Lesson planning, efficiency, and the value of duplicated work

Speaking at Bett last week, Nicky Morgan made noises about reducing teacher workload through the sharing of lesson plans between schools:

“Increasingly, curation [of lesson plans] can help to reduce duplication in the system and help to spread good practice from school to school.”

In this post, I want to take a closer look at this idea of duplication, and examine how it relates to efficiency and technology.

First, let’s squeeze Morgan’s sentiment here into an overly simplistic logical argument:

(1) Efficient systems are a good thing.

(2) Reducing the duplication of effort increases the efficiency of a system.

(3) Technology helps us reduce the duplication of effort.

Therefore:

(4) Using technology helps us increase the efficiency of a system (via 2 and 3).

Therefore:

(5) Using technology helps us do a good thing (via 1 and 4).

Now, Morgan might not be making this exact argument, but that’s not too important for my purposes; some form of it is commonly applied in discussions about ed-tech, and I’d just like to pick it apart a bit. After talking around the topic for a while, you’ll see that I agree with Nicky Morgan (in the end).

Efficiency

In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman writes about how our culture has been overtaken not just by technology, but by a quasi-religious, technological way of thinking. The world has become more and more quantified, and as a consequence, we find it harder to tolerate the fuzziness of real life. As much as possible, we translate the world’s messy phenomena into numbers that can be manipulated, compared, and processed. This has led us to unprecedented levels of understanding and control of the world, but it’s not without its drawbacks.

Take education. We’re now at a point where assigning discrete numbers and scores to students is seen as a perfectly ordinary part of the teaching process. Grades for a piece of work aren’t such a problem, most of the time. But it’s not unusual for a teacher to go down a list of their students twice a year, rating their behaviour on a scale of 1-4. Madness, when you think about it.

The elevation of efficiency as a universal good is another result of this technological world-view. We find it natural to compare organic processes to mechanical ones, and we might proudly describe an efficient school or a workplace as “a well-oiled machine”. It’s a figure of speech, but in the wrong hands can indicate a Taylorist view of people. Long, long ago, I sat in a room of employees as we were told that we were just “small cogs in a big machine”. I think it was meant to make us feel better, like being told we were all part of Hitler’s war effort.

Of course, efficiency in the workplace generally is a good thing. The difficult thing to remember these days is that an inefficient process can sometimes have value too. I say “these days” because we are living in exactly the technopoly that Postman describes. To say, “This process is less efficient, but better” is a kind of heresy in a technopoly. Try getting a round of applause for that at TED.

But it’s not too hard to think of examples. For a trivial one, say you’re at home one weekend and you decide you want a wooden spoon. You find a piece of scrap wood in your garage, get your chisels out and carve yourself a spoon. It takes you 8 hours of labour to get that spoon. From an efficiency point of view, this is a complete waste of time: you could have picked up a perfectly good wooden spoon at the pound shop round the corner. But I’ll bet the hand-carved spoon is going to be more valuable to you than the pound shop spoon. And outside of work, that indefinable feeling of value trumps the efficiency factor.

Now imagine the same situation, but at work. A chef needs a spoon, so he finds a bit of wood and starts carving. A manager comes by. Freaks out. What the hell are we paying this guy for? Why’s he carving a spoon? How do we get rid of him?

The manager’s right, of course. All I’m trying to establish here is that there are more important things in life than efficiency; in this case, the good feeling you get from using something you made. Yet it’s clear that whether we’re at work or not dictates how highly we rank efficiency against other, less quantifiable values.

Reducing duplication

So let’s go back to Nicky Morgan’s idea: sharing lesson plans reduces duplication in the system, saving everybody time, reducing workload and reducing inefficiency. Before we get behind this idea, we need to check that we aren’t losing anything important in our quest to serve the technopoly’s god of efficiency.

Say you’ve got five teachers who are teaching their Year 7 History classes a lesson about the Battle of Hastings. The title of the lesson could be “Did Harold get killed by an arrow in the eye?” The learning objectives could all be the same. At first glance, it does indeed seem inefficient for those five teachers to produce five different lesson plans. But what about the benefits?

  • Each lesson plan will be tailored to the teacher’s personal skills, whether that’s storytelling, technology or whatever.
  • The lesson can be tailored to the class, what they’ve been doing that term and what they respond well to.
  • Approaching a lesson plan without having a pre-existing one in front of them may spur a teacher on to take a revolutionary, creative approach to a topic.
  • It may not be the greatest lesson plan, but it is my lesson plan

This last one takes us back to the spoon. We’re more invested in things we’ve made ourselves, and that couldn’t be more important in teaching. A teacher trying to teach something they don’t believe in is like a shell of a person. A teacher who knows the purpose of each activity they set and agrees with the pedagogical thrust behind the lesson can be like a preacher on fire. At different stages in my teaching career, I experienced both of these. In my lesser moments, I’d grabbed someone else’s PowerPoint from the shared drive and tried to hinge a lesson upon it. Absolutely useless. In the hands of the teacher who made it, though, it might have been a framework for a great lesson.

Conclusion

Despite all this, I can’t find it in my heart to oppose Nicky Morgan’s proposal. There’s little doubt that technology offers great potential for the sharing of lesson plans and resources, and just because those resources are there, it doesn’t mean you have to use them. Maybe someone else’s lesson plan will give you a great idea for one of your own. Who knows.

The real point of this post is that we can’t just tell teachers “This is efficient, and therefore it’s better.” Teachers have bigger things on their mind than efficiency. The question they want answered is “What’s the best way of teaching people?”

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