Can less be more?

In TES (27 July 2018) Lee Elliot Major & Steve Higgins quote the poet William Blake who said: “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough”, as they explore the importance of what we can stop doing in order to make our practice more effective.  As we reflect on the year that has just gone by, and prepare for the academic year to come, is it worth considering ways in which we can, perhaps, do less, but do it more successfully, so that we achieve even more than we have in the past, and in the process recalibrate the balance between our professional lives and our home lives?

In an earlier blog I reflected on the fact that, in the first part of my career, I wasted so much time on unproductive marking.  Particularly in the light of what has recently been discussed about effective feedback practices and processes (see, for example, the chapter by Dylan Wiliam and Daisy Christodolou in ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom’ (2017) ), we have learnt much more about the purpose of feedback and the ways in which we can ensure it makes a difference to the progress of our learners.  Feedback does not need to exhaust and drain us as, I believe, it has done in the past – certainly in my own experience.  Time-efficient and productive feedback systems rely on senior leaders not obsessing about exhaustive marking being necessary to demonstrate that teachers are working hard enough.  The focus should be on what students are learning and how they are applying this in order to move forward.

Similarly, planning should be about the quality of thinking, knowing your students, evaluating and adapting effectively in order even better to meet the learners’ needs in the future.  We should not simply be producing highly detailed written plans as an accountability measure to satisfy those who lead and manage us.

Lessons themselves need to be about the thinking and learning of the students, not the whistles and bells ‘performance’ of the teacher, and lesson observations should focus on what can be learnt (by both the observer and the teacher observed) – opening a dialogue, encouraging reflection and productive analysis, rather than grading, judging and expecting this snapshot to enable us to reach robust conclusions about pupil progress or teacher competence.

So leaders at all levels need to be enlightened and supportive – in fact they should lead the way in terms of asking key questions about the purpose of what we do and have the courage to abandon time-intensive and unproductive practice in all areas of our work.  And there needs to be a recognition that if leaders, teachers, and support staff in schools are less tired and stressed they will be more effective in their jobs and everyone, crucially the pupils, will benefit.

But I accept that this is harder than it might seem.  The first step is having open and honest discussions about our systems, processes and practices so that we identify clearly how we can do less, and do it better.  Seeing this through and making a change can be tough, as we may be creatures of habit who cling to the familiar and fear adopting new habits with which we will, at least initially, feel uncomfortable.  I remember conversations with colleagues in the past where the phrase, “But that’s just how I am/how I teach/how I mark” was a barrier to the consideration of alternative, perhaps more efficacious and less onerous, ways of working.  As Tom Sherrington says in ‘The Learning Rainforest’ (2017): “It’s actually incredibly difficult to change our practice as teachers. It requires making a deliberate decision to make a change and then to persist with it until our default ideas and habits shift.”

As an example, I admire the step taken by Abbie Mann and discussed in ‘Live Well, Teach Well’ (2018).  “One of the best things I did recently to improve my work-life balance was to introduce a mini weekend for myself in the middle of my working week. The idea is simple: once a week, every week, you go home early and do no work whatsoever once you get there.  This idea does take some getting used to and it also requires some forward planning.”  How many of us would be prepared to commit to something like this, recognising that if we were able to achieve a better balance in our lives we could be fresher, more energised and effective in our professional roles?

Could 2019/20 be the year in which we make strides here, in which we do less, do it better and achieve more?  I hope this short animation by Jason Ramasami may inspire you.

Good luck.


Hendrick, C. and MacPherson, R. (2017) What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Woodbridge : John Catt Educational

Mann, A. (2018) Live Well, Teach Well – A Practical Approach to Well-Being that Works, London : Bloomsbury

Ramasami, J. (2015) The Art of Subtraction

Sherrington, T. (2017) The Learning Rainforest – Great Teaching in Real Classrooms, Woodbridge : John Catt Educational

TES (27 July 2018) Illuminate your practice by identifying what not to do, Lee Elliot Major and Steve Higgins


Photo credit: John Berry, ‘L’Entre Deux’, Biarritz, June 2018

2 thoughts on “Can less be more?

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