Less is more: keeping your focus clear

Chad’s post about using marshmallows to get students into understanding project management trade-offs reminds me not only of the simple Lego game that I use to explore communication difficulties, but also a more general point about simplicity.

Building on the ideas I’ve been writing about in recent weeks (here, here and here), one theme that joins them all together is the notion that the focus needs to be on learners’ needs as much as possible, while also working towards the agenda/learning objectives of the instructor.

For many starting out in teaching, it is the letting go of students – to make their own way (and indeed their own mistakes) – that is the most difficult thing. The result is an over-articulated class plan, where students can only do what the teacher lets them.

This blog has always been driven by the idea that this is not a productive way to proceed in teaching, especially if we understand education as being about supporting learners in becoming independent and self-critical individuals, rather than vessels to be filled.

Part of letting go is about clarity of purpose: as long as we clearly mark out the territory over which the students can roam, so we can let them explore as they see fit. A lot of the exercises we’ve talked about here at just about that: given a task and then seeing what happens.

But a key part of being clear is being simple.

Thus Chad’s marshmallows have to be built into the tallest possible tower, my Lego has to be built into a replica of another set,while my game on parliamentary dynamics simply asks for students to get the best possible score.  In each case, the objective is simple and clear, but there are many different paths to achieving it.

The cult of the bullet-point – where everybody likes to see a whole series of actions under any heading – tends to make us generate multiple objectives. That might be important in reassuring line managers about what you’re doing, but when communicating with students it is more likely to confuse them.

If you can reduce those objectives to a single headline, then you are more likely to get buy-in from students, and they (after all) are the ones who actually have to do the learning.

Of course, identifying the simple, clear focus of a learning environment is sometimes easily said than done. Sometimes, you have to try things out once, in order to know better that you are seeking to achieve by it. Other times, it’s a matter of stripping away things until you reach the irreducible core.

However, you go at it, the thing to remember is that if you’re clear about what you want to achieve, and students are clear about what they are trying to achieve, then you are all more likely to achieve it.