Grainne Hallahan

School improvement: why less is more

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Leaders are often driven to improve education by adding: more computers, more teacher evaluations, more emails to parents. But what happens if, instead of adding, we subtract? Grainne Hallahan finds out

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“A while back, British Columbia had this policy whereby, when a legislator proposed a new law, they had to also propose two existing ones to be removed. Imagine if [school leaders] had to do the same,” says Leidy Klotz.

Klotz is Copenhaver associate professor at the University of Virginia, and he is on a mission: to help us learn to get better at streamlining our processes.

His research looks at overlaps between engineering and behavioural science and, in his book Subtract: the unstopped science of less, Klotz explores why people often try to solve problems by looking at what could be added rather than taken away – and explains why this can be counterproductive.

“This tendency to add is everywhere, and schools are no exception,” says Klotz. “What is different about schools is that what they are doing is so important and, when things are important, it is even easier to succumb to our adding instincts.”

School leaders are driven to do everything they possibly can to improve education, he continues, and this, unfortunately, often leads to them trying to introduce more of something: more computers, more extracurricular choices, more teacher evaluations.

The problem is that people are so busy adding, says Klotz, that they forget to “scrutinise what we already have that is no longer serving us”, and to consider the benefits of taking those elements away.

So, how can school leaders get better at subtracting? Here are some areas to consider.

1. Communication

In his book, Klotz writes about a famous saying often attributed to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one.”

When it comes to communication, it can be easier to leave everything in rather than stopping to condense what you need to say. Yet taking time to subtract can often result in clearer communications that are easier to understand, suggests Klotz.

This doesn’t apply only to the length of messages going out from the school but to the number of channels they are going out through, says Niall Statham, head of physical education at Hartland International School in Dubai. While it might seem like a good idea to cover all bases by communicating with parents via letters, emails, text messages, apps and social media, the “user experience” this provides can sometimes be less than desirable.

“Adding channels can work really well as long as parents don’t have to go to multiple places to find information,” says Statham. “If parents have to sift through information irrelevant to them to find [what they need], they will quickly disengage. What most parents want is a single source that has all the information.”

Leaders also need to consider how often communications are being sent out.

“Less is more,” says Statham. “Reducing emails to a specific day of the week from a single point of contact can really help parents.”

2. Acquisitions

According to Klotz, humans are hardwired towards what Stephanie Preston, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, calls “acquisitiveness” – a desire to keep adding to our personal possessions.

Take a look into any school stock cupboard and you can see this hoarding instinct in action: textbooks written for exam specifications that no longer exist will be piled next to copies of novels no longer taught, just above the boxes of photocopies of handouts kept back “just in case”.

Douglas Wise is an assistant principal at an all-through academy in Northampton. He believes that we “place a disproportionately high value on stuff we’ve created”, which makes teachers more inclined to hang on to resources they have made, in particular.

This applies whether those resources are paper or digital, he adds. “The stock cupboard can become a dumping ground and the same goes for digital storage. Electronic files might be less visible but they still create clutter that’s time consuming and effortful to navigate,” he says.

So, what can leaders do about this? Asking staff to get out the bin bags for a clear-out is the only way, suggests Wise, who adds that this is an important step to take.

“Our reluctance to subtract stifles innovation,” he explains. “If we become too focused on using what we’ve got just because it exists, we’re less likely to develop something in the future that’s truly fit for purpose. Stripping resources and processes down to their essential parts helps us to see what truly matters.”

3. Teaching

Encouraging staff to cut back doesn’t only mean asking them to have a clear-out of classroom cupboards, though. Klotz believes that leaders also need to coach teachers to declutter their teaching practice.

“I definitely struggle with adding too much content to my own teaching,” he admits. “As someone who loves knowledge, I’m constantly learning new and important things that I want to share with students. But if I only add new content to my courses without pruning anything, the course can become so crowded that students don’t have time to turn the content to knowledge. It’s not easy to think about removing content but it’s essential.”

Wise agrees that teachers shouldn’t try to cram too much into a single lesson as this stops them from really focusing on what they want students to learn.

“[When] we add too many teaching resources, particularly lethal mutations of the dual-coding kind, they become activity-driven lessons,” he explains.

“[But] we know that it’s not what students do that counts – it’s what they think about.”

What can leaders do to help here? Wise suggests creating a scaled-back culture across the school that leads by example. For instance, rather than piling on teaching and learning responsibilities (TLRs), leaders should work on providing better recognition and pay for staff who are doing their existing job well.

“I believe we need to adopt a subtraction-based approach to how we pay, reward and promote staff,” he says. “We need to pay classroom teachers more without them having to hold a “token” TLR. Some TLRs that are awarded just end up creating more work, much of which is often bureaucratic, because the TLR needs to be overtly justified.”

Grainne Hallahan is senior content writer at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 6 August 2021 issue under the headline “Less is more”

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