Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Formula

In construction there are some formulas used for planning purposes when an owner requests a project to be expedited. There are a couple of different ways to expedite a job. One is to work longer hours, employing a day shift and a night shift. Another is to add more employees to the job. Both of these are effective in a limited way.

One formula shows that if you have an 8 hour day shift and an 8 hour night shift, you will yield about 13 hours of production over a 16 hour shift. The reason that doesn't add up is that a night shift is inherently inefficient and dangerous. In fact, night shift production has been shown to go down by as much as 37% and the likelihood of accidents increases. Simply put, people who are tired do not perform well, so understanding this fact will help setting realistic goals and promises.

Another formula shows that adding all sorts of personnel to the jobsite can only increase production to a certain point. At a certain level of manpower "stacking", productivity begins to decrease dramatically. The reasons for this are numerous. More people results in:

- more chit chat and other non-work related activity
- a greater sense of anonymity that tends to decrease work ethic
- a crowded worksite that raises inefficiency (a drywaller, a painter, and a finish carpenter cannot work in the same room at the same time)

In education we have tried similar strategies with results that mirror the construction industry. The pressure to increase the speed and scope of learning while spending fewer budgetary dollars has caused strategies such as longer hours in the classroom, reduction or elimination of recess, cutting out the arts and physical education, increasing class sizes, etc. Each of those may work in their own way for a short term gain in productivity, but in the long run they are doomed to fail. We can look at the world of construction to extrapolate from their experience.

Akin to the night shift strategy, increasing school hours while decreasing recess, the arts and physical education results in tired, burned out, unhealthy, uncreative learners with limited ways to allow them to identify or build upon their strengths. Any of these strategies will work in a "final push" scenario, just like it does for short periods of time in the work world. But these strategies are not used as temporary measures and therefore are not sustainable. A woman I recently met told me with pride about a school that goes from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM with a one hour break in the middle. How would you like a work day like that?

Just like adding personnel to the project, increasing class size has very similar affects. Students who are aware that they are known and understood cannot hide in a crowd. Their teacher will not fail to interface with them frequently and will know whether they understood a concept or need more help. That inability to hide also reduces time spent on non-academic behavior (goofing around, chit-chat, etc.). Finally, a crowded classroom is full of students with a wide range of abilities in each subject that it makes it more and more difficult for a teacher to facilitate learning for each student based on their needs.

A lot of lessons can be learned from the business world and the formulas for efficiency may be one of those valuable lessons that can be applied to the world of education. For optimal learning: take your time, go for quality rather than speed, work when alert according to natural human rhythyms, and work in small groups with ample space where you are well-known and supported. Do our students' classrooms look like this, or do they more closely resemble a night shift loaded with hurried tradesman stepping on each other?


  1. Well said Tracy - like all of your blogs.

  2. I love this Tracy! I do feel that there's no need to rush through anything. Part of learnig is the journey not only the results.

  3. Tracy, you commented over a year ago on my Slow ESL Education blog and I only now found it (I'm still learning how to use these tools). Good to know there's another person out there with similar ideas. Since I first posted (March 2010), the issue has only become more obvious urgent.