Take the shortest path
How to plan efficient lessons
Hope your Jan is going okay and you're focussing on the process. Here's a few little nibbles to keep you ticking over. This week's big is idea is about efficiency is task design. Let's get to it.
Big Idea 🍉
When it comes to task design, less can often be more. This is the basis of Lemov's take the shortest path principle. Let's break it down:
'Take the shortest path' is a rule of thumb from one of the early TLAC books which says: where we have 2 options for how to teach something, we should take the one which gets students there most directly.
(Most of the time)
Why might this be a good principle? Two reasons:
- It reduces risk in student learning
- It makes our lessons more efficient
Risk reduction → Helping students to learn the stuff we teach at school is one of the most challenging tasks ever. When we add complexity to the learning experience, we reduce our ability to control for success. This is partly due to cognitive constraints: attention is a zero sum game—if part of a task isn't adding to student learning, it's subtracting from it.
Teaching efficiency → There's so much important stuff to help students learn—we've got little of their time to waste. Taking a longer path to the same destination comes with an opportunity cost. We could be helping them with something else. The most effective teachers help their students learn multiple times faster than the least effective. Teaching expertise is—in large part—an efficiency play.
If I ask students to design a slideshow on costal erosion, some are likely to spend a fair chunk of this time attending to slideshow design. Instead, I'm going to set them a quiz.
Is all this not obvious? Perhaps. However, (A) teachers often have a creative bent, and (B) we suffer from expert-induced blindness (which makes it hard to anticipate some of what our students might struggle with). Lacking a steer towards simplicity, complexity in task design can easily creep in.
"Eschew the complex if something less clever, less cutting-edge, less artfully constructed will yield a better result."
Nuance → None of this means that we need to strip the joy from learning. Just that it should be an intrinsic part of the experience, rather than the result of bells & whistles.
Bonus → When we strip out complexity, it also frees up teacher bandwidth to monitor learning and respond to student needs as they arise. Simplicity creates the conditions for responsive teaching.
🎓 For more on making learning efficient, check out Cognitive load theory in practice, by CESE.
So there you have it: a brief overview of the Occam's razor of task design. Now, consider a task you're going to set soon—is there scope to simplify it? If so, make the change, take the shorter path, and give your teaching a boost.
• Where we have 2 options for how to teach something, we should take the one which gets students there most directly
• Doing so reduces the risk of students getting confused and creates more time for future learning
• Stripping out complexity also frees up teacher cognitive capacity to be more responsive in lessons
Little Updates 🥕
- For PD folks, here's a new paper exploring mentor perspectives of supporting teachers inside vs outside the classroom, and another on how the design of US initial teacher training programmes influence teacher growth over time.
- Over at Steplab, we've just released a Beginner's Guide to Instructional Coaching (IC). For a wider perspective on IC, see the World Bank's new model, and for more on Steplab's approach, check out this podcast interview with CEO Josh Goodrich.
- Finally, Evidence Based Education are running a trial to develop a School Environment Instrument. You can find out more and join here.
(Note If you're struggling to open some of these links, try this solution)
Hope you enjoyed this week's Evidence Snacks. As ever, if you have any feedback, I'm all ears (reply here on tweet me). Now go forth and simplify.
PS. A huge thank you to everyone who referred Snacks to colleagues last week—over 2,200 new folks joined as a result! If you haven't done so yet, give it a try ⤵️