Keeping it simple

How many times do our ideas, projects or systems fail because they are too complicated?

In many areas of life, we have a tendency to overcomplicate things, no less in education. An idea might seem simple to us, or to a group of people in a meeting, but it is lost on others.

If I’m thinking about how to arrange my bookshelf, then the cost of overcomplication is not great. It might take me a fraction longer to find my dictionary, but no one is likely to suffer. But if I’m designing school policies or systems then the cost can be very high: students will learn less and teachers will suffer too. At the very least, I will fail to enact the changes the school needs.

To give one example, I have seen schools with long checklists detailing what they expect to see in every lesson: differentiated questioning, feedback, modelling, student talk, extended writing etc. The intention is good: all of these things are valuable. The result is teaching which tries to tick boxes rather than actually helping students learn.

Learning is complicated. This makes teaching both interesting and hard. When should I aim for depth and when for breadth? When to speed up and when to slow down? When to stick to the plan and when to go off piste? When to support and when to take away that support? And perhaps the most fundamental question for any teacher at any point: when to move on?

It is because learning can be messy that other things in schools need to be kept simple. Too much complexity crowds out our ability to think deeply when it matters.

Another way of looking at this is to recognise that complexity has an opportunity cost. In other words, sometimes we may need greater complexity, but there will invariably be costs in terms of time, energy or resources. Students and staff may misunderstand expectations or simply disengage.

If we want our schools to resound with high expectations, if we want our expectations to be heard loud and clear, we would do well to keep them as simple as possible.

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