Sunday 19 April 2015

Run a Reverse Pilot

It's the start of a brand-new term, and lots of us teachers will be returning to work with more energy and a renewed sense of purpose. It is when we are in this frame of mind that we are eager to read about new teaching techniques and "tweaks" and we are thinking about adding a few new things to our lessons.

Well, here's a new idea for you. Instead of starting to do something new this half term, do the opposite. Stop doing something old.

You will have all heard of the idea of a "pilot", where you trial something on a small scale to see if it will add value and if it does, you run with it.

Daniel Shapero, a director at LinkedIn, coined the term "reverse pilot" to refer to the exact opposite: removing an activity or initiative to see whether there will be any negative impact.

Is there anything you are currently doing that is taking up a lot of your time but you suspect is not actually adding any value? For example, maybe you have developed an elaborate points system with prizes and a "star of the week" award. This might have been effective at the start of the year, but maybe it is no longer doing anything. Try getting rid of it for a trial period, and see if it has a negative impact. If it doesn't, you have just saved yourself the time it used to take you.

Does your faculty have a weekly lunchtime meeting (sorry, not "meeting", calling it that would make the unions unhappy, so let's call it a "gathering") that takes up 15 people-hours and accomplishes very little? Try scrapping it, and see if anything bad happens.

Do you make sure to write "next steps" or similar after marking your students' books? Stop writing these, save yourself 3 minutes per book (an hour and a half per class per fortnight) and see if your students' progress starts to decelerate.

Are you currently running a weekly after-school revision class for your exam class? Have you done this every year since you can remember? Don't do it this year. See if the results are worse than normal. If they're not, then you've just saved yourself an hour a week for the rest of your life. You are welcome.

Of course, it could be that everything you do at the moment does make a positive impact on learning. But we shouldn't just assume that they do. To do so would be wasting precious resources. I flippantly said in the above paragraph that you could stop doing that revision class to save yourself time. Well think about redirecting that time towards something else - better quality feedback, or one-to-one tuition. These might have a bigger overall impact. That lunchtime meeting (sorry, gathering) could be spent producing the world's best corridor display. Or it could be spent, I don't know, eating?!

There are several cognitive explanations for why we are probably wasting a lot of time on activities that might be adding little or no value. These are loss-aversion, the sunk-cost fallacy, and the status-quo bias.

It has been shown that human beings are naturally loss-averse. We think that losing something will have a bigger negative impact on us than gaining something of the same value will have a positive impact. So it seems to you that stopping sending out your weekly teaching and learning newsletter (which takes three hours to write) would have a big negative effect, but gaining three hours of extra time per week would have a smaller positive effect, not enough to balance it out. When you write it down like this, it might seem that the choice is obvious, but most of us don't write it out like this, and hence we don't question whether carrying on doing the things we're doing is the best use of resources.

You spent hours setting up your praise and reward spreadsheet, with built-in mail merge facility and automatic colour coding. So spending an hour a week filling it in for all of your classes is definitely worth it, right? After all, you spent so long on building it, it would be a waste not to use it, right? This is the sunk-cost fallacy in action. The time you spent making the spreadsheet is just that, spent. You cannot unspend it. Therefore whether you use it or not makes absolutely no difference. Do you still have a dress in your wardrobe you've never worn, but you can't get rid of because it cost a bomb? Whether you keep it or not, you have already wasted the money. Let it go. Spent forty minutes waiting for a bus so there's no way you're paying for a taxi now? That forty minutes has been lost either way, do what you want. The only time the sunk-cost fallacy is your friend is with your gym membership. "I've paid all that money, I really have to use it!" this is a fallacy, but a healthy one. Don't fight it.

The "status quo bias" is where we have a tendency to keep doing something simply because we have always done it. Why do we write the learning objective on the board at the start of the lesson? Because we've always done it (and in my case, because my own teachers did it). Why do we begin each lesson with a starter activity? You can probably think of lots of examples.

I challenge you this half term to stop doing one thing. I suggest at first you don't replace it with anything else, just stop doing it. Feel the relief of having one fewer thing to do. If you observe no impact, then keep not doing it. If you observe a negative impact, instead of going straight back to doing the same as before, tackle the problem from scratch. You might find there is a better solution.

To read more about the cognitive biases I have mentioned in this post, I recommend The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. 

To read more about the idea of doing less to achieve better results, I recommend Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg Mckeown. 


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And by the way the weekly lunchtime meeting referred to in this post is a work of fiction and bears no resemblance to any real weekly lunchtime meeting, living or dead. Any resemblance to the weekly lunchtime meeting my own faculty has on a Thursday is purely coincidental.

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