Less is More

Work from home?  Hybrid? Digital Nomads?  The Four Day Week?  …

Post pandemic, we have seen many such headlines, as such schemes have moved from fringe ‘wish lists’ to mainstream practice.  It really looks like people are now empowered to focus on what works, rather than habitual business practices.  And this is posing a challenge for employers who are struggling to find persuasive reasons for employees to return to expensive offices.

Let’s face it – one needs a good reason to spend ten hours a week commuting.

But what about teachers and students?

We know that during the pandemic, many students struggled and learning was lost.  But does that mean we can’t rethink our use of time in schools as well?

Such was the topic of my PhD, recently finished (oh joy, oh joy). In this study, I asked three main questions:

  • If teachers have lower contact time, will exam results benefit?
  • If students have more instruction time, will results rise?
  • If teachers have lower contact time, will retention improve?

In one sense, the results here are common sense.  But in another, they are uncommon too.  First, as you might expect – lower workload for teachers makes for better results and improved retention.  For students, more instruction time does lead to improved results.

This seems logical, surely? Especially to any teacher, I would guess.

But the surprise is in the effect size and the fact that changes in time for teachers and students balance out. To restate – if we lowered students’ instruction time by 10% to free up teachers’ contact hours, the likely effect on school performance at GCSE would be… zero.

As an added bonus, a school would be more likely to retain their staff, and in the current climate such a benefit is not to be overlooked.

I talked about this at a recent teachers’ conference, and was asked how this can be managed.  Several options spring to mind:

  • In Estonia, secondary students are in ‘classes’ for four days, and work independently, but with access to a teacher, for the remaining fifth.  I have seen this at work in some New Zealand schools also.
  • In Singapore, students have scheduled independent study days at home.
  • At School21 in London, 20% of teachers’ time is ring fenced for CPD.
  • Some countries just teach less.  Why not just reduce allocated instruction time by 10%.  That would enable teachers to have a free afternoon, once per week. Used well, this could be very beneficial.  Or… even better for the students – why not give them a late start two days a week… teenagers will definitely thank you.

Now, I know it’s not quite the same but also consider these time savers:

  • Why give extensive written individual feedback when high quality, whole class, verbal feedback is more time efficient.  Certain teachers at Michaela School report this being common place.
  • Reciprocal teaching – students helping each other – has a high effect size.  And for GCSE and A level students, understanding and applying a mark scheme has real merit – so why not let students mark each other’s work. (It may pay to audit this until they get the hang of it, but when they do, then the time saved will be considerable).
  • Rather than asking students to do a large number of exercises,  why not ask them to do up to 30 minutes of challenging exercises – to show what they can do, and to stretch themselves. Here, Less can definitely be More.

And one more way to create more time, even if we can’t change the hours, is to trim the curriculum. England’s post 2010 curriculum reforms fetishized content, and a lot of it. A recent survey of teachers by Teacher Tapp shows that most want less content (although mathematics teachers slightly less so). Reading Lucy Crehan’s book – Cleverlands, it is clear that one of the (many) secrets to some high performing countries’ success is to do less, better

Now there’s a thought.

Teacher Workload and EdTech: Is Help at Hand?

edtech strategyLong has been the promise that technology will ease workload, but, as Damien Hinds acknowledges with all too often disappointing results. However, a recent OECD survey of 2496 of England’s teachers found that teachers who regularly allow pupils to use ICT for project and/or classwork, also report working 4.6 hours per week less than colleagues (Sellen, 2016). Perhaps technology has now come of age and is ready to help tame workload?

Hopefully answers are close to hand. Last week the Department of Education launched the much anticipated EdTech Strategy, backed with £10M in new funding. Entitled Realising the potential of technology in education: A strategy for education providers and the technology industry this strategy launches ten key challenges to EdTech providers and schools that aim to find practical ways technology can and is helping teachers with workload.

Teachers will welcome the DFE’s priority areas which address issues raised in the 2014 Workload Challenge. Then, 53% of teachers wanted action to make marking less burdensome; 63% of teachers highlighted the impact of excessive detail in routine tasks, while 45% asked for help on duplication of tasks.

In response, the DFE have challenged EdTech providers to work with schools on solutions which automate marking and assessment – even for essays. Similarly, the search is on for solutions to administrative issues like parent engagement/communication and enabling flexible working.

Such solutions are timely. At this year’s Head Teachers’ Round Table conference and the Schools and Academies Show, workload and teacher retention were among top priorities for many schools. Here, I heard of schools where teacher marking is banned – instead relying on student self and peer-marking, and on Edtech solutions to mark work (and hopefully populate teachers’ mark-books). Schools also talked about using technology to ensure planning, curriculum resources and good practice are all effectively shared to reduce workload. These types of initiatives will be well supported by the DFE’s strategy which promises to help schools and EdTech providers to work together, identifying and sharing good practice.

The strategy also contains a range of time-saving guidance on procurement and infrastructure and is something IT Managers will find useful. Of practical benefit will be the LendED service, the try-before-you-buy service, and the establishment of a network of demonstrator schools.

There is however, one catch-22 in all the above. Improving teachers’ workload via technology will require effective CPD. Yet only 25% of England’s teacher rate ICT training as effective (Micklewright et al, 2014), CPD budgets are under pressure and workload itself a key barrier to CPD (Sellen, 2016). Some innovative thinking looks necessary. The DFE have teamed up with the Chartered College of Teaching to produce excellent online courses, but how these are used by schools must be carefully considered. As was found in the £230M ‘NOF ICT training for teachers’ initiative (1999-2003), online courses alone are insufficient (Conlon, 2004OfSTED, 2004). For Good evidence based advice, schools and EdTech companies can look to the UK Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education.

With these foundations, the Government’s new strategy offers much for schools and EdTech providers, working in partnership to realise the potential of technology to lighten teachers’ workload.

Published first on https://iscdigital.co.uk/edtech-helps-workload/


Even in exams, less can be more.

So the story goes…  Once a philosophy exam is reported to have asked students ‘What is courage?’ One student is said to have written only two words saying ‘This is.’

Whether true or not,  how much to write in an exam, or indeed for any report, is a question causing much anxiety.  In today’s high pressured world, the temptation is to believe longer essays and more detailed explanations will be better.

Cambridge Assessment,  who manage a broad range of assessments from the iGCSE,  ‘A’ Levels and various assessment tests like the BMAT,  have sought to actually find out by analysing a range of historical exam scripts to see if there is a relationship between how much students wrote and the final grade.

Taking the 2014 GCSE English Literature exam,  they found what might be counter-intuitive to many a student.  There comes a point where less can be more.

In other words,  once you have passed a threshold, writing more may be a waste of time and is unlikely to lead to better marks.

This graph below, from a paper written by Tom Benton (2017) in Cambridge Assessment’s research division, shows a number of interesting things – but most crucially, students getting top grades do not necessarily write lengthy answers in a clear triumph of quality over quantity. The range of words written for an A* grade is wide:  one student wrote 300 words,  whereas a more verbose student wrote over 1200.

word count and GCSE Engl Lit 2014 score

(source: Benton, T. 2017, pg. 39 – Fig 3)

Of course, it is true that students with higher grades were more likely to write more – on average students who scored a B grade wrote an average 597 words, as compared to the 652 words contained in A grade essays. However it is important that students stop and think – as all teachers will advise:

  • Planning an answer is important
  • One’s first answer is not always our best answer
  • Allow a little time to think through difficult questions – draw a mind map, doodle, or employ some other creative thinking tool
  • Don’t panic!  Adrenaline may result in long essays, but there’s no guarantee they will be any good.



Benton, T. (2017). How much do I need to write to get top marks? Research Matters: A Cambridge Assessment publication24, 37-40.  link

Necessary Anchors in the Storm

Change is opportunity, right?

But what enables people to take advantage, as opposed to being swept aside – as sadly some will, in the coming technological storm?

We focus on 21st Century Skills – and rightly so.  But let us not forget to focus on even more fundamental, vital prerequisites; those things that enable and empower:  namely a sense of place, a sense of belonging and a sense of self.  In that vein, I recommend a recent blog post by Professor Kathryn Riley to you. Her work shines an important light on this  essential topic.




Thinking about thinking – 3

When children come up with the right answer, is it because they actually understand / comprehend the reasons why their answer is right? Do the highest scoring students actually understand the concepts behind their success?

Frequently not, it turns out. When asked “could you light a bulb with a battery and one wire?”, even at some of our most esteemed STEM graduates, from MIT and Harvard revealed some surprising cognitive dissonance.

In this series of online documentaries,  (entitled Minds of our Own) researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics delve in to the thinking behind students answers.  This thinking is often erroneous,  with odd concepts constructed to make sense of learners’ experienced worlds. Such thinking is tenacious and learners are heavily invested in not adapting… and learning environments may not facilitate such adaption. This is true for even the highest scoring pupils… and highlights deficiencies in learning experiences.

This underscores the need for pupils to think about thinking,  and for learning experiences to expose these thought processes – whether it be through inquiry learning, dialogue, problem based learning or moderated peer instruction


Hack your memory

Why is it that complex things – like learning to drive a car – can be much easier and quicker to manage than, say learning a vocabulary in a foreign language?

It’s because the brain has different memory systems.

Our brains weren’t designed to remember vast quantities of factual knowledge.  Hard wiring this knowledge is tough work – but, understanding how our brain’s memory systems work, can make things easier.

In one year, Josh Foer became a memory champion – His TED talk explains how he used ancient methods from early Greek times. On an earlier project, he learnt enough of a rare African language in 22 hours to converse and make himself understood.


Some of these principals are applicable across many subjects.  A core concept is that of spaced repetition.  If we revisit knowledge, it’s the equivalent of putting our brain through a gym workout. Get the timing right and the growth gains are impressive. This was first realised by a Dr Ebbinghaus – who observed the benefits of correctly spaced repetition  – get it right and your memory lasts longer and fades more slowly.



But does this mean we should relentlessly be copying out our notes, again and again, time after time?

No – learning that’s easy, isn’t really learning. There’s little need to practice things that come effortlessly.  The challenge is to focus learning on things that are difficult. A little bit like tennis practice.  At the end of both, you should feel a satisfying sense of exhaustion!



Thinking about thinking – part 2

Project based learning is learning by:

  • Designing
  • Collaborating
  • Making
  • Improving and refining
  • Experimentation and Inquiry

Despite this type of learning going back centuries, it doesn’t seem particularly in vogue. Instead we have a system which is accused of being too much ‘work today’, ‘jam tomorrow’ … Has learning fallen in to a ‘linear trap’?

blooms_oldTake Bloom’s Taxonomy. No one would sensibly suggest it’s components were bad or harmful. However, why should learning only progress up through these stages? Supporters of PBL say this is an inefficient way to learn and real learning is far messier than this. Learning by a mixture of thinking and making, collaborating and experimenting, designing and theorising – applied to real world problems is said to lead to better understanding, long term retention and motivation. As pupils iteratively grapple with messy reality, their knowledge, comprehension and understanding grows too.

This tends to match what the teenage polyglots say about learning languages

One group of schools in the UK have set themselves up along these methods. They are called Studio Schools.

What does this mean for our learning? Should we better just roll up our sleaves and get stuck in?  That’s what Tim Doner says:

What does it mean for you?

Thinking about thinking – part 1

Peer Instruction has been getting rave reviews. Eric Mazur, a Harvard Professor of Physics, holds that learning proceeds at (up to) triple it’s normal rate!  And, with very little input from him… he’s even known students to feel it unfair that they’re doing all the work.

pi-workflowHow does it work?

  1. Students must do prep work before the their lesson
  2. There is a short opening plenary of 5 mins or so
  3. A probing ‘concept’ question is asked by the teacher
  4. Students must think on this by themselves
  5. After thinking, students then vote on the right answer – showing a distribution of responses – perhaps using a PRS or something like plickers.  The teacher does not give any indication which answer is correct.
  6. Now students can see the distribution of responses, and must next discuss – trying to convince each other.
  7. Finally and after discussion, students vote again.

Something to get you thinking: oddly enough, classes typically arrive at the right answer – why might that be?

Does it help learning?  When done correctly, repeated studies have shown a large effect size equal to moving your GCSE grade up an entire grade – e.g. from an A to an A*. Some studies show even greater gains.

But better than exam results,  Professor Mazur has show many other benefits too.  Communicating complex ideas, working in teams, developing flexibility in thinking and also a deep understanding of complex theories. Moreover, it’s fun.


For more information: https://blog.peerinstruction.net/

The power of ‘Not Yet’

Singapore, Australia, Shanghai, Korea, Finland and Ontario – What do top performing education systems all have in common?  One thing really stands out. One thing which would be easily transplanted, at almost no cost. It is the power of ‘Not Yet’ as Carole Dweck calls it… a pervasive belief that failure is not permanent and that success comes with effort.

In her ground breaking research she finds that young people respond to failure in two ways:

  • some become demoralised, give up, shift blame, cheat, or worse
  • others learn from their mistake, redouble their efforts and make progress

It shows in their brain scans:


source: Moser et al. (2011: 1487)

But can we cultivate a growth mindset? YES. A large number of studies have now shown the positive impact of:

  • Process Praise:  praising effort, diligence and similar qualities and skills (not actual results)
  • Use the word “yet”
  • Teach ‘brainology’ – an understanding of how neurological networks grow and respond to experiences, stressors and growth mindsets. Redefine ‘effort’ and ‘difficulty’.

Fascinatingly, Dweck found a growth mindset enabled impoverished pupils to overcome disadvantage with highly unexpected results.

Her talk is an exceptionally good use of 10 minutes.



Jason S. Moser, Hans S. Schroder, Carrie Heeter, Tim P. Moran and Yu-Hao Lee (2011). Mind Your Errors : Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments. Psychological Science 2011 22: 1484