Henry Hepburn

Teachers don’t need ‘life hacks’ – just more time

‘Pedagimmickry’ won’t miraculously transform the lives of time-poor school staff. What’s needed is the political will for change, writes Henry Hepburn

Teachers don't need life hacks - just time to get on with the job, writes Henry Hepburn

You – along with many millions of others – may have seen miraculous cookery “hacks” pop up when idly scrolling through Facebook or YouTube: the perfect flan that emerges after chucking ingredients into a carton of milk and microwaving it; the popcorn that tumbles pleasingly out of a paper bag after you blast an ear of sweetcorn in that same microwave; the branded sweets that can be melted into a gourmet dessert in a matter of seconds.

The problem is, stuff like this often doesn’t work very well in practice, and occasionally turns out to be downright fake.

The whole concept of hacks (now available in a multitude of genres, spanning work, leisure, relationships and not forgetting the all-encompassing “life hacks” ) is problematic because it identifies a problem – people are short of time – and proposes entirely the wrong solution.

Rather than addressing the societal, professional and cultural factors that leave people with little time, hacks tantalise us with easy shortcuts. Seductive little videos show us how to tie our shoelaces with one hand while navigating a dating app with the other (OK, I may have made than one up), obscuring the underlying problems of why we don’t feel we have the time to do these things in a more measured, sequential way.

It’s the triumph of shareable content over genuine solutions – and people who work in schools are far from immune.

Give teachers time to get on with the job

We already know from data produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that teachers in Scotland spend a very high proportion of their working lives in front of classes, leaving little preparation time. Twitter is awash with vignettes of teachers staying up into the wee small hours to get through marking or prepare a new class topic – the sort of things that really should be getting done in school time.

As an OECD report in September drily stated, the “larger proportion of statutory working time spent teaching” in Scotland could “indicate that teachers have to perform [other] tasks in their own time and hence work more hours than required by their statutory working hours”. And Tes Scotland analysis has shown that, even with the 1.5-hour reduction in class contact time per week promised in the SNP manifesto for May’s Scottish Parliament elections, Scottish teachers will have more class-contact time than the OECD average.

Add into the mix the experience of Covid – which, at very short notice, had schools scrambling around for ways to get to grips with the sudden move to remote learning – and teachers have felt more time poor than ever of late.

No wonder, then, the interest in what might be described as “teaching hacks”.

In an online piece for Tes Scotland this week, Richard Holme – a former primary teacher who is now a University of Dundee academic – wrote about spending time recently with a group studying for a headteachers’ qualification. He was struck by the “constant stream of initiatives and directives” they face, “often without any explanation of the research evidence behind the idea”.

He also weighed up the impact of social media, which has put “rocket boosters” under what he describes as “pedagimmickry”, even before the mass move to various online learning resources during Covid. “Teachers are time poor and a gimmick is seductive,” wrote Holme, who cautioned against the “false economy” of time-saving educational solutions that may not be all they appear.

Imagine the impact on pupils, however, if every teacher in the country felt they had enough time in their contracted hours to do what they wanted to do. You can’t hack teaching in the long run – but, if the political will is there, you can give teachers enough time to do their job properly.


This article originally appeared in the 1 October 2021 issue under the headline “Teachers don’t need ‘life hacks’, just time to do their jobs properly”

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