Assessment: Tinkering doesn’t Transform


To radically transform our education system for the better we should think again about how we assess and recognise the performance of our pupils. It’s the big idea no-one seems willing to deal with. Our current methods are narrow and archaic, at odds with what we know about learning, and in denial of the real worth of technology.  Arguing endlessly about life after levels is tinkering. Tinkering, endemic in our approach to educational change, deflects from any radical change.

“a combination of stability and incremental change which allows the traditional model of schooling, and of bureaucratic school systems, to adapt continuously to all kinds of external reforms is well able to deflect the disruptive potential of almost any innovation, no matter where it is coming from.”

21st Century Learning: Research, Innovation and Policy, Directions from recent OECD analyses, Bentley, OECD, 2008

To look for inspiration on how to bypass our tinkering culture and deal with the big idea go to sport. One inspirational figure brought ambition and a vison of what was possible to a ruthless willingness to use whatever was needed to secure unprecedented success. Sir David Brailsford changed the way our nation thinks about preparing for performance at the very highest level.  He was knighted for his stand against tinkering! He brought insights into performance management, science and technology into one place. Education needs to do the same.

When Brailsford first became involved in British Cycling Great Britain had won one Gold Medal in 76 years. When cyclists represented their country they were given their competition kit, a travel warrant and an inner-tube which you had to give back if you didn’t puncture. The annual budget was less than some schools spend nowadays on supply. The sport was stuck in the past. Brailsford changed all that.

Through his leadership of British Cycling and more recently Sky Cycling, he has transformed the sport in this country. The medal table over the last two Olympics reads 17 Golds, 6 Silver and 4 Bronze. Sky Cycling have won three out of four Tours, exceeded their five year target of getting more than 1 million people cycling in the UK and have done it all with a ‘clean’ team.

Many schools have embraced his idea of ‘marginal gains’ in the belief that small changes will somehow accumulate and make a large difference. This is tinkering at its most naïve.  Changing the shape of your helmet will make no difference if you can’t cycle the bike up the hill! The cycling experience required something more radical to challenge the inherited assumptions around performance and had to start with the basics and the big ideas.  Brailsford offers education three big ideas to help us challenge our inherited assumptions around how we assess and recognise the performance of pupils..

  1. Outrageously ambitious outcomes. When British Cycling accessed lottery funding it was to be tied to ‘Podium Performance’. Come fourth down to eighth and your funding was withdrawn. The top three got the money. Brailsford went public with this approach. Going public ties you into a contract to deliver. At Sky he adopted the same bold approach, identifying and investing in outrageously ambitious outcomes including winning The Tour with a clean British rider within five years.

For schools the lessons are the relentless and public pursuit of the most ambitious outcomes for every student, ensuring all staff behaviours align around securing those outcomes and each subject discipline is able to nail the essential performance points – the critical must haves – at each stage of an individual’s learning journey.

Brailsford has a ‘hunger index’ – his private written attempts to quantify ambition in each of his riders, this shapes the conversations he and his riders have around ‘self, versus self-sacrifice.’ He asks each what they need and what they can offer to maintain progress towards success. Brutal honesty characterises these discussions. Sometimes ‘individual and team harmony’ has to be sacrificed for ‘goal harmony’.  Just as in schools, for his team effective learning takes place not as a consequence of feedback but as a consequence of being given opportunity to expand on and act on that feedback.

Frog Education, a UK based learning technology provider, likes this sort of dialogue. They have an electronic tracking system which not only allows staff to log a pupil’s progress but ties it to evidence sitting on a timeline. The timeline will contain video, audio or photographic files of work completed, curated and uploaded by pupils or staff. This ‘evidence’, linked to success criteria which schools bespoke, can be shared and moderated by staff within the school and from other schools, commented on and added to by pupils, peers and parents. It’s an electronic version of the 1980’s maroon folder containing the Record of Achievement. The technology is simple, the dialogue is brilliant.

To gain the highest qualification in world football, participants in the 18 month FA UEFA Pro Licence provide evidence of competency against an electronic profile and this provides the detail for discussions with tutors. Top coaches are really challenged by the process.  In English Rugby an electronic system designed by Sir Clive Woodward called Captured allows coaches and players to build their own profile. Sky cyclists do something similar when they curate their own performance and development journeys in discussion with team staff. In Brailsford’s words the process is what matters – ‘it’s about noting progression not chasing perfection’ – and he will not work with anyone who does not take responsibility for their own development. All schools ought to be able to help pupils do the same. Honest conversations about learning – ‘Where were you?’ ‘Where are you?’ ‘Where do you need to be?’ – should be a constant.

At Honywood School in Essex pupils are asked those very questions when ‘Showcasing’ their learning. Showcasing is an opportunity for pupils to share what they have learned, how they learned and what makes it relevant. Showcasing occurs in Years 7 and 8 about six weeks after an ‘Ignition Day’ designed to focus thinking. Pupils use app such as Showbie and Book Creator on their I Pads and then load their evidence on to their personal portfolio called My Learning Journey.  Following Showcasing, pupils can opt to use a school designed app called My Learning Choices to book into a schedule of supplementary tutorials. It works in the same way you would book a seat on a plane. All of this activity builds onto the learners personal portfolio hosted on the school LMS.


  1. Understand the Human in the Performer. Brailsford once had to deal with an Olympic medallist, who, paralysed by anxiety at a major tournament, was unable to leave the hotel room. Sky Cycling employed Dr Steve Peters, a forensic psychiatrist who, for Brailsford, provided a light-bulb moment explaining the workings of the human brain and how performance can be destroyed by emotional hijacking.

Sky Cycling created a post of Head of Winning Behaviours to maintain a focus on excellence and all the contributory human factors, part of which was to use an in-house App to ask each team member ‘what’s your net effect on the winning mentality of the team?’

On a daily basis cyclists and staff use their mobile phones to give feedback about their mindset. It has had a massive impact. It’s a live, iterative feedback system which gives responses to statements under five areas: self, team, communications, performance and improvement. For example under self it asks for responses against statements which include: ‘I’m in control of my emotions,’ ‘I don’t moan, ‘and ‘I am professional at all times.’ The technology allows an informed peer-led discussion about the mood in the camp and how people are coping with the pressures of a big event such as the Tour. It puts the human’ back into human performance.


Insight into all the human factors shaping performance has been huge in their success and key to that was each cyclist understanding the workings of the brain. Peters says, ‘Insight alone is very powerful.’ Cognitive science has helped mitigate performance anxiety. 

Cognitive science and a better understanding of the brain can help schools apply more effective learning methods. As learning professionals, we now know more about the importance of building on prior knowledge, checking for erroneous assumptions, lodging key information beyond working memory, active engagement, self-regulation and metacognition, asking searching questions, iterative feedback and authentic purpose. We also have a template for a purposeful learning culture in the concept of ‘growth mindset.’ We are better informed about the ‘human’ in human performance than at any time in our history and yet…  we have tied ourselves into a 1950’s paper based, exam driven one-chance only model of how we assess and recognise performance which is neglectful of much that we know.

  1. Use Data and Scientific Analysis to give your performers traction. Sky Cycling seeks to aggregate marginal – or 1% – gains in four areas: training, rest, diet and equipment. Here the mantra is – ‘Ideas have got value not rank – everyone’s ideas are weighed and valued’- and once the basics are in place little additions make a difference – but only once the basics are in place.


Training and preparation is individualised with accurate sports performance data fed into the design of each programme. Bradley Wiggins’ Tour win came on the back of a redesign of his training after sports scientists recognised he needed to increase his physical load.  Out went sitting in the peloton in the Giro D’Italia race and in came daily climbs of the highest mountain in Tenerife. Rest and recovery are critical when you are in an event lasting 22 days. Each rider has their own mattress which is taken from hotel to hotel. Each bedroom is cleaned and has dust extracted by Sky staff. No one shakes hands as this transfers germs. High calorie rice cakes are made and cut to exactly the same calorific value, size and shape each day and given to the riders. The bikes and the riders are tested in wind tunnels. Nothing is ruled out.

Frog Education are currently exploring an electronic assessment system to record more of the factors which shape ‘a winning learning mentality’ in pupils and which give ‘traction’ to their progress.

The work, in its early stages, is called the Four H’s: Head, Heart, Health and Heroics. It attempts to create a system which will suck information about each factor into one place and so enable insights into what has most impact on a pupil’s progress.

Head would provide an academic achievement and progress profile and could draw on external, school and pupil data drawn from sources such as exam and test results, teacher evaluations and on-line learning activity. Heart is a pupils’ emotional intelligence and resilience profile with data drawn from non-cognitive test scores, pastoral record, self and peer evaluations and evidence from the reward system. Health is self-evidently about an individual pupil’s health and well-being and draws from evidence of fitness levels, school attendance, participation in recreation and sport and patterns of healthy eating. Heroics would provide a profile of contributions and achievements from life beyond school and could include Open Badges.

In education the aggregation of marginal gains is a popular form of tinkering. Without a better assessment system with what we know about motivation, performance feedback, learning and cognitive science built into its design we will not give our performers ‘traction.’ We will be adding tinsel to an old tree. Technology is already providing answers. The government policy on technology in schools seems to be to have no policy but in the longer term it’s technology which will provide a means of helping schools get the very best out of pupils.

A system which provides live information over time to help us assess and record the progress and performance of individual pupils would be transformational. It would stay with a pupil across phases and beyond school.  It would be a source of pride for the pupil and a mechanism for building self-knowledge and curating experience. It could provide an evidence base to reduce the need for terminal high-stakes testing. It would be a driver of performance. It would be our big idea.

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