A principled approach to reducing workload

I have previously (here) suggested how schools should be looking to develop their technology infrastructure. I have also (here) alluded to how I think students should be using technology to best support their learning.

The big issue we face now in schools is that the cost of staff (not just teachers, but all staff) is running towards 80% of total income in many schools. This position is not going to get better soon (as discussed here). Given that these costs are so high, it falls on the management of the school to ensure that they can get the very best out of their staff. This means making sure that each member of staff is supported in the best way possible to deliver to the school the things they are best at, and which will best benefit the children at the school.

Marc Andreessen has spoken about how technology can give people ‘superpowers’. I suspect that he has his tongue slightly in his cheek when he does this, but there is an element of truth in what he says. However, as previously discussed on this blog schools have been particularly let down when it comes to technology. It has over promised and delivered in sporadic ways.

It is, however,  clear to me that technology has the ability to do something every teacher wants, which is to reduce workload. Of course, there are three essential precursors to this.

Firstly, schools have to up their game (and for some this will be akin to a football moving from the Second Division to the Premiership) as regards their technology provision. I’m not talking here about providing iPad for everyone. Just about making the very basics work. In schools where this has been professionalised it works. It works better, and it works cost effectively. For many primaries, working alone, this is going to be very difficult. Not through any lack of professionalism, but purely due to scale.

Secondly, teachers have to recognise that simply reducing workload is not going to happen. There is a load of work. It exists. Rarely would it be possible to just stop doing something. Around the margins perhaps it can be tinkered with, but it will still, in the main, exist (the real danger occurs when politicians start looking at this; they usually come up with a bureaucracy to prove workload is being reduced that actually means more work to provide the evidence that workload is decreasing). So, we can spread that workload out (recognising that sharing work often means an overall increase in effort required) by bringing in more people at a quite high cost. Or, we can do the sensible thing and change the workload by introducing technology to make everything more efficient. This in turn will require two things. It will require a degree of up skilling for some parts of the workforce and, more importantly, it will require elements of compromise to be reached.

Thirdly, the Competition and Markets Authority have to (finally) play hardball with Capita SIMS. Their API must become completely open, transparent and free to use for anyone who wishes to do so. This is an essential if schools are going to be able to take full advantage of modern technology.

And what should schools concentrate on? In one sense this is more about a state of mind than it is looking at specific areas for change (although I will come on to that in my next post, I promise).

I see merit in adopting a small number of key principles:

  • Principle 1:- Never do anything twice.
  • Principle 2:- Never use paper.
  • Principle 3:- Never delegate an admin task.
  • Principle 4:- Device and location independence
  • Principle 5:- Zero training requirement
  • Principle 6:- Secure as needs be
  • Principle 7:- KISS

As with any set of principles you should bear in mind what I call the Konigsberg Conclusion – “There’s nothing wrong with having principles you would die for, but you should keep those kind of commitments to a bare minimum.” They are aims, ideals, they are the stars you are aiming for so you hit the moon.

Lets have a look at each one in a bit more detail:

Principle 1:- Never do anything twice

This is obvious. If you collect some information, be it a test grade, a reason for lateness or a great set of lesson plans then once collected they should stay collected and be made easily available to those that need the information, in the form they need it. Principle 1 is our key saver of time and reducer of workload.

Principle 2:- Never use paper

Paper is easy. There is always a piece available to scribble that important note on. Then lose it. Or re-write it somewhere else. Once we make a note on a piece of paper, we have broken Principle 1, kind of a BOGOF. The more we move to a paper-free environment the more likely we will be to be able to keep to Principle 1.

Principle 3:- Never delegate an admin task

A better way to posit this might be to say ensure that using technological means to perform the admin task is quicker than delegating it. Why ask someone to print you list of students when you can get that list delivered to your device (keeping to Principle 2) at the touch of a button. Any task that requires repetition should be a candidate for computerisation.

Principle 4:- Device and location independence

This is pretty clear. Unless there are specific reasons (i.e. mandated by security – but see Principle 6) you should be able to access all information and perform any task using any device in any location. For example, if you are marking a set of books at home and you need a mark scheme and you need to record the marks then this should be possible. No need to remember to take anything with you. Of course, Principle 1 should ensure that much of your marking is done automatically, so that will help as well.

Principle 5:- Zero training requirement

The reason people fail to use computer systems is often because they are too complex. This need not be the case. As far as I am aware no one, outside of Whitehall, has ever required training in how to use Facebook, or Twitter, or Amazon, or how to shop at online at Ocado. These are as complex as any school based system needs to be. Zero training requirement is possible and should be demanded of all systems.

Principle 6:- Secure as needs be

I’ve said before that if someone really wants your data, there is nothing you can do to stop them, short of turning off the system. Some pieces of information need to be more secure than others. Most school-based data requires only the very basic levels to achieve the necessary degree of security from those who might be trying to (incorrectly) access it. This security should be the minimum levels to ensure ease of access for those who are legitimately trying to gain access.

Principle 7:- KISS

Software vendors seem to believe that a system with 50 functions is better than a system with 10 functions. My view is that it is better to get 100% out of 10 functions than 50% out of 20. Increased functionality usually goes hand in hand with increased complexity of use (which starts to impact on Principle 5). And it’s here that the compromises are often required. A good example is that of an online mark book. Tried to do this once at school. Ran up against the desire for every department to have their own marking scale; some wanted 1 to 10, some A-G, some wanted percentages, some wanted descriptors, some a simple pass/fail. All those were possible, but only at a cost to Principle 5, which then impacted on actual usage.

These principles are something to aim for. To test everything we do in schools against. Somethings will be much longer term than others. In the end, this is how technology will most improve learning, by allowing teachers to be as efficient as they can possibly be and spend more time teaching.

The next post in this series will provide some examples of what I think every school should be doing to use technology to reduce workload.


10 thoughts on “A principled approach to reducing workload

  1. Thanks for this, Mike, and for stimulating such an interesting debate, as
    evidenced by the comments.

    Just a thought occurred to me when I read: “Teachers have to recognise that simply reducing workload is not going to happen. There is a load of work. It exists. Rarely would it be possible to just stop doing something.”

    In my fifth year of headship we held a staff meeting just to discuss workload. One of the things we did was to add up all the things we were doing which we hadn’t been doing five years before, and then balanced this with anything we’d stopped doing in that time. Perhaps predictably, there were far more things we’d added as regular fixtures on the calendar than there were things we’d taken out. What often happened was that someone came forward with a good idea (could we try…?) so we tried it and it worked – the pupils enjoyed it and benefited, and the staff felt it was worthwhile. Staff panto? Year 9 residential team building? House Music Festival? Senior prefect leadership development course? and so on.

    These weren’t necessarily ideas suggested by me as head or the senior team. The effect was that more was added to the calendar each year, and little was taken out. We also realised that much of this, though rewarding for students and staff, wasn’t directly related to our core business of what went on in the classroom, which also gave us pause for thought.

    So as a result we did two things:
    1. We decided on some events that we would stop doing/’rest’ for a while/do every two or three years rather than annually.
    2. We gave more careful consideration to new ideas and examined whether we had the capacity to take on more without diluting what we did/spreading ourselves too thinly/wearing ourselves out. I warned the staff that this would mean that they would sometimes come to me, keen to do something new, and I would say, ‘Not just now…’ And they probably wouldn’t like that!

    Just a thought to pop into the mix! Thanks again for the post.

    1. Hi Jill,

      Thank you for the comments.

      When I wrote the piece I was thinking more about externally mandated workload than those things a school decides to do, but you are right, they all add to the time requirement.

      When I first came into teaching I was struck by one thing, which was that whilst added new things to do we rarely, as you say, stopped doing anything. Not only did this add to workload, it tended to make each task less efficient than it could be if it was re-engineered from scratch. A good example of this was the USCAS process (at the time an entirely manual process). I couldn’t quite understand why the form took a particular route through the school. It was explained that once, several years ago, one student was applying for a nursing course and consequently that form needed to go to a particular person, so from then on all forms went that way!

      I’m a firm believer in using Druckers ideas re “planned abandonment”. In the same way that policies have a built in expiry/review date, then so should activities and processes. A good start to this is to adopt a very strict “one in, one out” policy. Nothing new happens until something old stops. At least that way we can keep a cap on workload and let the technology get to work to make it more efficient.



  2. I must admit I struggle with this as an argument for reducing workload.

    As a teacher what took by far the most time was (a) planning, (b) classroom teaching, (c) marking and (d) other tasks such as report writing, parents’ evenings, inspection preparation and open evenings. It’s hard to see how better use of technology could make a huge difference to any of these. I worked in a department where schemes of work were all centralised on one system: this helped, but we all ended up modifying the lessons to fit our own teaching style and the pace at which our classes moved. I worked in a school where data were all centralised and could be downloaded at a click of a button, but we still had to sit for hours at parents’ evenings to discuss those data with parents. We had mark schemes downloaded on our staff drive and I had the docs loaded onto my iPad – I still had to mark the work, and, as part of making marking quick involved me reading it and annotating the key points in order to internalise it, I’d generally want to print it out anyway. The benefits of technology on all of these fronts was marginal at best.

    I appreciate that technology has made a big difference in (say) the last twenty years. There’s no need to take registers to the office. There’s no need to print out transparencies. Handling data is much much easier (though see next paragraph). It’s hard to see however where we might go next that would seriously make a big difference to teacher time (and I look forward to your next post with practical ideas for how this works).

    It should be noted too that technology has in many ways made teachers’ lives *more* difficult. The rise of computers in schools led to far greater data collection and use. Progress can (supposedly) be measured in smaller and small increments and plotted on pretty yet ultimately meaningless graphs to keep senior managers happy. Ofsted can now access school data in an instant, and they expect teachers and managers to be on top of that data too in a way they never used to. I’m not debating here whether or not this is a worthwhile activity (though that debate can be had) – I am, however, suggesting that technology has played its part on making teachers’ lives harder as well as easier.

    Without radical changes to class planning (e.g. having 40 pupils in a class) it is hard to see how the teaching workload of teachers might be reduced. This leaves planning, marking and the ‘other stuff’ (reports, parents’ evenings, etc.). I just can’t see how technology can improve any of these things beyond very marginal gains.

    If I had to suggest three ways to reduce teacher workload, I’d suggest:

    (1) more collaborative planning
    (2) less emphasis on managing data for classroom teachers and
    (3) scrap school reports.

    I look forward to the future posts.

    1. Firstly, thank you for taking to time to comment so fully.

      I would agree to an extent with much of what you say. There is low hanging fruit to be had and in some schools it has already been picked and eaten. At a system level however I would say that the majority of schools do not fit the description you give of your own experience with tech in schools. Most are just not that enabled. So at a system level, just by bringing the technology up to what I would consider to be a basically acceptable level there is much timesaving to be had. But I accept that may not help you.

      To do that it has to go further. It does have to include such capabilities as essay/short question marking. And I accept that may not always be desirable due to the benefits for planning that marking the work actually brings. But overall it can save time for the teacher to be doing something that only a human can do (at the moment). So I also recognise that the benefits may not be fairly spread. I would expect technology to possibly make my life as a maths teacher easier than your life as a history teacher. But it has ever been thus 🙂

      The real gains from technology are to be had when we stop computerising whatever it is that we are doing, and re-engineer processes to maximise the benefits we can get from tech. In part that is where the compromises I spoke of come in. I’m not talking here about things like flipped learning (though I’m sure they have their place) but more of asking questions like “Why do we put so much effort into writing reports that are not really allowed to say anything particularly useful and which parents clearly don’t read because when they turn up at parents evening its obvious they haven’t.” There are less time intensive ways to generate useful reports for parents. Why have parents evenings? If i want to discuss something about my children then I email the teacher when the issue arises. That may in the short term generate small pockets of additional work for the teacher (and more possibly for a humanities teacher than a maths teacher) but in the longer term I am convinced it will reduce the work required.

      I agree with the issue of data management. No classroom teacher should have to do that. It should either be systematised or be the responsibility of middle/senior leaders. The former is preferable and brings the most benefits. I see no reason for a classroom teacher to have to do anything other than enter the grades from their own marking.

      Finally I would say that compared to how easy to use and time saving most modern software is, the systems in schools generally belong in the ark. They do often take more time to do simple things with that not using them would. Hence my deep and abiding loathing of SIMS. It is also the case that the very simple things take too long. In far too many schools it takes longer to log on than it does to perform the task you are logging on for. Poorly (and cheaply) put together systems can steal as much time as they save.

      In one sense improving tech can be a bit like widening the M25 – it gets better for a while then because it can do more the workload expands. That is a danger that everyone needs to help keep the lid on. Every tech change should be focussed on freeing up the time that teachers have to teach.



  3. Mike,

    I think this is a really important post which I strongly agree with and which aligns closely with what I have been arguing. For eg, my post Education’s coming revolution addressed the point about staffing vs resourcing, with reference to a book written in 1971 by the Director of Resources at Nuffield. (http://edtechnow.net/2013/01/26/industrial-revolution/)

    I disagree with only two peripheral points.

    1. The implication that I think you make that the technology we need can be delivered by teachers. Serious technology needs industry strength development, the convergence of many different skill-sets, and serious investment. Why should we expect this to happen as an activity for teachers in their proverbial garden sheds?

    What I am saying does not mean that solutions should be imposed on teachers by corporate bad boys. If we can get a competitive market, teachers will retain control as independent & informed consumers. I strongly agree with you that there is a key role here for government and one that, up to now, has been neglected lamentably.

    2. An over-interpretation of the KISS principle. The “stupid” in KISS refers to us humans and so KISS refers to the way we *use* technology. It does not refer to the way that technology works, under the hood.

    This point links to my first point. As for the example you cite of different mark formats, education, as Diana Laurillard memorably said, is complex. I believe that the data the next generation of capable ed-tech will manipulate will be both extensive and heterogeneous (i.e. many different formats and structures). But most of this data will flow through the institutional sub-conscious in machine-readable formats, only surfacing for human consumption through highly intuitive interfaces. I see no problem in teachers in viewing data on typing speeds formatted as words per minute and data on sprinting speeds as seconds to two decimal places. The only complexity involved is in creating these systems – and that is a problem for professional developers, not teachers.

    Best, Crispin.

    1. Crispin,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response.

      It wasnt intended to suggest that the technology could be delivered by teachers. In fact, i would say that many of the difficulties faced in the past have been because of half-formed systemed produced in schools. My experience is that the UX for many school systems is poor.

      What i do think though is that if we leave this to the big players in the industry we tend to end up with bloatware that tries to be all things to all people. It is also true that these systems will be initially directed to the needs of US schools, which can sometimes present issues in translation.

      The KISS issue is aimed primarily at the developers but in part at schools – see the comment re different grade systems required.

      Too many systems i see try to do too many things on screen. Just looking at them smetimes gives me a headache. When you have to applying too much of your cognition to working out which nutton to press next then i think that the software has failed in its purpose, which is to make life easier for the user.



      1. Thanks Mike,

        Then my criticisms were wide of the mark. Always useful, perhaps, nevertheless, to clarify!

        I entirely agree with you about the befuddling effect of complex user interfaces and bloatware. My own passion in this space is on the importance (often overlooked) of data interoperability.

        1. It is vital to market competition.

        2. It allows the automation of functions which otherwise need to be done manually (e.g. uploading student work to e-portfolios), rendering interesting pedagogical ideas unviable in practice for reasons that follow obviously from the argument in your article.

        3. Because interoperability allows the specialisation of functions across a range of integrated modules – a different model to the one-stop-shops that I think promote bloatware.

        I hope this general argument has a chance of being heard as both parties seem to be talking at the moment about workload.

        Best, Crispin.

Comments are closed.