While listening to Shankar Vedantam’s podcast Hidden Brain episode titled “Do Less,” I kept thinking YES! We need to do less in education! We need to stop adding to teachers’ already full plates and start thinking about how subtracting or taking things away might improve our teachers’ and students’ lives.
Vedantam talks with Dr. Leidy Klotz about the power of subtraction. They discuss how removing, streamlining, and simplifying have led to positive change. However, humans have an innate drive to innovate. Innovation often leads to creating more or adding to what already exists. This trend is evident in most school districts and classrooms. School leaders identify priorities and adopt new initiatives without dedicating equal time and energy to identifying things that can be removed or eliminated.
Let’s explore some examples in education where doing less can give teachers and students more.
Less Breadth, More Depth
Teachers are asked to cover a massive amount of content in a school year. There’s pressure to cover course standards, teach the adopted curriculum, keep up with rigid pacing guides, prepare students for standardized exams, and post a particular number of grades in the grade book each week.
This pressure to cover curriculum can make moving away from teacher-led, teacher-paced whole group instruction scary. As a result, teachers spend significant time at the front of the room talking at students instead of allowing students to engage in the messy and often time-consuming work of exploration, meaning-making, and discovery.
Even though most teachers recognize that teacher-led instruction relegates students to a passive and consumptive role and is not the best way to engage learners, they feel trapped by the bombastic pressure to “get through” their curriculum. What is the point of covering content if students don’t understand it and will not remember it?
Teachers need the space to encourage deep learning by engaging students in constructing knowledge through student-centered learning activities where they have more control over their learning experience. Students must do the heavy cognitive lift of asking questions, engaging in conversation, researching and exploring, creatively problem-solving, and collaborating around shared tasks.
Asking teachers to cover less would allow them the time and space to explore different instructional models that leverage technology to differentiate and personalize learning, cultivate social-emotional learning skills, and incorporate metacognitive skill-building routines into their classes.
Less Talking, More Connecting
My research identified that the depth and quality of a teacher’s relationships with students significantly impacted their work engagement. Relationships are built through meaningful interactions between the teacher and learner. When students hang out in our rooms at break or lunch and chat informally with us, we get to know them and, often, feel more connected to them because of those interactions. Yet, those teacher-learner interactions can and should be happening daily in the classroom.
So, what stands in the way of human connection in the classroom? Teacher talk. The time teachers spend talking at the front of the room is the biggest barrier to human connection. When facilitating blended learning workshops, I encourage teachers to ask themselves a question before they present information in a mini-lesson or lecture. Are you planning to say the same thing the same way to everyone? If the answer is “Yes,” I encourage them to make a video. Shift that explanation online, allow students to self-pace through it, and use that valuable class time to work directly with small groups or individual learners supporting their specific needs.
The less teachers talk at the front of the room, the more time they can dedicate to tasks like feedback that typically happen outside the classroom. Feedback is how students feel seen and supported, but it is easy to neglect when teachers feel pressure to cover content. Instead, using video strategically and exploring blended learning models, like the station rotation model, can help teachers create the time and space to give timely, focused, and actionable feedback in the classroom as students work. Not only can this lighten a teacher’s workload, but the act of providing real-time feedback can help teachers better understand where students are in their progress and help them develop their relationships with learners.
Less Grading, More Designing
Too many teachers are spending their evenings and weekends grading. It is exhausting and not a particularly enjoyable task. It’s no wonder so many teachers are frustrated and disillusioned with the profession. They do not enjoy work-life balance because of the massive amount of work they take home.
There is a real fear driving the practice of grading everything. Teachers worry that if there is no grade attached to the work, students will not do it. I understand the rationale, but it’s problematic. Instead of using points and grades as a carrot to entice students to do the work, how can we get students to see the value in their work?
Instead of spending hours grading, I’d love to see teachers invest that time into their design work. Unlike grading, a teacher’s work as the designer of learning experiences is a cognitively engaging task that demands creativity and intentionality.
When I facilitate blended learning workshops, teachers express concern about the time it takes to design student-centered learning experiences with the various models. It’s true that it takes more time to architect a student-centered lesson that invites learners to make meaning as opposed to standing at the front of the room telling students everything we know about a topic. Yet, the time we invest in our design work should free us to spend our precious class time engaging with students and supporting their progress toward learning goals.
Why Should We Talk About Doing Less in Education?
Teachers are exhausted and leaving the profession in droves. Hiring and retaining high-quality teachers will demand that schools think about how to make this work more sustainable and rewarding. Continuing to add to our teachers’ workloads will only result in high levels of teacher burnout and attrition from the profession. Instead, school leaders should be asking, what can we remove? How can we give teachers more breathing room and flexibility?
Instead of assuming that the best way to solve every problem is to add something new, it’s time to start tackling issues in education by considering what we might remove or eliminate. Subtracting might be the best solution for re-engaging our teachers and students!
As a site leader and coach it is refreshing to see the message less is more. We are taking some data dives and time for reflection to slow diwn and focus.
I want to learn more to improve my capabilities as a teacher. The topic is really interesting and informative.
Although I am not a full-time teacher yet, I have spent time as a substitute teacher and a student-teacher, and even I can see the negative effect that a higher workload has on teachers. This blog post is incredibly insightful and it is fully correct. Standardized requirements, like SGOs, create added stress into a teacher’s school year. So, instead of creating and adopting creative activities for the students, the teachers are forced to take time making sure that their paperwork is filed correctly. Also, your second and third points correlate perfectly. Instead of teachers assigning work to the students just to give them a grade, teachers should be connected more with the students. Teachers can be getting their feedback on if these assignments are really helping them learn and apply the content material. Especially as laptops become more prevalent in classrooms, it is easy for teachers to give them a worksheet, through the laptops, assign them a grade, and move on. But, as you mentioned, it is so important for teachers to use their time helping students direct their own learning. Developing more student-centered activities that better allow students to value their work. I am sure every teacher will appreciate this post as no teacher wants to experience burnout in a rewarding profession.
Thank you for this thoughtful reply, Nick! It’s nice to hear that so much of this resonated with you.