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Posts Tagged ‘less

Ugly Christmas lights.

I took this snapshot of the Xmas lights that the residential committee (RC) installed in my housing area. I am guessing that they engaged the same vendor who was responsible for ugly lunar new year lights earlier this year. 

Both the RC and the lighting provider seem to believe that more colours is better. More is not always better. The riot of colours is an eyesore. To make matters worse, the housing estate across the road also seems to have been inspired by my estate’s RC. They might be competing for an unofficial Ugliest Christmas Decorations contest. 

More is also not better when designing learning experiences. This is an approach that applies to lessons face-to-face and fully online. “More” complicates things. “More” confuses learners. “More” can overwhelm. Allow this Christmas grinch to offer an old present: KISS, or keep it simple, stupid.

Only better is better. We get better by not repeating emergency remote teaching mistakes. We become better when we design from a place of empathy, critical reflection, and informed pedagogy.

This is a reflection on yesterday’s reflection about doing less but better.

I took this photo in the restroom of a London eatery in 2015. It includes an oft cited quote that “less is more”.

Quote on the mirror at Zizzi, Little Venice (London, 2015).

I studied under two notable distance and online educators. One of them liked to say this: Less is less, more is more. It was his way of saying that preparing and conducting online courses was a lot more work than people bargained for.

I agree. I experienced that myself as a designer and creator of online content and as a facilitator of online professional development and courses. The more is more principle was true whether I was operating in the USA or in Singapore.

A low estimate for how long it takes to simply convert an hour-long face-to-face session is about 20 hours. So converting one university in-person class that is three hours long might take about 60 hours of preparatory, facilitative, and follow up work.

Is this 1:20 ratio realistic? Just consider the preparatory work: Planning, re-reading existing material and/or reading new material for relevance, learning new technical skills, creating new artefacts like audio, animations, or video, etc. If you do not do this by yourself, you need to include the time invested by those you work with. The 1:20 ratio might start to look unrealistic only because you need more than 20 hours!

The ratio is just for converting a course so that it is suitable for basic online consumption. Imagine if you want to design and implement something transformative. For example, you might decide that information delivery is not sufficient for adult learners and that leveraging on their experiences matters. Simply finding out what matters to such learners is an investment of time and effort. Now factor in the design and implementation of learning experiences that require sharing, peer teaching, critiquing, etc.

So trying to redesign for simplified remote teaching — doing less but better — takes more work. But the opposite can also happen. Someone who puts in little design effort might create busy work for learners. Busy work is the equivalent of checking off tasks in chores or shopping list instead of participating in meaningful learning and reflective thinking.

The sad fact is that it is easier to do less but worse. And even if you put in a lot of effort, your rewards are not guaranteed. The tweet below illustrates that pictorially.

If there is anything we might learn from emergency remote teaching it is this: We will realise who we are, what we value, and how we respond in a crisis. Some will choose to do as little as possible to the detriment of their stakeholders. Others will put in earnest effort in redesigning and implementing emergency remote lessons, while little actually pans out as expected. Even fewer will learn from those failures or succeed at first try.

That last group will do more in their bid to do less but better or to learn from their mistakes. They are the ones we should appreciate and learn from. Will we?

I was inspired to reflect on this thanks to a tweet by George Couros.

Individuals and organisations have shared useful ideas and frameworks for planning and implementing what amounts to emergency remote teaching. One of the best is this table from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

I share a screenshot of it here with the CC-BY attribution because that is the right thing to do.


Consider the practices under the orange header in column 1. Just like how we might approach a traffic light on amber, we need to be cautious on conducting the same classroom practices under different learning circumstances. Driving on stubbornly does not model critical and creative thinking, and it does not put learning and care for learners at the core.

The green column is for going ahead. It focuses on being flexible, purposeful, and authentic. I love these approaches and present them in a different way.

Principle 1: Simplify. To paraphrase Couros, do less but better.
For example, now is not the time to get hung up on administrative processes like roll calls. While attendance is important, doing this online is not the same as doing it in person. Simplify this by delegating students to monitor each other or use conference tools like gestures to see that everyone is on board.

Focus on what matters. If there is a thinking skill that students need to master, what is the shortest way there? What is the best way under the circumstances for students to show that they have internalised this skill — writing, speaking, performing, etc.? If everything needs to be done online, what are students already doing — using Tik Tok, sharing photos, planning parties — that you can leverage on?

Principle 2: Contextualise. Do not recreate the classroom.
In a classroom, playing a video or grouping students for cooperative work are no brainers. Depending on your conferencing tool and bandwidth, you might not be able to do this in real time. If this is the case, design for asynchronous work, e.g., get students to watch a video individually, record their thoughts with a scaffold, and co-create/critique content on a shared online document.

If you do this, do not set the asynchronous tasks as “homework”. The students are already at home and they have invested time and effort in what is actually classroom work. If the asynchronous work takes 30 minutes and your class is an hour long, then remove that 30 minutes by conducting a 30-minute synchronous session as follow up. If you do not factor student work as class time, you are creating more teacher talk time at their expense. Your students might choose not to put in as much effort the next time you give them work to complete.

Another aspect on contextualising learning is to use the home environment. The table above mentioned helping out at home as tasks for learning. Now consider how meal preparation might not just be a lesson on home economics but also on chemistry, visual design, resource management, and procedural thinking.

Then consider how taking advantage of household chores might ease home tensions by getting students to “Kondo” their rooms. We are all learning to live with less now and embracing what brings us joy, are we not? Now consider how donating our excesses might help those of us who are less privileged.

Principle 3: Ask. Learn about and from the learner.
Video conferencing gives teachers limited but useful insights into what their students lives are like at home. How about creating simple polls with honest questions like:

  • How are you doing?
  • What are you worried about?
  • What ideas do you have for our lessons?

Staying cooped up at home can be stressful because students cannot socialise in-person with their friends. Some students might not have home environments that are not conducive for learning, e.g., fighting parents, abuse, needing to take care of others, etc.

We will not know what difficulties they are facing or get inspiring ideas if we do not ask. If we do not first reach our students, we cannot teach them because they are not receptive.

But above all, I say we learn to do less, focus on what matters, and do these well. If we learn to do this, we will be better teachers and educators on the other side of the COVID-19 curve.

I am not a fan of selfies. This is probably only the second one I have taken with a camera phone. I had to in order to capture this quote from Robert Browning.

The quote was on a large mirror at the Zizzi restaurant in Little Venice. I was in London for a family vacation over the one-week school break.

I have lots of photos to share and have already created smaller online albums of that large one [colours] [eats] [lego minifigs] [museums].

But since less is more, I intend to create a summary album of the best bits and perhaps include a few photos I did not upload earlier.

Today I reflect on three seemingly disparate topics. However, all have a theme of not compromising on standards. They are standards of English, decency, and learning.

I spotted this sign at a Fairprice grocery store. It urged patrons to think of the environment.

You cannot use less plastic bags, but you can use less plastic the way you can use less water. The water and plastic are uncountable. Plastic bags are countable so you should use fewer of them.

Actually you should try not to use any plastic bags by carrying your own recyclable bags. If you do that, the sign reads another way: Do you part for the environment. Useless plastic bags!

If standards of basic rules of English have not slipped, we would see fewer of such signs (countable property) and I would be less of an old fart (uncountable property).

Speaking of which, a fellow old fart (OF) responded to a Facebook troll who had terribly warped priorities when commenting on the kids who lost their lives during the Sabah earthquake.

The troll focused on the fact that the deceased could not take their Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) later this year. When OF called the troll to task, the latter became indignant.

OF discovered that the troll was a student in a local school, and while not all kids act this way, OF wondered in subsequent comments how the standards of human decency seemed to have slipped.

I baulk at the fact that some teachers wait for official Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) materials to be prepared and distributed instead of using everyday examples like these. They are far more timely, relevant, and impactful.

To reiterate what I mentioned yesterday about bad advice for teachers, how are adults to realize what kids are writing and thinking if they do not follow them on social media? You need to be on the ground to see what is good and bad about it.

Parents and teachers should not be reacting in a way so that there is less social media use because that is unrealistic. When someone cannot write or speak well, you do not tell them to write or speak less; you tell them to practice more (after you coach them and provide feedback).

The third use-less/useless example comes from this Wired article about the change in Twitter leadership.

The author contrasted Twitter’s previously “unruly, algorithm-free platform” with Facebook’s. This was not a negative statement about Twitter because stalwarts value the power of human curation and serendipity.

However, those new to Twitter might view the platform as useless and choose to use less and less of it until they stop altogether. They do not stay long enough to discover its value.

The slipping standard here is learning to persist. I can see why school systems like the ones in the USA are including “grit” in their missions or using the term in policy documents.

But is grit the central issue?

What if the adults do not have a complete picture and are creating policies and curricula that are as flawed as the “use less” sign?

What if they should actually be spending more time on social media not just to monitor their kids and students but also to connect with other adults so that they learn the medium and the message deeply?

One key answer to these questions is about the ability of adults to keep on learning. We should not be holding kids and students to one standard (it is your job to study what I tell you) and holding ourselves to another (I have stopped learning or I have learnt enough).

Do this and you put yourself on the slippery slope of sliding standards. When standards slip, they are not always as obvious as badly-composed signs or insensitively-written Facebook postings. The refusal to learn can be insidious and lead to a lack of positive role models for kids and students to emulate.

I read an article in TODAY, Teach less, learn more – have we achieved it?

I sighed.

Teach less, learn more?

I would be happy if teachers learnt how to talk less and ensure that their students learnt more.

Even better, test less learn more.

Reducing syllabi or curricula is not going to make a difference if teachers still rely only on the tools of talk in one hand and tests in the other.

It is time to arm them with something else. It is time to have fewer central policies and more ownership. It is time to provide less structure and scaffolding and more professionalism and innovation.


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