The IKEA Effect of Lesson Creation

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Leave School At School: Work Less, Live More, Teach Better. It’s available in both Kindle and print forms on Amazon.

I eat in the teachers’ lounge, and almost every day someone brings in one of those Lean Cuisine frozen lunches and pops it in the microwave.  You can trace the origins of such convenience foods to the years following World War II. The military had developed MREs and other foods meant to withstand long periods of storage and allow for easy preparation on the battlefield. After the war, several commercial food companies had leftover manufacturing facilities, so some of them created new freeze-dried and canned food products for domestic use. They pumped out boxes of fish sticks, canned peaches, and even ill-fated cheeseburgers-in-a-can. Jell-o introduced new dessert flavors throughout the 1950s. Sales soared.

With so many new products to sell, advertisements swept across the amber waves and purple mountains, reminding Americans again and again how busy they were, how hectic their days had become, and how desperately they needed quick meals. “If you’re a typical modern housewife, you want to do your cooking as fast as possible,” wrote a columnist at Household magazine who was promoting instant coffee and canned onion soup. Kellogg’s even created cereal that could be served faster. Their ads claimed that busy moms loved their presweetened Corn Pops. Because who had time for the laborious task of sprinkling on a spoonful of sugar?

TV dinners. Minute rice. Instant potatoes. “Hot breads—in a jiffy!” All were peddled to harried housewives who just didn’t have enough hours in the day to cook like their mothers had. “It’s just 1-2-3, and dinner’s on the table,” exclaimed an article in Better Homes & Gardens. “That’s how speedy the fixing can be when the hub of your meal is delicious canned meat.” [1]

But the faster the cooking, the less it felt like real cooking and the greater the potential for guilt on the part of the homemaker. That was the problem with instant cake mix. Intended to save busy housewives time by simply adding water to a mix, stirring, and popping in the oven, instant cake mix seemed like a fantastic idea. But sales fizzled after a few years. It turned out that TV dinners or the kids’ cereal were one thing, but a cake — well, that was another matter. Any homemaker worth her salt wouldn’t make a generic cake from a box that couldn’t be distinguished from a cake baked by the guests she was serving it to.

When marketers dove in to uncover what went wrong with cake mix, they discovered that it was too easy. The solution was simple: Have the baker add an egg. Once the powdered egg was removed from the mix, sales recovered and instant cake mixes became a mainstay in nearly every home in America. By adding one step to the mixing process, homemakers felt they were really baking again.

The cake mix lesson has since been repeated many times over. Build-a-Bear sends you the raw materials and the directions, but it’s up to you to actually build the bear. Cooks at “patron-prepared” restaurants like Mongolian Barbecue will cook the food for you, but only after you select the ingredients. City-dwellers take “Haycations,” where they pay farmers to do their work for them. And of course, there’s IKEA, which sells furniture at a discount because buyers have to build their own bookcases, cabinets, and tables. In each of these instances, people seem to place more value on items to which they have contributed some labor.

With this in mind, three psychologists, Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely, conducted a series of studies to find out whether consumers would, in fact, pay more money for products they themselves assembled. The research consisted of three different experiments.

In the first experiment, researchers found that participants were willing to pay 63% more for furniture they had built over furniture that came pre-assembled.

In the second experiment, Norton, Mochon, and Ariely asked subjects to make origami frogs or cranes. They then asked the subjects how much they were willing to pay for their own work. Following this, researchers gathered another group of volunteers who had not created any origami. These new subjects were asked how much they were willing to pay for origami built by the participants. Then the researchers asked how much they were willing to pay for origami built by an expert. These people, who had no personal connection to the creations, were willing to pay more for the expert’s products, which is exactly what one would expect. The participants who had made the origami frogs and cranes were then shown a display of origami that consisted of one set they had built themselves and one set that had been built by the experts. They were asked to bid on the different origami. The builders perceived the origami they had created as being of equal quality to those created by the pros.

The results of these studies suggest that when people construct a particular product, even if they do a cruddy job of it, they will value it more than if they had not put any effort into its creation.

Participants, wrote Norton and colleagues, “saw their amateurish creations as similar in value to experts’ creations, and expected others to share their opinions.”

The psychologists dubbed this the IKEA effect.

Two Problems For Teachers

There are two problems the IKEA effect creates for teachers. The first is that what you make is likely not nearly as good as you think it is. Your rubric is not better than another teacher’s. You just think it is because you made it. Same goes for everything else you’ve created. You would almost assuredly be better off using a product made by someone else. And as much as you don’t want to hear it, you’d be best off using products created by people whose job is to create those products. So while it may offend your sensibilities, stick with the program your district spent thousands of dollars on because it’s probably better than anything you’re going to design.

The second lesson is that there is a cost to spending time creating stuff. If you spend an hour making a magnetism unit because you tell yourself it will be better than anything you currently have in your filing cabinet or that you can find online, then you’ve lost the opportunity to spend that hour doing other things. You could have used the time on something that will make a difference for your students. You could have spent it doing an activity you enjoy. You could have even taken a nap during that hour and gone to work the next day better rested. The science is harsh but clear: If you’re a teacher who creates his own materials, you’re wasting your most precious resource making stuff that isn’t very good, in spite of the fact that you can find better resources with a few clicks of your mouse, or even more simply, by opening your teacher’s guide.

For the teacher looking to improve his effectiveness while spending less time working, the IKEA effect gives you permission to stop making stuff and steal (or purchase) from others.

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[1] Shapiro, Laura. Something from the oven: reinventing dinner in 1950s America. Penguin Books, 2005.

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Keep Your Hands Off My Planning Time

The following is excerpted from my upcoming book, Leave School at School: The Effective Teacher’s Guide to a 40-Hour Workweek, available from Amazon in March.

If you work for a district or a principal that regularly takes away your planning time — either through contractual language, mandatory meetings or other obligations, or because substitute teacher shortages require you to cover other teachers’ classes — then you should either fight for your right to plan or you should quit.

Taking away teacher planning time is exploitative and borderline abusive. Teachers cannot prepare effective lessons and provide useful feedback to students without prep time. If your district doesn’t provide it, or if they regularly take it away, then they are telling you one of two things:

We don’t care how effective you are.

Or, more likely:

We expect you to be effective, but we don’t want to provide you the time you need. Therefore, we expect you to use your personal, unpaid time to ensure effectiveness.

If you work for a district that has taken away your planning time, you either work for people who have no clue what it takes to do your job well, or who do and don’t care what it does to your well-being. They see you as an interchangeable part instead of a human being. This kind of mindset is poison and it’s not going to change overnight.

Fight or quit.

Those are your only options.

In his book, Originals, Adam Grant explains that disgruntled employees  have four choices: Neglect, Persistence, Voice, and Exit.

Neglect means you show up and go through the motions. Most teachers take neglect off the table because it means being a shitty teacher and that’s not fair to the kids.

Many persist, which Grant describes as grinning and bearing it. They hang in there. They keep their mouth shut, put a lid on their frustrations, and tell themselves that they’ve only got to gut it out until the administration changes or they can retire.

A fair number realize that things won’t get better unless they quit. They set off for greener pastures and more understanding administrators.

But I think even fewer speak up and try to change things, which is too bad.

Think of it like this: If you’re willing to quit, why shouldn’t you be willing to risk being let go by fighting for better working conditions? If you’ve reached the point where you’re willing to go through the hassle of changing jobs, why not adopt a “what’s-the-worst-that-can-happen?” mindset? It seems way more fun to topple some furniture on the way out the door than to gracefully exit.*

With neglect and persistence, nothing changes. Things are not going to get better unless you fight or quit.

Without planning time, you’ll quickly end up exhausted and demoralized. You’ll struggle in the classroom and at home. Your professional and personal life will suffer. Eventually, the stress will cause you to quit or be fired anyway, so why put off the inevitable?

Fight for better treatment or get out.

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* Teachers tell me they worry about the repercussions of being let go. They’d rather leave on their own than risk having to explain an inglorious exit to future employers. They likely fear too much. Teacher shortages aren’t going anywhere. I know of one teacher who was let go, had her former principal actively try to sabotage her hiring by another district, and still wound up with a full time job. The one good thing about this job becoming progressively less attractive is that those of us who stick around ought to find ourselves with greater leverage to affect change. It’s getting to the point where districts will need us more than we need them.

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Why “Time-on-Task” Hurts Kids (and Test Scores)

There are a number of phrases in education that make me wince every time I hear them and “time-on-task” is right up there with “strict fidelity.” Time-on-task refers to the amount of time students are actively engaged in learning.

The thinking goes like this: The more of something people do, the better they get at it. Therefore, if we have students for seven hours each day, we should maximize their time-on-task so they’ll learn more stuff and get higher test scores. We shouldn’t waste a minute, and we certainly shouldn’t squander time on breaks and recesses.

That kind of thinking is wrong.

Before we get to the academic reasons why schools should build in more breaks for students, let’s start with this simple fact: It’s humane.

The United Nations recognizes this. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states, “Every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits.” Maybe the UN should weigh in on recess time.

There’s also the law of diminishing returns. Put simply, doing more of something only works up to a point. After that point, performance suffers. This is seen in every field and there’s no reason to think it doesn’t happen to kids and their learning.

In one study, researchers recruited 31 students to learn a difficult computer task. The participants were split into three groups. A control group spent one hour training. A second group spent two hours on the task without stopping. A third group also trained for two hours, but they were given a one-hour break between sessions.

On the second day of the study, the control group had mastered the task better than the two-hour group, despite training for only half the time. Those who were given a break also outperformed the nonstop workers, even though the two groups had spent the same total time on the task. (SOURCE)

DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, looked at its data to study the behavior of its most productive workers. The highest-performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 straight minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer, said Julia Gifford at The Muse, by taking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers. (SOURCE)

Or consider the study of violinists conducted by performance expert Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music. The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes, and they took a break in between each one. They almost never practiced more than 4 ½ hours in a day. They  understood the law of diminishing returns.

Breaks aren’t just important for students’ performance and well-being, they’re essential.

In his newest book, When, Daniel Pink shares some research from Danish schools that found that the time of day students took national standardized tests impacted their scores. Pink writes:

“Students scored higher in the morning than in the afternoons. Indeed, for every hour later in the day the tests were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education–or missing two weeks of a school year.”

It would seem that a simple way to improve student test scores would be to simply move testing times to the morning. But researchers discovered what might be an even easier remedy.

When those same Danish students had a twenty- to thirty-minute break to “eat, play, and chat” before a test, their scores increased. Researchers concluded that scores went down in the afternoon, but they went up by a higher amount after breaks. Pink writes:

“Taking a test after a twenty- to thirty-minute break leads to scores that are equivalent to students spending three additional weeks in the classroom and having somewhat wealthier and better-educated parents. And the benefits were greatest for the lowest-performing students.”

The irony — and it’s rich — is that schools’ intent on maximizing “time-on-task” to the extent that their students aren’t given frequent breaks, especially in the afternoon, is actually sabotaging their own stated goal of improving student test scores.

Instead of adding days or hours to the calendar, or forcing our lowest students to do even more work, we need only to acknowledge the law of diminishing returns. Kids should be allowed to do as the violinists do and take more breaks.

Pink helpfully offers suggestions based on research about what kinds of breaks work best:

Short and Frequent

Short, frequent breaks are more effective than occasional, longer ones. Which means most schools do recess wrong. It would be better to have students run around for five minutes after each 45-minute learning block than it would be to give one 30-minute recess in the afternoon with no other breaks.

Move

Having students use technology during their breaks is better than no break at all, but getting them moving is better.

Be Social

We are social animals. Time alone can be good, but time with others, especially if students get to choose who those others are, is better.

Get Outside

Research shows that people who take short walks outside return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk inside. Nature seems to have a rehabilitating effect on people.

Detach

Don’t ask students to multi-task during breaks. Don’t have them keep working on their papers while eating a snack. That’s not productive. For the best breaks, get students out of the classroom doing things that have nothing to do with learning.

I’m sure you’ve already figured out that the easiest way schools could accomplish all of the above is by giving kids frequent outdoor recesses. People often complain that education hasn’t changed in 100 years. This is one example of how it would be better for kids (and test scores) if that was true.

 

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Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 10: Use Class Time

teacher burnout

I don’t know any teacher who thinks she has enough time during the school day to get done everything she needs to get done. That’s because most teachers split the time they have at work into two distinct categories. There is time with students and time without students. While we’re with students we are constantly interacting with them. We’re teaching, leading discussions, reteaching, modeling, helping, chatting, conferencing, and problem-solving. This constitutes the great majority of our workday. Time without students is used for all other aspects of the job: planning, grading, email, phone calls, making copies, locating resources, meetings, creating, and lots of other things.

Given that most teachers have a small amount of time without students, we struggle to accomplish all that needs to be done without taking work home or staying late after school.

But what if instead of dividing our time this way, we thought of our time at school as time to do the job of a teacher? 

Doing the job of a teacher involves interacting with students, but it also involves all that other stuff. Why should we limit those responsibilities to a small part of our day, thereby guaranteeing that we’ll have to work more hours before or after school and making the likelihood that we will burn out even greater? Why not structure your day so you can use your full eight hours to do all aspects of the job?

The first step to looking at your time differently is to let go of guilt. Guilt is the reason you feel “caught” when your principal walks in and sees you grading papers at your desk while students work independently. Guilt is why you walk around looking over students’ shoulders as they take a test instead of using that time productively. Guilt is what makes you reluctant to sit with your computer and provide students feedback on their writing instead of meeting with them in individual conferences.

Teachers have been conditioned to think that the only thing they should be doing when their students are in the room is physically interacting with them, even when doing so is detrimental.

It’s that way of thinking that creates the feeling that we never have enough time. If you want more time, create it. Carve time out of your time with students to do the things you used to reserve for time without students. Here are a few ways:

Give Breaks

Breaks are good for everyone. Everyone needs them. Give students occasional breaks and use the time to catch up on some of your other work. Read the whole article about this: One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

Use Student Mentors

I turned to students mentors our of desperation. The first year we implemented our math program, I’d have eight students needing help at the same time. I’d dart around the room trying to get to them all. Tired of waiting for me and unable to do the work, students would start talking. I’d have to stop and refocus the class. It was frustrating and exhausting. But while those eight students needed constant help, there were eight others who breezed through the assignments. Why was I spinning like a dervish when I could enlist their help?

You have students who can help other students. It doesn’t have to be you. You might not be all that great anyway. You “help” Johnny every day, but there he is again today with his hand up every five minutes. Send the message to your students that you expect them to do the work, and that if they are stuck, a classmate will help them. Then use the time such an expectation creates to reply to emails, sketch out plans for next week, or leave feedback on some student writing, only helping when your student mentors are unable to.

Test Time

Use student test time to get other work done. Quit watching students like a hawk. You can’t help them anyway and you’re sending them the message that you don’t trust them. Walking around the room while students are taking a test is a waste of your most valuable resource.

Independent Student Reading

I defended independent reading in another article, so I won’t repeat all of that here, but let me address one frequent criticism.

Research indicates that independent reading doesn’t work for the lowest readers. It doesn’t work for the lowest readers because the lowest readers don’t read.  It comes down to what you think the role of a teacher is. If you believe teachers must ensure students learn, then you’ll constantly guilt yourself into doing more. But if you believe that it’s your job to do your best to establish an environment where learning can take place and that ultimately, it’s up to your students to take advantage of opportunities, then you’ll have no trouble providing students with time to read, explaining your expectations for this time, teaching students why it matters that they read, making reading as appealing as possible, and then getting out of their way and letting them own their learning. If this is your philosophy, then you won’t feel guilty about working on other things while students have the chance to engage in an activity that will make them better readers, should they only choose to do it.

Video Lessons

In part 8 of this series, I wrote about leveraging technology. By making video lessons, you free up time for other things. Having successfully cloned yourself, the video version of you can do the teaching while the human version can do the parts of your job you complain you don’t have time for. Check some papers, reply to professional emails, enter test scores into your online grading system. These are all professional responsibilities. They are part of your job. You shouldn’t feel guilty about doing them, especially when you created that time without harming students in any way.

Finding time during the day to accomplish those tasks you normally take home isn’t abdicating your responsibilities as a teacher. It’s doing your job during the hours you’ve been given to do your job. Look at your whole day. Where are some other places you can carve out time so you can go home at a reasonable hour, keep burnout at bay, and extend your teaching career?

 

If you’d like more productivity tips, check out Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. She’ll help you find even more ways to do less while being a more effective teacher. The sign-up period ends Tuesday, January 9, so don’t delay!

 

Other Articles in this Series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

 

 

 

Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 9: On Writing

teacher burnout

Let’s say that in the name of avoiding burnout you decide you’re never again going to take student work home. You stop assigning homework. You move paper assessments over to computer-scored ones. You grade in-class work as students finish it. But what do you do about student writing? How can you read 30 or 60 or 120 student essays without taking them home?

So much of cutting the hours you work is simply actually wanting to cut the number of hours you work and doing what’s necessary to make it happen. It requires you to challenge the way you’ve done things and maybe the way it’s “always been done.” You need new mindsets.

If you have 120 student essays to grade over a weekend, it’s because you chose to have 120 student essays to grade over a weekend. Choose differently.

Let’s start with the end in mind. You want each student to get better at writing. What actions can you take to achieve that goal? Or, another way to think of it, how do writers improve? 

Thinking of my own writing, the things that have helped me get better are:

  1. Reading
  2. Lessons (usually in the form of books or articles on how to write effectively)
  3. Practice
  4. Feedback

That’s it. You’ll notice the omission of the word “grades.” Grades do nothing to improve creative work. I have three books on Amazon that have “grades” in the form of little stars. Those stars don’t tell me anything about what I did well or what I need to do to get better. In the same vein, think of movie ratings. You might see a low rating and decide not to watch that particular movie. But if you’re the director of that movie, a 2-star rating doesn’t tell you anything. If you wanted to know what people actually thought about your movie, you’d have to read the reviews. In other words, creators value feedback, not grades.

So the first mindset change is: Grades don’t matter. Feedback does.

But whose feedback? Is all feedback the same? Can students become better writers by getting feedback from students or parents, or does all feedback have to come from the teacher?

Again, thinking of my own writing, I would benefit more from feedback from an expert. That’s why the master-apprentice relationship works. I have little doubt that I’d be a better writer today if Phillip Roth reviewed everything I wrote and offered pointers before I published. But that doesn’t mean others’ feedback is worthless. Every book I write gets sent to a handful of readers. Their feedback always results in a better final product.

The same is true for your students. They need your expert feedback, but that doesn’t mean peer feedback won’t also help them improve. Having students share their work with peers and requiring that they comment on others’ writing is a way for students to see how their work is received by readers. That’s the second mindset shift:

Not all feedback has to come from the teacher.

Alice Keeler says, “The longer a student goes without feedback, the less they care about the feedback when they get it.” Technology allows for faster feedback. I have my students do their writing in Google Docs so I can jump into their document at any time and provide suggestions and so that they can share their writing with classmates. It’s a recursive process of them writing, receiving feedback, and them improving their writing based on that feedback. It’s immediate and the feedback actually gets put to use. So that’s the third mindset shift:

Provide feedback on students’ writing while students are writing.

If you spend class time doing that, you won’t have to take their work home. You’ll also know where every student is in the writing process and you’ll use what you observe in their writing to decide which lessons to teach next. For an excellent article on how a teacher does this, read Catlin Tucker’s article “Stop Taking Grading Home.” 

But what about the grade? First, delay it as long as possible. Grades tell students that the work is over. If you want students to ever go back and improve it, then giving them a grade is a way to ensure that they won’t. If permissible, never give a grade on a student’s writing. They don’t help them improve.

If you can’t go that far,  grade as few of their writing assignments as possible. Provide targeted feedback. Require them to consider that feedback. Have them highlight areas where they revised to demonstrate how they used that feedback. But grade as a little as possible.

In those instances where there’s just no getting around it, grade the writing using a single-point rubric. It will save you tons of time and provide just as useful information to students as more complicated rubrics do (probably more, since students might actually read these less wordy versions). Limit the number of writing traits you score. Grading ten elements is too much. Pick three or four for each piece and focus your feedback on those. This will save you time and also help your students get better.

As with everything in the classroom, it’s not what you do but how you do it. De-emphasize the grade and stress their growth. Encourage them to go back and look at old papers they wrote. And if you were able to refrain from grading those earlier pieces, you might be surprised to see them returning to them and making them better.

 

The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club is designed to help you regain hours of your life without sacrificing effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, like the article above, it provides new ways of thinking that will save you time and help you be a better teacher.

 

Other Articles in this Series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology