Marginal Library Gains

This section is going to be all about my research in marginal gains made in school libraries based on Dave Brailsford’s Marginal Gains theory.

The idea behind the theory is not to try and improve as much as you can but to break something down into its composition and then work on improving all the little bits by just 1%.

The GB cycling team, following this theory literally took their bikes apart and thought about how this might work. They improved the seats, the tyres, the frames all by small amounts, which when added together started to make a big difference. They even looked beyond this and worked out the type of pillows that would give their riders the best sleep and many other examples.

Team Sky, Brailsford’s other team also set the target of 5 years to win the Tour De France, they did it in 3 and Team GB cycling under Brailsford dominated London 2012 winning 70% of medals in the velodrome. All down to Brailsford described as the aggregation of marginal gains.

Now this idea has practical applications in just about anything and everything so why should it not have an application in we can improve school libraries?


Marginal Library Gains

The aggregation of marginal gains is a phrase coined by the successful Olympic and Team Sky racing principle Dave Brailsford. The term itself relates to being able to break something down in its composite being and try to improve everything by 1%.

The theory itself is so successful due to its flexibility to be able to put in any situation and circumstance. Educators are using the theory in the classroom to enhance student’s work and a leading example is Alex Quigley whose article in the Guardian below highlights why it works for him.

‘One simple, but highly effective, lesson learnt from the Olympics has been taken from the story of the brilliantly successful cycling team, and their visionary coach, Dave Brailsford. Brailsford believes that by breaking down and identifying every tiny aspect of an athlete’s performance and then making just a 1% improvement in each area the athlete’s overall performance can be significantly enhanced. His concept of ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ has been making transformative ripples in classrooms and ever since the cycling team came to prominence a few years ago, but after London 2012 that concept has been taken up with renewed vigour.

Now, most tasks undertaken by students have a complex range of skills: from making an original shop front in design technology and learning a field sport in PE to writing a newspaper article in English. All these complex tasks have a multitude of marginal processes and skills for success. Unsurprisingly, not all students have the colossal will power and skill of Sir Chris Hoy (nor the Herculean thighs, thank god!) and therefore they need a little help in breaking down the complexity of the task, making clear the manageable steps to success.
Alex Quigley, An unexpected Olympic legacy: how to make marginal gains with your students, Guardian, 22 November 2012

So if this model is so flexible and can be used in the business world the classroom and just about anywhere how can we think about using it in a school library and what would our marginal gains look like?

This is an area that I have been focusing on for the last couple of years, thinking about what makes a successful school library and how it can be broken down in smaller parts so that we can improve each bit by that 1%.

I’ve come up with a series of things that I think we should be looking at and areas where we can make improvements and change our ways of thinking/operating to have as big an impact as possible.



In libraries and in particular school libraries we run a large number of events, promotions and reader development activities to engage as many people into reading as possible. We organise surveys and polls to try and find out what we might be able to do better and how we might be able to engage with those that are unengaged.

However, Self-Selection theory tells us that this is an extremely difficult feat to achieve especially if we are only thinking in the confines of our libraries own four walls.

Dr Dewey (aptly named in this situation) describes self-selection within polls as follows.

Polls are an example of self-selection. People select themselves for the poll by deciding to take part. Such a poll would be biased toward people with strong opinions, and the opinions may differ depending on the program or the network. A phone-in poll conducted by the BBC produces a very different series of results from one on Channel 5. If the target population is ‘all voters’ the results of neither poll can be considered representative.

Self-selection does not necessarily mean that people volunteer to be part of groups such as with the poll example. Neither does it imply that they ‘decided’ to be in a group. A self-selected group is simply a naturally occurring group.

Dewey goes on to explain that the following are examples of self-selecting groups.

16 year olds
People who buy coca-cola
Left-handed people

In terms of a library the self-selecting feature is library users. Now, we can make an assumption that those students that use the library are most likely already readers. Although this doesn’t account for 100% of the time, those students that use the library most frequently would fall into that category.

the library

In the picture (fig 1) above you can see that in a school the majority of the library will be taken up with students we would consider being readers and those that we would consider to be non-readers would frequent the library only a small amount of time (or only a small amount of non-readers would use the library space). It is also worth noting that there would also be students in this model that we would classify as good readers that don’t use the space (or only use it a small amount of the time).

We can surmise from this then that anything we do inside the library, any promotions, events reader development activities are only going to be seen by those students that already use the library, are already readers and so will not do much towards creating new readers. Self-selection will tell us that this is also the case when we undertake polls and surveys.

Too many times have I seen school librarians bemoan the fact that the only students that fill in the surveys comment that they don’t use its facilities because it doesn’t have what they want yet what they want is in the library but because they don’t use it they don’t know. Self-selection will tell us that it is only a certain type of student that will fill out the survey in the first place and will most likely be those people that have a strong feeling either way. Therefore you will get a completely polarised view.

Biasing context and demand characteristics also show that young people will be influenced when doing a survey or taking a poll, depending on where it is they are undertaking it, the reason why they are doing and who they are taking it for. Therefore if they already have a negative view of the library, the librarian or reading they are more likely to answer negatively in the survey. The opposite of this is also true with those students already positive toward the library answering favourably towards it.

However if you undertook the survey by selecting a number of people to complete it, a varied cross section across the school then you would be most likely to achieve the goal of getting the best response from all students. If you then also made sure that the students were undertaking this survey outside of the library and did not know that it specifically generated by the library then you are more likely to receive a truer reflection of your resources/work etc. This could be achieved by creating a survey that has a number of elements to it and one of these being the library. For instance you might do a survey on resources across the school, in the classrooms, lunchtime resources etc and also include a section on the library.

For me this would be the 1% gain when specifically looking at undertaking polls to gain information for improvement.

This however, doesn’t satisfy the 1% gain for engagement though. To do so you have to think a little bigger than inside of the walls of the library. Of course it is important to make sure that you are promoting reading inside the library, running events etc but you also need to think about this in environments where you can engage non-readers. Those students that don’t come to the library.

Fig 2 below shows that this is possible. The commonality between all students is the fact that they are in school. The library is just one facet of a school’s physical space and one where we have seen not all students go. However if you see the school as a whole then you suddenly have access to the students whether they are readers or non-readers.

the library 2

This is a really important thing to remember. You have access to all students in the school you just need to utilise this. By displaying reading around the school, in every corridor and classroom and through every member of staff then you will have more chance of being able to engage more young people into reading.


Selective Exposure Theory

 By utilising this 1% gain by showing reading outside of the library you are also able to combat another problem that school libraries have. Young people that dislike reading (for whatever reason) will be influenced to think like this for a number of different reasons.

Selective exposure theory describes one of these reasons being that individuals tend to favour information that only goes so far as reinforcing their own pre-existing beliefs whilst avoiding information that is contradictory to these pre-existing beliefs. The implications for this in reading is simply that if you belief reading to be difficult, not fun etc then you will only take in information that supports this theory. Confirmation bias goes one step further and states that even if you do come across information that is contradictory to your beliefs then it will only go as far as strengthening those original beliefs and not changing your views.

The illusion of asymmetric insight also allows us more information on how groups form and how there can dissonance between them. The misconception is that you celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view where in reality we are naturally driven to form groups and believe others are wrong just because they are others.

This in terms of schools is all too visible on a day-to-day basis. Students naturally split themselves into groups with students very rarely moving between them. You could have the geeks, the sporty types, those students that are different, the weaker ability students etc the list just goes on.

In 1954 psychologist Muzafer Sherif created two tribes of youngsters that nearly ended up killing each other. Part of Sherif’s belief was based around the illusion of asymmetric insight and that the two groups, because they were in two different groups would act in certain ways against each other. From their observations the team noticed that although they rarely came into contact most conversations were around how dumb and uncouth the other group were. The scientists noted that each group needed the other to be inferior to themselves.

This, on a lot smaller and less physically dangerous degree, can be seen between the groups of readers and non-readers in a school. More often than not those students that dislike reading will rubbish those that do it. Call them names, geeks etc and try to make them seem inferior to their own groups. These actions just perpetuate these beliefs and ways of thinking.

When you then bring into this an understanding of impression management theory you begin to see why this happens.

Sherif made the conclusion that the behaviour of his group’s subjects is bubbling under the surface of everyone’s lives. Although this may not be as visible and vicious as his experiments groups’ we are all contemplating our own place in society, our allegiances and our opponents. You would view yourself as part of some groups and not others. Impression management theory explains that you present to your peers the person you wish to be. It is the theory that we wear many masks for different situations and why we feel uncomfortable when these situations intertwine, i.e. work and home, old school friends and new work colleagues.

Going back to our most primal instincts we realise that banishment equates to death so we pick up social cues to help us form an understanding of groups. We work hard to feel included so we are not left out, not invited to the party etc. Impression management states that we are always thinking about our appearance to others even when no one else is around us. This all fits in with the young people in our schools and their behaviour when it comes to reading. There are usually very divided and formed groups, those that do and those that don’t.

Those non-readers want to conform to their group’s ideals and so they behave in this way. But what comes first the display of behaviour or the belief? As a professional do you feel compelled to wear a suit, or after putting on a suit do you behave in a more professional manner? Studies would point to it being the latter and so when we think of it in terms of reading it becomes:

Are you a part of this social group because you’re a non-reader or are you a non-reader because of the social group you chose to align with?

If the studies point to it being the latter then this must also mean that there potentially could be something we can do to overcome this.

the library 3

In fig 3 we can see how beliefs are formed. As it is the action that comes first before the belief becomes fully realised it means that we should be thinking about how we can affect the action to change the belief.

Knowing what we know about why people choose to act in a certain way (so they are not ostracised from a group) and knowing that it actions come before the belief we can surmise that if we placed a non-reader or a small number of non-readers in a group of readers then engaged them into reading in some way, for instance an author event. The majority of the room would act positively towards what was happening. If you had mixed the non-reading students up with those positive readers so they weren’t allowed to form a sub group then you could go some way to having the non-readers change their behaviour.

Yes, this might not work in just a one-off setting but creating readers can never be done with one off events. It needs to have a systematic approach where you are continually creating opportunities. In this way, for me, the marginal gain would be to think about how you organise any reader development events such as author visits. Are you always inviting those students that already enjoy reading? Do you choose groups that are full with students that do not enjoy reading? Do you know the students that do and do not enjoy reading? By including some students that you know do not enjoy reading and mix them with a group where the majority of students do enjoy reading then can you help turn their actions and therefore behaviours and beliefs towards a more positive view of reading?

Ultimately the question is why do you do the reading promotion you do and who do you do it for? By using a 1% gain in knowing this and trying to change it can you make an impact on turning the tipping point of readers in your school?


1 Comment

  1. Hi, I am really interested in this idea. In trying to improve the school library I run I feel overwhelmed by trying to think about the big picture, so to be able to break things down and improve them by small amounts makes much more sense, and, to my mind it is more “do-able”. Thanks

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