Curing Educational Indigestion – Three Solutions to Overly Full Plates

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Curing Educational Indigestion – Three Solutions to Overly Full Plates

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“Our district is currently doing a lot of work to implement STEM (Common Core, new technology, etc.), and our teachers feel like they are constantly having things added to their plates while nothing is removed.”

If I have heard that comment once in the past few years, I have heard it hundreds, if not thousands, of times.  It is as if our education system has confused more with better.  In the hope of better results, we seem to be piling on more and hoping for the best: more work, more standards, more subjects, more of everything.  When we pile more on our plates (think supersizing), indigestion is one likely result (to carry the metaphor to the next step).  Most educators agree that more is a recipe for burnout, feelings of failure, and poor performance.

If education were a business, then any thoughtfully strategic manager would say to herself/himself:  There are three ways to combat this problem of overly full plates and unsatisfactory outcomes.

  1. Make our processes more efficient (reduce redundant efforts, streamline processes).
  2. Focus on the most important things, those with the most leverage in achieving our goals.
  3. Increase the capacity of our employees to manage the work.

Now let’s translate this from a business to an education framework*:

Make Processes More Efficient = Teach More Effectively and Eliminate Non-Value-Added Activities

Teaching more effectively is about teaching in a way that takes best advantage of how brains learn.  Teaching more effectively is taking advantage of what we know about attention, how brains process information, what is required to get information into long-term memory, what is required for memory consolidation, etc.  When we teach more effectively, we can get more learning to happen in less time, without costly rework.

When it comes to non-value added activities in a business setting, one that comes to mind is shutting down the business for three weeks to take inventory.  Most businesses have now realized that we don’t need to do that, that inventory control systems and other less invasive strategies can be more effective.  What is inventory-taking in an educational context?  Standardized testing.  We shut down the business of learning for weeks of every school year to “take inventory” of student learning, when taking inventory could be integrated into the learning process.

Focus on the Most Important Things = Prioritize, Don’t “Cover”

Coverage (covering all the material, covering all the topics, covering the curriculum) is the bogeyman of new standards, and teachers are rightly terrified at the prospect.  Not everything in every standard is equally important.  Some concepts or skills transcend subject matter and, therefore, have more leverage.  It does no good to try to teach everything and have students perform poorly on everything, when some things are less likely to be foundational for future learning.  If we teach the most important things, and teach them well, our students will be better served.  If we spend more time on what’s most important, rather than insufficient time on too many things, our students and teachers will feel, and actually be, more accomplished.

Increase Employee Capacity = Build and Strengthen Students’ Learning Skills

Students actually do the work of learning, and, as any teacher will attest, students have widely varying cognitive capacity and learning skills.  Research over the last decade is increasingly showing that building students’ cognitive skills – including processes like working memory, flexible attention, self-regulation, visual-spatial processing and sequential or simultaneous processing – can dramatically accelerate student learning and academic performance.  We can think about this as akin to expanding intellectual bandwidth; students can simply learn more in less time.

I started this blog with the metaphor of educational indigestion from teachers having too much on their plates.  There is a cure for this indigestion (and it isn’t a pill).  It is time to look strategically at menu planning and not just keep trying to rearrange the items on teachers’ plates.  The three approaches above could make a big dent in educators’ enormous case of indigestion.