the aggregation of  marginal gains’. This was the idea: there are a number of factors which contribute to a cyclist achieving a top performance; if we break down all of these and then make an 1% improvement in each one, the overall result should be very significant.

Following this logic, the team got together and analysed everything: the bike and its parts; the athletes’ clothes; the training, the athletes’ diet, their health, etc. They looked at every single detail and then made dozens and dozens of changes. For instance, they improved the saddles to make them more comfortable; they switched to lighter fabrics for the athletes’ clothes; they used biofeedback sensors to see how each athlete responded to the training so as to customize their work-outs; they even tried out different pillows and mattresses to ensure that the athletes got the best sleep possible.

Did all this work pay off? You bet it did. In the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the team won 60% of all the gold medals in cycling. In the London Olympics of 2012, they set seven world records. And in a stunning winning spree, they won the Tour de France five out of six times in the period between 2012 and 2017. Amazing! (‘Atomic Habits’ – pp. 14-15 [Watch the short clip below] ).

So what if we as EL teachers were to take a leaf out of Brailsford’s book? What if we were to look at how our students try to learn English and improved every single thing by 1% (or more)? Here are some ideas:

  • If our students record single words, why not show them how to record collocations?
  • If they enjoy watching TV series, why not tell them to watch them with English subtitles on?
  • If they revise by re-reading their notes, why not teach them how to quiz themselves instead?

Apart from the language benefits, getting students to change the way they practice should produce a far more important change – a change in identity: ‘I am an active language learner’. That would be a huge win.

The Moral: FiShow your students how to make ‘marginal’ changes.