Why Schools Should Stop Adding and Adopt a ‘Subtraction Mindset’
When trying to solve problems, we rarely think of what to take away. As schools face new crises, is subtraction the secret weapon to getting them back on track?
For educators, the past few years have been punishing. Emerging from the pandemic, they’re now putting in longer days packed with classes but also juggling meetings, emails, grading time, and professional development that often stretch far beyond their normal workday.
In the face of the latest emergency—lower test scores and concerns over learning loss—teachers have been given precious little respite. The solution for schools has too often been to “add and accelerate,” introducing new programs and tech tools, longer school years, or more remediation. The problem is this solution rarely works, argues Justin Reich, a professor at MIT and director of its Teaching Systems Lab, in a new piece for ASCD.
“When the system isn’t working, and the people in the system are exhausted and overwhelmed, you can’t fix those problems by adding more things to the system and making it more complicated.”
The real solution may be just the opposite: consolidate existing programs, scrap meetings, and simplify the school day. In short, leaders should adopt a subtraction mindset. Subtraction doesn’t solve every problem in education, of course, or help students learn faster. But it can reduce stress, lighten burdens, and give back to teachers one thing they never seem to have enough of: time.
There are good reasons why such subtractions rarely take place. Cuts are typically associated with austerity and may signal retrenchment to communities and outside stakeholders. Adding initiatives and tasks makes it look like progress is happening. That isn’t always the case, of course, but the human mind is uniquely conditioned to favor addition, Reich says .
Research reveals that when people think about improvements, they rarely adopt a subtraction mindset, looking instead to what can be added. Looking at eight different experiments, one study found that participants under stress were less likely to consider subtractive changes when it was not explicitly suggested to them. The study concluded, “Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape, and damaging effects on the planet.”
The good news is that subtraction isn’t all or nothing. It can be a small or incremental change, such as allowing teachers to disconnect after work, or it can be a change by omission, like resisting the urge to add another tech tool at your school. Finally, it doesn’t have to be difficult to get started.
Perhaps Reich’s point about adding bloat to an overburdened system makes most sense in the context of the faculty meeting. Most teachers and administrators would likely agree. In a recent Edutopia post on Facebook asking about the top tasks that should be removed from teachers’ plates, meetings unsurprisingly cropped up in hundreds of comments. Many teachers clarified that they didn’t take issue with all meetings, but rather the culture where meetings happen too frequently and often run over time. (“I love the meetings where we watch someone read all the slides we’ve been handed out” was one teacher’s humorous take. “Don’t get rid of those.”)
That tracks with what professionals in other lines of work have discovered: Meetings that start and end on time, those with precise agendas, and those that feature action plans at the end are far more tolerable and productive. When everyone is on the same page, it’s easy to subtract everything else that makes the meeting inefficient.
In the Facebook post, the biggest gripe about meetings concerned those that could be better covered in an email. “Ask most teachers about faculty meetings and they’ll describe black holes of boring announcements, fruitless debate, and overwhelming agendas,” Laura Thomas, who teaches education at Antioch University, has written. A better solution, she shares, is to reconsider whether a meeting is even needed. Save announcements for emails, or better yet, post them on online back channels like Flipgrid or Smore, where teachers can react at their convenience.
Of course, sometimes the best meetings are also the shortest. At String Theory Schools in Philadelphia, teachers and staff may have perfected the minimalist faculty meeting. For one thing, they’ve subtracted the furniture. In these, called stand-up meetings, groups gather in a large circle and give short updates about what’s going on in their classrooms, share what they’re concerned about, and shout out colleagues they want to celebrate. “The key to it is it’s only 15 minutes,” explains administrator Margery Covello. “It’s really uncomfortable to have a long meeting standing up. So if people don’t have something significant to [add], they don’t say it.”
Defending the Right to Disconnect
One reason teachers work so many hours—typically more than they’re contracted to—might come down to an always-on mentality borrowed from the corporate world, according to recent research out of Ireland, which examines how technology has blurred the lines between work and home life among secondary school teachers. Teachers now receive, on average, 100 emails a day and feel pressured to answer them after hours and—increasingly—using their own smartphones. Researchers refer to this always-on mentality as “techno-invasion” or “pervasive connectivity.”
Technology alone isn’t responsible, but it’s “one of the most significant contributing factors to increasing stress levels,” says Caroline Murphy, the lead author of the Irish research. Her solution is to adopt policies that support “the healthy adoption of technology outside of school hours by both teachers and students.”
In some European countries this is known as a “right to disconnect,” meaning that workers are not expected to answer emails or do other work-related tasks outside regular working hours. District and school leaders can draft similar policies, such as those penned by several Catholic school boards in Canada, which impose a communications blackout period for staff after 6 p.m.
Even without explicit policies in place, teachers can opt for more transparency about their work routines, advises education consultant and former teacher Marissa King. Teachers can block time on their calendars for administrative tasks like responding to emails and set up detailed out-of-office messages listing work hours.
Letting Go of Control
Subtracting rules isn’t always obvious—except when you’ve done it without even realizing. That was the experience of one middle school principal during the pandemic, says Reich, when they relaxed rules around wearing hats and hoodies during pandemic remote learning. Take the rule away and you “save teachers a few minutes of policing, you save kids a few minutes of stewing in anger, you save an assistant principal a few minutes dealing with the resulting transgressions.” It’s nothing groundbreaking, he adds—it’s just about “looking through the rules and asking which are about control and which are about learning, and letting go of the former while keeping the latter.”
Delete That App?
A few years ago, as many as two-thirds of all software licenses purchased by schools were going unused. The chasm is largely a result of unclear goals around why the software is necessary for students and a lack of training for teachers. In short, without significant preplanning, simply adding new tools is no guarantee they will be used, let alone have their intended effect.
In most cases, there is little independent research showing that all of that edtech even works. Worryingly, recent research has found that teachers are frequently undertrained on the apps they use, leading to inefficiencies and stress. Namely, teachers often feel pressured to adopt technology without proper resources and training. Another study found that almost 50 percent of teachers spend 20 hours or more per week creating lessons and adapting them for technology.
School leaders with a subtractive mindset might consider taking a close look at the tools they do have. But it’s also important to refrain from adding unnecessary new tools in the first place. If there isn’t enough time or resources for teacher training—and time for them to use the tool effectively in lessons—then it likely won’t add its full prospective value anyway.
Experts suggest a checklist that school leaders can use before approving a platform for district funding. Start by surveying staff about whether they feel there is sufficient benefit in adding a new tool. If there is, ask questions like: Do I have a plan for adequately training teachers? Does it meet district and state standards and objectives? And—saliently—does it replicate another tool already in use? These questions serve as essential checks in preventing overadoption and underuse.
Subtracting curricula is perhaps the most challenging change, because state standards and high-stakes assessments loom large over districts and school boards. Again, it’s easier to add topics to standards than to take them out. But Reich, the author of the ASCD article, cites one book, In Search of Deeper Learning, which suggests that the nation’s most elite and successful high schools are moving away from teaching more content and subject areas to covering a few more deeply.
Instead of individual teachers cutting material they cannot get through, Reich suggests forming curricular teams at the district or school level to subtract with purpose. “Prioritizing standards means asking about what’s most important and how curricular themes connect from year to year,” Reich says. It means weighing what can be lost against what can be gained through deeper learning in key areas.
Already researchers, including Harvard’s Jal Mehta, a coauthor of the book on deeper learning, are putting these ideas into practice via a new consortium called the Deeper Learning Dozen. Focused on transformative leadership at the district level, the consortium tracks changes and connects leaders at 12 school districts, including Jefferson County School District in Colorado, which is using these principles to design daily problem-based tasks for students, as well as Revere Public Schools north of Boston, where some teachers take a sabbatical from the classroom to deepen professional development for their colleagues.
“The larger challenge around deeper learning work is that it’s nontraditional. It doesn’t feel familiar to school committees and parents,” says Revere superintendent Dianne Kelly. “It takes a level of patience to make something take hold.”