The More is Always Better Trap

“My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play.” – Tim Kreider.

In a recently-published interview, Dylan Wiliam offers a perspective that few enlightened school leaders would argue with and which most educators would likely applaud: “The job of leaders is to ensure that teachers in their schools are getting better at the things that have the biggest benefit for students. … We need to stop looking for the next big thing, and instead do the last big thing properly.” There is a nobility to this view that implicitly highlights a reality that education is frequently confronted with: the More is Always Better Trap.

Limited time and energy are challenges for all schools. What do teachers need most? Time. There just isn’t enough dialogue about teacher agency. I have learned that, for instance, if you can structure a 90-minute meeting slot to address core learning focus efficiently within 30 minutes, teachers will use that liberated hour to enhance student learning in meaningful ways. We don’t need to manage the time of professional educators. Once a learning-focused direction has been established, the greatest support we can offer teachers is time, trust, and autonomy.

Of course, this modern cult of “busyness” in schools is not limited to teachers. Students are severely time-challenged, too, and there would appear to be a global, relentless drive for students to do more and more. But at what cost? Who dares to speak of the ever-increasing pressures placed on young people these days? As Suniya Luthar has stated:  “They never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop’ … Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.” The test scores are good? Let’s push them harder. This is the foie gras effect of schooling. We can always fatten the resume with more stuff.

The fact is, we all have limited time and energy and the “more is better” philosophy is a fallacy, a trap. As Abeles has contended: “There is a school culture, a community culture, in which there is this reverberating message: More is always better. Do more. Accomplish more. Achieve more. … The more you can do, the better off you are. In fact, if you don’t do more, you’re going to be left behind.” Kreider reminds us that how busy we say we are is frequently a boast thinly disguised as a complaint. Busyness is the creation of exultant martyrs who cultivate colourful, busy calendars. Yet, if we look at the modern day busyness that engulfs us, how much of it is filled with inconsequential meetings that could be emails, emails that could be simple conversations, conversations that betray a lack of focus on the core business of learning?

It’s time to end this relentless scurrying to win a zero-sum race without a finish line. Increasingly, schools are looking to mindful practices to address the symptoms of the More is Always Better Trap, but there seems to be little appetite to tackle the root cause of this chronic malaise. More is not always better. Your best effort is good enough and your wellbeing matters. We should all make a point of periodically stepping off the busyness treadmill to proclaim the fact that less really is more. Breathing space improves health. Reflection improves learning. We need to revisit our priorities and make meaningful time for the things that truly matter.

Just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play.

Notes
Kreider, Tim. “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” The New York Times. June 30, 2012.
Ashman, Greg. “An Interview With Dylan Wiliam.” Filling the Pail. August 11, 2018.
Denizet-Lewis, Benoit. “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” New York Times Magazine. October 11, 2017.
Abeles, Vicki. Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Photo by Dan Freeman on Unsplash.