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Why We Should Embrace Inefficiency

When we talk with other teachers, the prevailing themes of our conversations are the desire to teach our students well--and by that we mean deeply, and engagingly--and the time constraint that makes reaching that goal so difficult. “How can we get students engaged in X?” “How do you have time for X?”

These two concerns, while equally valid, are often at odds. Building conceptual understanding and efficiency don’t always go hand in hand. So while we value efficiency in so many areas of our lives, we have to pause and consider if efficiency is really the main goal we want to master in our teaching. Because here’s the truth:

Learning is wildly inefficient.

If my primary goal as a teacher is to foster deep learning, then I have to recognize and contend with the fact that learning will come with stops and starts; it will be time-consuming, sometimes frustrating, and can’t always be tied up in a nice neat bow at the end of a 52 minute class period. Furthermore, if we want to promote equity in our classrooms by amplifying diverse student voices and highlighting their mathematical contributions, then we need to allow time for discourse, for presenting ideas, for attending to and listening to each other’s ideas, and for summarizing and paraphrasing the ideas of others. All of this takes time.

The reason that the traditional lecture-style instructional model has persisted so long is because it is so efficient! If the teacher does all of the talking and students don’t have to negotiate for meaning among themselves, then little time is “lost”. As teachers, we know we can present or summarize ideas more succinctly and more articulately than a student who is exploring it for the first time. When students in my class have a question, they prefer to get an answer from me, rather than from one of their group mates because they say it’s easier to understand. While that's of course a little flattering, I realize that granting their request works against other messages I am trying to convey about students owning the mathematical knowledge and the power of collaboration in moving our thinking forward. As a result, I’ve had to make decisions about when I intentionally choose a more inefficient route and when I can incorporate a strategy or tool to save time in my teaching.

Why might we purposefully choose to be inefficient?

  • To give students opportunities to make sense of ideas on their own and build deep understanding: we recognize that learning takes time

  • To motivate the need for a future lesson that will provide a new strategy or shortcut: sometimes we purposefully do things the harder, longer, less efficient way, so that students will almost be asking for the new learning. As Dan Meyer says, “If math is the aspirin, how do we create the headache?”

  • To make learning more accessible through concrete, hands-on experiences

  • To promote student agency and choice: if we want our students to be critical thinkers and autonomous learners, we have to let them make decisions. Incorporating choice is almost always less efficient than deciding on a single path for all students to take.

  • To demonstrate that we value people and their ideas

  • To teach interpersonal skills such as how to give help, explain, include others, and come to consensus

To summarize, we may choose to use less efficient instructional strategies for three main reasons: increasing learning, teaching interpersonal skills, and promoting equity.

You may be thinking to yourself at this point, all that sounds great, but I can’t change the fact that I have very limited time and a rigorous set of standards to hit this year. I am still held accountable for meeting those standards. What do I do?

While efficiency has perhaps been too much of a focus in schools, to the detriment of students’ deep and lasting learning, there are always ways we can choose what matters most in our classrooms and save time on the other stuff. The important question is not just how we can be more efficient, but when and why we should be more efficient.

When might we incorporate strategies to increase efficiency?

  • To reduce barriers to group work: group roles, like assigning a reader, help eliminate some of the dead space at the beginning of a group task when everyone is afraid to start talking

  • To eliminate distractions that take away from the learning goals: On lessons when graphing is not the main goal, consider allowing students to use a graphing calculator so the majority of their time isn’t spent on a secondary skill

  • To increase time on task: Protocols for the beginning of class and seating arrangements provide structure for students that reduces wasted time

  • To regulate our workload so we can focus our energy on what’s important (read more about how I save time when grading)

To summarize, we incorporate efficient routines into our classroom to make time for the deep learning that we value most. Processes that are not directly related to the learning can often be streamlined.

So what about you? What are some things in your class that you will be intentionally inefficient about? What other secondary things can you save time on?

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