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.

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