In 1955, civil service worker Cyril Northcote Parkinson invented a beautiful truism called Parkinson's Law in an article of The Economist. The law describes “the commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” While you can almost see the wry smile on his face from the tone of Parkinson's article, more important words for educators were rarely written in the 1950s or since. If you and I don't think on old Parkinson, and think on him regularly, we are bound to find ourselves constantly without the time to do the most important parts of our work.
There are some helpful corollaries to Parkinson's Law that relate to schools:
- The complexity of an initiative will expand to fill the time and number of committee persons that you allot to the initiative.
- The length of the unit will expand to fill the time that you give it, and this will make it more likely that you will need to rush or skip the final units of the course.
- The amount of time it takes to grade a set of papers will expand to fill the amount of time that you give yourself to grade them.
- The amount of tasks you must complete for your job will expand to fill the number of hours you give to your job.
The only way to solve for Parkinson's Law is constraint. Instead of giving yourself or your committee a blank check, you have to add simple rules or constraints. For example, I get to check my email once per day for 30 minutes. Well, then I'd best do it very quickly, handling each email only once.
But email is much easier to apply Parkinson to than the other questions and tasks we face. To help with those, two questions follow that have helped me reduce complexity in other areas of my work and life.
What would this look like if I only had one hour to do it?
I like asking this question when I'm preparing a workshop, writing a book, prepping an online course, or even reading a book.
When I ask the question — and, even better, attempt the question's challenge — I'm forced to breakthroughs and simplifications that I don't think I otherwise could achieve.
Consider taking one of these on yourself:
- Try reading that book that's been on your to-read list in one hour, getting as much from it as you can. You'll end up using the book's introduction, conclusion, and table of contents in ways you wouldn't have otherwise. When you walk away, the book will be useful to you in a way it wasn't an hour before. Now when you see it on your shelf, you'll be familiar with it, and your brain will know where to look if it needs more information in the future.
- Try creating that next unit in one hour. You'll skip Googling it, getting lost on blogs, or buying a set of worksheets on Teachers Pay Teachers. Instead, you'll start with the end and ask yourself what the best paths are to get there.
- Try researching that new teaching fad in one hour. Wait, no. Don't do that. We're not in the fad business.
If I had to be done by a certain date, what would I do?
It's amazing to me how frequently we avoid strict end dates for our units, citing “good teaching” as the reason.
But Dave, I need to be responsive to what's happening in the classroom!
I know — and so do I. But I can still hold myself to an end date for a unit. Just as book deadlines push imperfect (but completed!) books into the world each day, so too do firm unit end dates push imperfect (but completed) courses of study along each year.
Instead of letting time, disruptions, and snow days rule my courses, I set start and end dates, and I stick to them. Sometimes, I'm forced to teach part of a unit much more quickly than I'd like. But I never end up rushed at the end of the year, and my students end up getting a balanced version of the course much more consistently than they did before I started this practice. I figure that for every child who might like that extra day of a unit, there is another that would rather move on. Unit end dates, decided before the school year even begins, help make would-be complex decisions into non-decisions.
And for this reason, such a practice is much less stressful. It is remarkably simpler for all involved in my courses to know that, no matter what, we'll be finishing the unit next Friday. I'd rather eat the costs of disruptions now than save them up for the end of the school year.
What questions or practices do you use to beat complexity and avoid the undertow of Parkinson's Law? Wise educators, speak up!
Sylvia Edwards says
You’re an international speaker now!!!!!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Thank you Mom 🙂
Jennifer Craghead says
Thank you. I really needed to hear this today…and probably every day!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Jennifer, I’m so glad. Re: “probably every day,” yes, me too 🙂