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Simplify Responsibly

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Educational “solutions” are often hopelessly complex. This flies in the face of a problem-solving principle you're probably familiar with: Occam's razor, or “the simplest solution is the best one.”

I don't mean to be a whiner when I say hopelessly. I just mean that if our objective in the United States is to improve long-term flourishing outcomes for the 55 million or so students in American K-12 schools, then we'll need to find solutions that make sense to the 3.5 million educators it takes to facilitate those improved long-term flourishing outcomes.

At present, most teacher's experience “back to school” meetings as the annual deluge of new plans and strategies and initiatives and goals and targets and procedures. For lack of a coherent sense of the whole, they despair or disengage or throw up their hands. This isn't because they're lazy or incompetent — it's for lack of coherence and clarity and simplicity.

And so it is that the best school leaders drastically reduce things — from mission statements to professional development plans to measurements of quality teaching — until they are simple enough to hold in one's mind. Chances are that if you can't summarize a thing in a sentence, you can't easily repeat it, and so you can't expect that your overwhelmed teachers will somehow magically retain and master it.

The work of the leader, then, is reduction and simplification. And, since some leaders are not so good at this — after all, they are even more inundated with expectations and pressures and policies and parent calls than teachers are, and so it is very hard for leaders to think clearly — that's the work of the teacher, too. We're all in it together — I don't write “Darn those administrators” posts because I love them and we need them.

(I'm also, as always, speaking generically about what I sense about teaching at large — not about my own school context.)

Here's the thing: simplification has to be done carefully. We need to create simplified models of what the work is — so take the five key beliefs I write about, or the “six things” in my latest book — and then test them intensely. Day by day in the classroom, for years, I've used the five key beliefs or the six things bullseye to try to understand the work and do it better. I've also tested these things with thousands of other educators through the blog and in workshops and keynotes and online courses.

So, I'm more sure than I was three years ago that these are responsible simplifications of what motivates students (the five key beliefs) and what work we all share across the school day, particularly from grades 3 to 12 (the six things).

Allegedly, Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

I think that's right.

The Gist

Simplify responsibly.

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