"Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential."

Why would it be so important to a group of people to maintain simplicity in what they were doing? Probably because it was complicated to begin with. The development of large software systems can be incredibly complex. But so can the educating of kids. So in complex situations, it essential to keep things as simple as possible.

"Simplicity is essential." That's the message. But there's an interesting phrase in the middle that's worth puzzling through.

Simplicity here is not defined by ease, or a lack of rigor, or the absence of challenge. Simplicity is defined as "the art of maximizing the amount of work not done."

In software development, as in schooling, there is extraordinary opportunity for waste. I have watched teachers teach quarter-long units on a single text with no evidence at all of student learning. I have seen teachers devote 20-30 hours a week grading papers when there is not evidence at all that this improves either their teaching or their student's learning.

There's a lot of work to be done in education—much work. And we can always think up ways to do more. So maximizing the amount of work we don't end up doing is a key element not only of our survival but of the consistency and quality we bring to our effort.

Simplicity has another advantage: it's very agile. Simple things are easier to change than complex things when circumstances force us to change them. Since we know we will encounter change—and often to a great degree—we know that if we've kept things simple, we will maximizer the amount of work not done when we have to change them.


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Steve Peha

To what extent do we notice in our teaching an inclination to create elaborate ways of doing things? Is this related in some way to our sense of creative expression? Or do we actually think that turning our classroom into an Amazon rainforest will improve student achievement? Maybe elaboration is just a way to have fun? Regardless, it can be costly, both to us and to our students.

I was teaching a college course one night. We were talking about phonics and the importance of basing instruction on the Alphabetic Principle. The big implication here is that introducing letters by sound rather than by name makes them much easier for kids to learn. This is because letters are symbols for speech sounds and, unless someone is telling us how to spell a word, letter sounds are more useful to us when reading than letter names.

After a simple 10-minute introduction to the concept, I asked the class, "How would you teach this sound / a / (as in "hat") to a group of kindergarteners?

There was a lot of nervous talking and then one teacher began describing this game-like activity with kids split up into groups and a number of interesting aspects. I suggested that an effective approach would simply be to write the letter "a" on the board and say the sound / a / while pointing to it.

Which would work better, the simple approach or the complicated approach? Probably the simpler approach. But that wasn't the point I wanted to make.

If, at any time, I wanted to make activity more complicated, I could do so easily. If the other teacher wanted to make her activity simpler, she'd have a lot more work to do. If learning sound-symbol correspondence requires a lot of repetition, kids were going to get more reps out of my approach because it took less time. My simple approach could also be taught by anyone. The more complicated approach would require someone who could manage kids in small groups—not always an easy thing, especially in kindergarten.

I see far too much over-complicated teaching, too much elaborate planning, and too many complex assessments that cost valuable instruction time and that do not inform teachers about what to teach next.

The best teacher isn't the one who stays until 6PM each night and works her way through the weekends. It's the person who leaves at 4PM and doesn't spend a second on school until she arrives the next morning.

Maximizing the amount of work not done—during the day, throughout the year, over an entire career—is one of the true arts of teaching.

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