Why being regularly asked to do nonsense tasks is probably bad for your health (Part 5 in workload series)

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From @BenyogaiPhyiscs’ gallery of data nonsense

‘Sometimes I find I’m doing things with data rather than necessarily marking and planning, and I think, ‘Why?’ ‘Why?‘ Because the marking and planning will have far more of an impact on the children and I’m doing this because somebody tells me I have to do this because I have to prove what I’m doing rather than just being able to get on with what I’m doing, if you see what I mean.’ (Classroom Teacher, Secondary School)

‘I could be supporting teaching and learning but instead I am…..not looking at what makes teaches better but I’m trying to draw a graph to prove that we’re a good school.’ (Senior Leader, Primary School)

Jobs which often provoke responses like those above are not likely to be good for your long-term health and well-being.

 Self-determination theory suggests that people’s intrinsic motivation is contingent upon their needs for relative autonomy, a sense of efficacy and being socially connected to others. Intrinsically motivated workers will likely have relatively high levels of engagement and lower levels of burnout. As such they are likely to enjoy their work and will be less likely to see their workload negatively.

Hackman & Oldham (1976) argued therefore that work should be designed to include five key job components: variety, autonomy, feedback, significance and identity. Improvements in each of these areas is associated with improved job performance.

The extent to which teachers’ jobs include variety; autonomy; useful feedback; a sense of significance; and contribute to a positive professional identity will relate to their levels of motivation.  However, for many teachers, their specific role has not been designed with workload implications in mind. In fact, I would argue that many roles are not designed at all. They grow and develop over time. My concern is that the way in which they grow and develop is more often driven by expediency and the winds of officially countenanced best practice than it is by deliberate thought and long-term planning.

Here it relevant to point out that the SES 2017 identifies teaching as an increasingly ‘high strain’ job. Teachers are increasingly likely to describe their job as hard work, and report reduced discretionary freedom when it comes to how they do their job. These trends in teachers’ answers to both these questions ring alarm bells for job design analysts. They would predict a commensurate increase in burnout levels.

Whatever the provenance of a particular role, the way in which its incumbent perceives the demands which it entails is important.

Roles with unreasonable levels of accountability and onerous demands in relation to demonstrating compliance appear common in teaching and are a recipe for workload problems.

Specific demands – if deemed a hindrance – will likely contribute to burnout.

Some demands punch well above their weight when it comes to workload (if by weight we mean time required to complete – which I do here as it happens J).

We all have particular tasks which we find frustrating and which affect our mood far more than they should they may not even take that long to complete but we likely to be grumpy when (and after) completing them. There is a level at which this is unavoidable. It is not my employer’s responsibility to make me a fully self-actualised individual after all. Sometimes we may just need to complete the task and move on. However, just as the ‘design’ of specific roles in a school can be reviewed in the light of their relationship with engagement and burnout – so to can individual demands.

For me, a task which made me reach for the TES was completing an annotated graph of my classes results. The graph maps their GCSE score against their average GCSE score across all other subjects. Some students appear below the ‘average’ line. I had to annotate these – explaining why. It’s largely nonsensical – and backwards looking. Those particular students had now left and I had no way of knowing if any of the reasons I extrapolated about why they did less well ‘for me’ than for other teachers were valid. The task actually took about ten minutes to complete but made me grumpy and irritable for far longer (especially as I put it off until the last possible moment)!

Helpfully for us, there is some research which can help us dig further here. It asks the question:  ‘What is the relationship between how someone perceives their role and their levels of burnout?

Specific demands within a role

Crawford et al (2010) enhanced our understanding of the relationship between job demands and burnout and engagement by differentiating between two types of demand:

  • Challenge demands are those seen as aligned with professional purposes. These are associated with increased engagement and have little impact upon burnout.
  • Hindrance demands are seen as hindering professional aims/purpose. These are associated with decreased engagement and increased burnout.

The way in which an employee perceives a demand – whether they see it as a challenge or hindrance – is closely associated with its impact upon levels of burnout and engagement respectively. If you’re a teacher or school leader you’ve probably felt the effects of both demands. Some examples which appear to resonate are

  1. We occasionally end up teaching a class or lesson which we were not expecting to do . Sometimes, after such a ‘demand’ we might feel more engaged, more enthused and more energetic than before we started. Teaching and interacting with students can (sometimes) be refreshing – especially if we don’t do it as often as we once did. You’ve done more work. But the effect of this extra workload is not necessarily negative.
  2. At other times there are little tasks which we have to complete that may, on a bad day, prompt us to reach for the TES or to consider a career change. These are tasks which we can’t see as in anyway helpful to our professional purpose of teaching students as well as we can.

The more often we think that ‘I’m doing this because somebody tells me I have to do this because I have to prove what I’m doing rather than just being able to get on with what I’m doing’ (see expanded quote above) then the more likely we are to feel miserable at work.


In my next post I will look at the importance of calling out nonsense tasks for what they are – and why schools leaders may be reluctant to do so.


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Ben White (@WaldenKent) is a Psychology teacher and Research Lead, he has been researching teacher workload and well-being for several years and was a member of the DfE’s workload advisory group. This post is one of a seven-part series on workload, burnout and well-being.  

This page will include all seven pieces once published

 

 

 

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On Flightpaths, Workload, Chairman Mao, Spiderman, and the Invention of Writing

Everyone’s pretending…paying lip service to certain ideas or concepts that things that are supposed to be meaningful.  And, again, my fear would be that because of that sometimes we [SLT] lose the ability to do other things that actually are meaningful.’ Deputy Head Teacher, Secondary School, Kent. 

homo-deus-1In Homo Deus, Yuval Harari points out that the invention of writing endowed scribes with the ability to record and share systematised versions of reality. This is of course mainly great. It’s in my top five of ‘reasons why I’m glad to be a human.’

However, in a warning which reminds me of that time when a weedy boy was bitten by a radioactive spider, Harari points out that with this great power comes great responsibility.

Sometimes pressures to succeed can systematically nudge scribes away from accurately portraying things. They record what they (or their bosses) wish things to be rather than how they are. Yuval Harari uses the example of Chairman Mao’s reforms which included the intention to treble grain production.

Pressure to meet this ambitious aim resulted in officials ‘writing in’ additional grain. They massaged or falsified the figures to make their region or district appear productive. Recorded grain levels looked great. The huge (apparent) surplus was sold to western powers in exchange for money/weapons etc. This was immediately followed by a devastating famine.

I did wonder if it’s appropriate to compare this tragedy to the pressure teachers feel to ‘show progress’.  However something resonates around the idea that school leaders can  be co-opted into creating a version of learning which meets external/political expectations but only at the expense of becoming detached from reality.

Here are four examples (mostly from a gallery of data nonsense wonderfully curated by @BenyohaiPhysics ‘ )

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And here’s a window into the more complex individual stories which the above examples  conveniently ignore. It helpfully indicates the range of outcomes which we could expect – of different individual students who scored similarly when they were in primary school. Essentially there is no ‘should’ about it. One particular grade may be slightly more probably than another based upon prior data. That’s it. Given a large enough group, we would expect many students to gain higher and (lower) grades than they apparently ‘should.’ (Thanks @FFTEduDatalab for this graph originally in this article)

national example education data lab report

 

Yuval Harari argues that when recorded and actual reality clash, the former often comes out the victor. Many school leaders’ jobs have become a desperate attempt to make sure that individual pupil learning falls in line with the ‘flight paths’ which they have created in an attempt to meet the perceived demands being made of their school.

Rather like with Mao’s grain reforms, there is considerable pressure on many teachers to write in data which matches policy (three sub-levels of progress anyone?!) rather than actual test results. It’s worth pointing out here that whilst the Mao’s officials probably had a reliable way of measuring grain – counting sacks say – teachers don’t have equally reliable ways of measuring learning.

We teachers are asked to generate grades from these answers ‘as-if’ it was the end of a course and pupils had actually been asked a larger number of different questions about a broader range of topics. This in itself is highly dubious before you consider whether this ‘grade’ aligns with the neat flight paths shown above.

As a result, many teachers and leaders go home worrying that deeply unreliable grades given months (or years) before a terminal qualification don’t match the grade which perhaps a quarter of students with the same starting point tend to get in the end anyway.

It’s pointless worry. Whilst finely calibrated in one sense – some schools can worry about kids by sub-grade (D1’s for example) rather than just whole grade – it’s also low on useful information. What (if anything) should a teacher, leader or student do differently?

The system requires particular behaviours – targeted interventions for underachievers for example- in order to help make data fall largely in line with the flight path. So this is how people behave. Often without adequate thought about why we do it or what we’re actually trying to achieve.

‘differentiation’ ‘intervention’ ‘demonstrating progress’ ‘targeting kids’ are recent examples of our attempts to bridge the gap between how we think things are and how we would like them to be. This sort of  language emerges when we try to come up with ways of making one written version of reality (the grades we’ve just entered/pulled from the air match another (the progress lines above for example)

I suspect that teachers also (on some level at least) want these things to be real as by achieving them they would be doing something meaningful. Moving kids up a grade or two; closing the inequality gap; successfully intervening where a child (or teacher) was underperforming are satisfying things to achieve.

However when one digs deeply into the underlying principle that the data shows how things ‘should be’  i.e. John should be working at an A*, he is working at a B, this means he is underperforming, we find that this is a deeply inappropriate application of aggregated data for students with similar starting point to Johnny.

There is no should about it. Actually all we know is that John might be working around a B. For 100 students who scored similarly to him at GCSE, a number (30 say) gained an A grade or higher. Some didn’t. Either way none of them are him.

As a result we often worry a lot and sometimes work really hard trying to achieve things which are at worst nonsensical or at best ill-guided use of resources and time.

If I want to improve the quality of my teaching (and its impact upon learning) I don’t think that flight-paths blended with fortune telling is the best route I should take.

I am very much on board with the idea that schools can (and should) work hard to ensure that they teach students well as possible. I long ago jumped off the good ship Mid-Year-Intervention though. I try to teach as well as possible from the start of the year. I’m not keeping back extra tips and tricks back for apparent ‘under-performers’ in March.

Take the perennial case of ‘mock exam results induced Ofsted panic.’

panic-attack

I can confirm this does happen in multiple schools.

Teachers ask real students to answer actual questions. They then mark these questions. The marks (largely) represent the extent to which students correctly answered questions about specific parts of a course.

However the ‘systematic’ school reality demands that this is given a grade – a grade that is taken to indicate what students will achieve in 4 months time, in a different paper, with different questions, different markers and when different experiences (including but not limited to learning experiences) having happened in between.

In the particular example we’re interested in here, teachers have come back from the Christmas holidays a little grumpy and pessimistic about the future (it is Dry January after all).  So enter grades which are lower (in general) than those which kids at that school regularly achieve.

Maybe they’re not grumpy and it’s just that as yet students have not learnt as much as they may have done in four or five months time…

Maybe the students are less worried about these ‘internal’ exams so prepare less immediately before hand and decide not to swing at the more challenging questions pitched their way (while they’d probably at least flail at them if it was more important)…

Maybe the students do actually know less, at this point than last year’s cohorts…

We don’t really know why, but grades have come out somewhat low.

Nevertheless,  worryingly low grades have been entered. Now a systematic prediction of how the school will look relative to other schools in August looks really bad.

This induces panic and worry. i.e. “If they get these grades then we will get ‘the call’ and we won’t be good or outstanding anymore” (both as it happens examples of recorded realities in themselves but that’s another blog post).

These worries provoke action in the school. Normally they include whole-staff briefings; directions to focus on borderline kids; intervene; raise aspirations; help the kids who with a little boost could improve out P8 score for examples.

Staff in two schools I’ve recently visited said that this exact thing had happened to them recently.

In one school the worry in March/April turned out to be misplaced. The P8 scores for that cohort ended up being the best ever.

In the other lots of ‘work’ ensued following the immediate grade collection. SLT meetings, HoD briefing, staff briefing, agreeing lists of kids to ‘target.’  A week later. 5 working days. At most three lessons per subject. There was another data drop.

It was recommended that teachers entered another grade – perhaps one more realistic (but optimistic) for each student. The teaching staff, as a whole complied with this ‘steer’! In this version of reality the school A*-C rates looked good again.

One of the senior leaders informed me that he was feeling a lot better now that the issue had been resolved (!) What had actually happened was that a worrying vision of the future had been replaced with a better one. Learning was (as far as I could tell) unaffected by this particular squall of worry in the upper echelons of the school.

What about workload?

These sorts of nonsense events more than likely contribute to workload issues for staff.  They are highly unlikely to lead to improved teaching and learning than. It helps here to look closely at what are commonly considered to be the three key features of burn-out.

  1. Low feelings of self-efficacy.
  2. Depersonalisation
  3. Exhaustion

I will finish by pointing to some ways in which the nonsense behaviour outlined above might have a detrimental effect upon burnout….

  1. Being told that they am clearly not teaching well enough (why else would grades be lower than they ‘should-be’). Probably doesn’t help teacher’s often fragile sense of self-efficacy

Joan, a fantastic teacher of English and school leader spoke to me about her constant feelings of guilt and that she wasn’t doing enough or more precisely – being good enough.

‘I think most teachers feel guilt and responsibility…You’re never finished, you can never be finished.  It’s never as good as you want it to be…There’s always someone out there who seems to be doing it better than you… that idea of guilt…that sense that there’s always something else that you can do to be better.’ Joan talked about the stresses of  ‘of being a school and doing your best and not being good enough.’ (Joan, Secondary School English Teacher)

  1. The drive towards ‘targeting’ students who are ‘under-performing’ may contribute to de-personalisation. This is seen as unhealthily high where teachers start to see students as barriers to them achieving their aims rather than the individual people who they have entered the career to serve.

A popular data management package now includes a ‘what-if’ function. You can play around with the grades you allocate to individual students to find out what your ranking (compared to other centres) would be like if they scored higher or lower. Not only is this inappropriately conflating average performance of similar kids with the idea that we can know what any one child ‘should’ get, but for me it quite literally presents the lower achievers in my class as a barrier to me looking good at my job (or possibly even gaining a pay rise when my performance is reviewed).

  1. Being asked to complete futile tasks is a recipe for feeling overwhelmed and unable to continue. Exhausted in other words.

Marc, a primary school teacher spoke about what was most likely to make him feel  overwhelmed and exhausted at work.

I think sometimes if you’re going through and doing things, a little bit like with your lesson planning or with your marking, for the sake of ticking a box of, ‘I’ve done it,’ then it will get very, very monotonous…as soon as you’re in that frame of mind then it can become overwhelming.’ (Marc, teacher, primary school)

In his famous Mcdonaldisation Thesis,  Ritzer argues that where industries become obsessed with highly rationalised efficiency then irrational practices ensue. Ironically, highly rationalised systems in themselves can produce irrational behaviours. Identifying students who should be better for targeted interventions to uplift them by a sub-grade. Is probably one of these.

The systems above are nonsensical. Pretending otherwise may help with short term worries but is unlikely to help attainment or staff morale. 

Here’s a big challenge for SLT teams. Sometimes we discuss the recorded version as if it is more accurate than – we know– it actually can be.  This is a dangerous game to play. Here in a candid interview a deputy head teacher told me that:

We spend huge amounts of time looking at data that’s often meaningless, yet we all play along with the idea that somehow it’s meaningful.  And I think everyone perhaps in the management team….  I think almost everyone does probably up to and including, you know, the principal of the school [knows this]… but again, it’s this idea that we have to use this information and we have to be able to present it in a certain way, so we do.  And therefore we all pretend it’s meaningful when actually it isn’t.’

Everyone’s pretending…paying lip service to certain ideas or concepts that things that are supposed to be meaningful.  And, again, my fear would be that because of that sometimes we [SLT] lose the ability to do other things that actually are meaningful.’

This then produces nonsense tasks for teachers.

Let’s cut it out out.


Ben White is a teacher and research lead. He has been research data use and workload for the past few years. This has included producing this research piece on data use and workload.  He was a member of the data and workload group which produced this report. 

This year Ben has been piloting a data use audit with school senior leaders. It is designed to identify practical ways of improving data workload and refining the way in which your school uses data. It is informed by the above research and the promising direction which the new Ofsted framework is heading in relation to data use.

‘The session with Ben was a great opportunity for the school to re-evaluate data practices in light of evidence and the new Ofsted curriculum. Evidence was provided around the validity and reliability of working at grades, target grades and flight paths that will drive a discussion at the school and across the Trust about their use and impact on workload. Solutions were provided in the discussion that will drive and define our data priorities for the 2019 academic year, whilst making sure teacher workload is driven towards purposeful practice.’

Jake Steers, St Paul’s Way Trust School, London.

If you wish to discuss these issues further , or are interested in the audit process. He can be contacted via twitter or at b.white@highworth.kent.sch.uk

Teachers’ roles and the risk of burnout Part 4 in teacher workload series.

burnout

The conflicted and ambiguous nature of many teachers’ roles could well contribute to burnout.

 “If teachers are held to account for things that are largely outside their own control, such as a pupil’s test performance or progress based on flight paths, it is not only unfair, but induces high levels of stress and is likely to lead to burnout and ultimately attrition from the profession.”

Becky Allen, Making Data Work (DfE, 2018)

‘Sometimes I find I’m doing things with data rather than necessarily marking and planning, and I think, ‘Why?’ ‘Why?‘ Because the marking and planning will have far more of an impact on the children and I’m doing this because somebody tells me I have  to do this because I have to prove what I’m doing rather than just being able to get on with what I’m doing, if you see what I mean.’

(Classroom Teacher, Secondary School)

The SES 2017 work intensity report identified teaching as an increasingly ‘high strain’ job. Teachers are more likely to describe their job as hard work, and report reduced discretionary freedom when it comes to how they do their job. These answers ring alarm bells for job design analysts as burnout is a likely consequence. In this section we will consider first the relationship between particular roles teachers may have and their well-being (in terms of engagement and burnout) before zooming in on the same question in relation to specific individual demands made of teachers. 

Role Conflict, Role Ambiguity and Burnout

In 1986, Crane and Iwanicki conducted surveys of burnout, role ambiguity and role conflict respectively with a group of special education teachers. They found a clear association between role conflict and role ambiguity and burnout. In particular teachers’ reported levels of exhaustion and depersonalisation (two of the three key aspects of burnout outlined above).

Teachers who reported higher levels of role ambiguity and role conflict were much more likely to report worrying signs of burnout. Some of the indicators or role ambiguity and conflict respectively were as follows:

rc and ra

I’ve shared this slide of some of the items at a range of events recently. A number of teachers and leaders have agreed with me that high scores in each area are likely very common in teaching. To some extent, they may even go with the territory.

One senior leader suggested that role conflict was probably higher for early year teachers. They probably have multiple people to whom they are accountability and, because that have the fullest timetables, limited autonomy when it comes to deciding what and when to do on any day.

In my own career I felt most burnout at the point in which my role was ambiguous and entailed a high degree of role conflict. My job was literally described as a ‘kind of internal Ofsted inspector.’ I was tasked with analysing internal assessment data ‘asking questions’ of senior leaders and heads of department about the trends I unearthed. It was miserable.

Spielman hadn’t yet read ‘The Tyranny of Metrics’ (or indeed been appointed head of Ofsted), and so the observation that such approaches were largely ‘meaningless’ was not officially countenanced. In fairness to SLT this there were multiple accounts of outstanding schools doing data analysis really well ‘forensically tracking’ pupils and designing laser-focussed interventions.And Ofsted inspectors did directly ask questions in this area.

However, at ground level, it was never really clear exactly what I was meant to achieve (I experienced very high levels of role ambiguity – at one point my job description was literally a question mark!). Also what I did entailed significant role conflict.

I needed to identify patterns in assessment data and to hold middle and senior leaders to account for apparent trends and patterns. The data was highly unreliable (and inconsistent between or even within departments.) I spent two years vacillating between ‘doing my job’ and trying to avoiding causing unnecessary harm to the middle leaders whom I was ‘holding to account.’ My sense of self-efficacy – that I was doing something useful – for this aspect of my job could not have been any lower! I got the impression that the significance of the role was close to nil – doing more or less of it did not seem to affect pupil learning at all. Though flurries of output from me did produce more work (specific tasks and nebulous worries) for others.

Fortunately, my current role is much better.  I have a high degree of autonomy, I deem the demands which it entails as meaningful and significant challenges. It takes me longer (all things being equal) to carry out this ‘work’ but I am really enjoying it. I’m also happier and less grumpy (according to Mrs White). Whilst this is great I’m happy to say that primarily my increased well-being is situationally driven. I work at a job I find challenging but enjoy and I have a high degree of autonomy regarding how I meet the demands which it entails.


In my next post I will look more closely at the relationship between job design and specific tasks which teachers are asked to complete and their levels of burnout.  Roles with a high frequency of tasks such as those described below do not come out well in this light….

‘Sometimes I find I’m doing things with data rather than necessarily marking and planning, and I think, ‘Why?’ ‘Why?‘ Because the marking and planning will have far more of an impact on the children and I’m doing this because somebody tells me I have 12 to do this because I have to prove what I’m doing rather than just being able to get on with what I’m doing, if you see what I mean.’ (Classroom Teacher, Secondary School)

‘I could be supporting teaching and learning but instead I am…..not looking at what makes teaches better but I’m trying to draw a graph to prove that we’re a good school.’ (Senior Leader, Primary School)


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Ben White (@WaldenKent) is a Psychology teacher and Research Lead, he has been researching teacher workload and well-being for several years and was a member of the DfE’s workload advisory group. This post is one of a seven-part series on workload, burnout and well-being.  

The previous post can be found here

This page will include all seven pieces once published

 

 

Mark Twain, job perception, and teacher burnout. (Part 3 of teacher workload series)

“I’m not actually looking at what could make a teacher better, I’m just trying to draw a graph for somebody to look at to prove that we’re a good school.… And that’s when it aggravates me, because I’m preparing so much for governors or for self-evaluation that I’m not then actually in a classroom supporting someone improve their teaching and learning which, in effect, would have better impact on my data longer term.”

 Of course the amount of time we spend working in important. However, the first lesson I’ve learnt through thinking about workload is that it is as inadequate as a sole measure. We need to challenge its monopoly over much of the discussion and debate about teacher workload.

As it happens, in teaching at least, reported hours working do not correlate clearly with reported levels of workload. Sam Sims reports little (or no) correlation between the two. Elsewhere, research into the relationship between time working and workload suggests that up a point, increased demands may even improve a worker’s level of engagement (without contributing to burnout). We’ll look into these terms further a little later.

Workload is to a large extent a question of perception. To understand it better we need to separate the demands which a job entails and the ways in which workers (in this case teachers) may interpret and respond to these demands.

Mark Twain wrote about just this issue in 1875! :

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step …

… Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.

Tom Sawyer, chapter 2, p.187

*Spoiler alert* ….

Tom, being an enterprising rascal, eventually manages to convince his friends that the job is actually a privilege not a chore and successfully farms it out. They all enjoyed the work. Even appearing to feel  better (rather than exhausted) after completing it.

tom sawyer

Laying the groundwork: considering these aspects of workload will help you better understand it.

When workload is assumed to be solely about how long people spend working, the advice to which this leads is rather predictable. It will involve a suggestions as how to do things more efficiently. Perhaps by using technology. Perhaps by analysing workflow. This is helpful, however it only allows (at best) a superficial consideration of precisely how specific teachers respond to and perceive the particular demands which their job entails and the effect this may well have upon their well-being.

I find it hugely frustrating that even in high level discussion of the issue, the term ‘workload’ is rarely carefully defined. At times it is used as a synonym working hours, at others it is stretched to include consideration of the nature of work that teachers are asked to complete. A finer grained discussion this nebulous area, informed by precise terminology, can help us reach a deeper understanding of the issues and potential solutions.

Fortunately the relationship between job demands and employee well-being (in terms of engagement and burnout levels) have been the subject of psychological research for some time. The following terminology has refined the way in which I understand the broader (and rather more nebulous) categories of teacher workload and well-being.

  • Job Demands: The specific tasks or outcomes which our role entails.
  • Job Resources: The materials, tools, expertise, and social support from peers and line-managers which aid employees in meeting demands.
  • Burnout: A term describing the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “caring” professions. Involves exhaustion (feeling ‘drained’ or emotionally exhausted), depersonalisation (feeling alienated, emotional detachment), and reduced performance (tend to be negative, lack creativity).
  • Engagement: Sometimes simply defined as the inverse of burnout ( low mental exhaustion, low cynicism and high self-efficacy) Elsewhere it framed as a separate entity in itself which is negatively associated with burnout. In both cases it is characterised by ‘high levels of energy and strong identification with one’s work’ (Bakker, Demerouti & Sanz-Vergel, 2014).

To summarise a large field of research.

  • Job demands are not inherently bad. In fact, to a point increased demands increase engagement without impacting burnout.
  • Resources are crucial – in all their forms (largely physical, digital and social)
    • Where resources are greater the negative effect of significantly increased demands are meditated .
    • Where workers rate social resources (levels of collegiality and support from peers) as high the negative effects of high workload are lessened.

In schools, as any with any organisation, we are not aiming to remove all workload. We are interested in structuring demands so that wherever possible, teachers have high levels of engagement and low burnout.


In my next post I will explore the relationship between teachers, the demands made of them and the effects they appear to have on their well-being. These effects, to a large extent will actually hinge upon how teachers perceive the demands in question (rather than merely how long it takes teachers to meet them).

Adopting this perspective may help us to avoid creating (or taking!) jobs which primarily include tasks to complete merely as acts of box-ticking compliance. As this primary school teacher describe. Such jobs may lead to burnout (feeling overwhelmed by work)…

I think sometimes if you’re going through and doing things, a little bit like with your lesson planning or with your marking, for the sake of ticking a box of, ‘I’ve done it,’ then it will get very, very monotonous…as soon as you’re in that frame of mind then it can become overwhelming.’

(Teacher, primary school)



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Ben White (@WaldenKent) is a Psychology teacher and Research Lead, he has been researching teacher workload and well-being for several years and was a member of the DfE’s workload advisory group. This post is one of a seven-part series on workload, burnout and well-being.  

The previous post can be found here.

This page will include all seven pieces once published

 

 

‘There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all’ (Part 2 of teacher workload series)

felicity

Is time spent working the best way to think about workload?

This is a way. However it’s often thought of as the way. It is useful to think about the amount of time which teachers spend completing the demands made of them but not sufficient.

Framing workload exclusively as an efficiency problem is misleading as best. It discourages analysis of whether the ends which we are trying to achieve more ‘efficiently’ are in themselves valid and/or meaningful things to try and do.

Clearly it’s helpful to look at how long we (or our staff) spend completing specific tasks. This is something I learnt a lot about from Lauren Thorpe. Workflows in schools can be nonsensical. The number of people and worker time involved in completing tasks which could be automated or completed more efficiently by one person is far higher than it could be. Lauren’s role with a large academy chain has allowed her to analyse workflows within and between schools. This analysis led to the streamlining and automation of a range of workflow processes saving hours of employees time

Within a single school it may well be possible to identify unnecessarily onerous workflows. For example, when staff are asked to analyse particular data – do they need to gather this themselves or can it it be presented to them? If they need to personally access particular data – how many steps do they need to take in order to do this?

Our work can become more efficient if we carefully analyse these (and other) common jobs which staff regularly have to complete. However, whilst it may be helpful (and politically expedient) to consider workload as an imminently solvable efficiency issue, this conveniently sidesteps some rather more pernicious questions. In particular; is the end we working towards valid and/or meaningful? Is it a feasible, statistically literate and worthwhile thing to do?

Often the answer to one, or all of these questions is no. In the example cited above, we could save Felicity some time by having an admin assistant print (and cut out) all graphs. Maybe the students could be trained up to stick them in, properly, themselves. However, the graphs are statistically nonsensical. Speeding up the process is less bad. But it’s still bad. Felicity knows this and so the demand itself will still wear her down over time.

In another secondary school, teachers are required to produce ‘class risk assessment’ sheets on which they analyse statistically insignificant groups’ attainment (sometimes of 1 or 2 students) in relation to average assessment data. Official policy is that they complete this by hand – using pen, paper (calculators may be allowed, I’m not sure). It’s another nonsense task.

In that school, there is illicit spreadsheets in circulation (!) which will produce the risk assessment answers instantly. A number of teachers use it, but deny its existence. They can complete the task far more efficiently than their more isolated, younger, or conformist peers. But it’s still nonsense. The task and the precisely calibrated but largely un-actionable worry about the future which it probably provokes is a problem in itself.

It’s not just me who thinks this. Amanda Spielman (head of Ofsted) stated that much of the data analysis which schools produce (group analysis at class level for example) is basically a waste of time. She stated in 2018 that:

Nor do I believe there is merit in trying to look at every individual sub-group of pupils at the school level. It is very important that we monitor the progress of under-performing pupil groups. But often this is best done at a national level, or possibly even a MAT or local authority level, where meaningful trends may be identifiable, rather than at school level where apparent differences are often likely to be statistical noise.

(click here for full speech) .

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Doing a pointless thing more efficiently gets us nowhere useful. It just gets us there quicker! The demand itself is often the issue, not merely the way in which any individual or system completes it. These tasks illustrated above are in themselves deeply frustrating. It feels like they are getting in the way of what we see as out real job.

As one primary school teacher put it.

“I’m not actually looking at what could make a teacher better, I’m just trying to draw a graph for somebody to look at to prove that we’re a good school.… And that’s when it aggravates me, because I’m preparing so much for governors or for self-evaluation that I’m not then actually in a classroom supporting someone improve their teaching and learning which, in effect, would have better impact on my data longer term.”

 Of course the amount of time we spend working in important. However, the first lesson I’ve learnt through thinking about workload is that it is as inadequate as a sole measure. We need to challenge its monopoly over much of the discussion and debate about teacher workload.


Next time I will point out some useful research-based ways of understanding workload more precisely. I will also try to explain why the number of hours a teacher reports working doesn’t actually correlate clearly with how positively (or negatively) the perceive their workload….

Click here for the next post


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Ben White (@WaldenKent) is a Psychology teacher and Research Lead, he has been researching teacher workload and well-being for several years and was a member of the DfE’s workload advisory group. This post is one of a seven-part series on workload, burnout and well-being.  

 

The first post can be found here.

This page will include all seven pieces once published

Ben is currently working with @DanBoorman and @PhilHewinson to develop a workload saving in lesson assessment app. Find out more about the beta testing (and sign up for an account here) 

 

 

Are you a teacher? You’re likely often exhausted. Why is this? What can you do about it? (1/7)

tiredTeaching is exhausting. More exhausting, according to the 2017 Skills and Employability Survey (SES)  and more likely to be classed as ‘high strain’ than any other profession. Nursing, in case you’re wondering, came second. Nearly nine out of ten teachers report being regularly exhausted at the end of each day. For reference, just over 7 of every 10 nurses said the same.

SES 2017

Teachers probably didn’t need the SES to point out our workload problem. We already knew. Or at least 43,000 of us did.  The DfE’s 2014 workload challenge consultation was their most popular to date. This, ironically, created a workload problem for the DfE. They resolved it by sampling the responses – analysing 10% of them. As a result of this survey; ministerial and DfE moves to tackle teacher workload; increased interest from Ofsted and a range of voices across the digital edusphere; workload is something we are discussing more. However I don’t think that many of the voices in this debate are engaging as deeply as they could with the relationship between how workload is perceived by employees and their well-being.

Workload is often understood simply as the amount of work which an employee is required to complete. Workload analysis informed by this common-sense definition tends to focus upon the efficiency of work processes. How much time do they take to complete?  This framing of the issue, inevitably leads to advice about how schools can do the things they currently do more efficiently.

Well-being analysis in schools tends to start from the assumption that teaching is a career with inherent stresses and strains that can impact negatively upon wellbeing. This approach tends therefore to lead to advice about how to support people whose well-being is negatively affected by their job. The recently announced teacher well-being working group for example was launched with a video ad stating that ‘Teaching is a hugely rewarding career. But it can also be challenging and stressful.’

I would not say that either of the two approaches are inherently wrong. Both shed light on issues of workload and well-being respectively. However it is their monopoly position in each domain which I would like to challenge.

Mencken famously said ‘for every complex problem, there is a solution which is neat, simple and wrong.’ There is a risk with teacher workload (and now ‘teacher well-being’) initiatives – that failure to consider the complexity of the ‘wicked problems’ contributing to teacher exhaustion will lead to inadequate solutions being proposed.  Shallow analyses of the problems around workload and well-being will lead to relatively predictable advice with a predictably low impact.

Over the past couple of years I have had the chance to explore workload and well-being by visiting schools and interviewing teachers around England; reading educational and psychological research; and by filtering this through my own ongoing teaching experience and that of the highly motivated and professional colleagues who I’ve been lucky enough to speak and work with along the way.

The process has helped me think deeply about teacher workload and we can and can’t do about it. In this blog series I’m going to walk through how my understanding has developed. This will involve answering the following questions. I will illustrate each piece with and extracts from interviews with teachers in schools around the country, and from emails and messages sent as part of ongoing conversations about teacher workload.

  • Is monitoring the time teachers spend working the best way to think about workload?
  • How can the concepts of job demands, resources, burnout and engagement bring clarity to how we talk about and understand workload?
  • What appears to increase teachers’ levels of burnout?
  • What can we do about it? What can we not do about it?

 


 

Next time, I will explore the first question with reference to this account from Felicity,  a secondary school teacher in England:

felicity

Is monitoring the time teachers spend working the best way to think about workload?

Doing a pointless thing more efficiently gets us nowhere useful. It just gets us there quicker! The demand itself is often the issue, not merely the way in which any individual or system completes it….


bw

Ben White (@WaldenKent) is a Psychology teacher and Research Lead, he has been researching teacher workload and well-being for several years and was a member of the DfE’s workload advisory group. This post is one of a seven-part series on workload, burnout and well-being.  

This page will include all seven pieces once published

 

 

Ever wonder ‘Do they get it?’ We do. Here’s how in 15 minutes of lesson you can find out….

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*Watch our quick video tutorial here*

We didn’t actually plan to build a web-app. But here it is. And we think it provides a fantastic set-piece to support responsive teaching. Within 15 minutes you can set it, check it (with the class), see who gets it and who doesn’t, and provide whole class feedback using real examples. 

We started out thinking about how best to tackle the challenge represented by the ‘lesson moment’ pictured above.  My earliest attempt at a useful teaching set-piece involved students writing answers on revision cards and passing them around the room to make a series of head-to-head comparative judgements.  Conceptually sound (possibly) but logistically challenging so we went back to the drawing board.

We wanted  something teachers could decide to do, on the fly, whenever a lesson reached that moment.

This is probably the key strength of the app. It was not designed because we wanted to take a thing that tech can do and shoehorn it into a lesson. We started with something we wanted to do better in our lessons and this is, we think, a great way of doing it well.

What is Compare and Learn for?

It’s designed for the moments in a lesson where you’ve finished ‘teaching’ a particular thing. You may have checked in with a few students to see if they understand – they seem to. But you’re not sure if they all grasp it, or just think they do. 

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We’ve been playing with using comparative judgement within students in lessons for the past couple of years.

I find that getting students to judge a series of pairs of answers i.e. ‘which is better’ is a really useful set-piece to support their learning.

  • It pushes them to consider the finer details of a paragraph, idea or diagrammatic representation.
  • It also allows the teacher to quickly glean how well the class understand the ideas; and
  • to share and analyse excellent examples/key feedback with the class (or a specific individual where appropriate)

Compare and Learn uses students’ phones or tablets to upload photos of their work which they can instantly proceed to make a series of comparative judgements of.

Within about 15 minutes you can;

  • Set students on a short writing/diagram/ drawing task;
  • (at the same time) set up a link to share with them all;
  • comparatively judge answers (as a class);
  • check whether your judgements and students’ align
  • share anonymised top responses with students

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So far it has been successfully applied in these contexts:

Science: diagrams of key processes; extended written answers.

English: essay introductions; demonstrating explanation of key narrative devices

Psychology: explanations of key research, extended evaluation paragraphs.

Maths: solving longer problems – with particular emphasis on ‘showing workings’

History: writing judgements in relation

Economics:  quick graphs and diagrams of processes and models.

It’s still in trial phase – so any feedback on the process or possible applications are welcome. If you would like to give it a try please use the link below to sign up for an account.

You can sign up for a trial account here: Click here to set up a teacher account

Click here for guidance on how to set up and run your first task: click here for your tutorial guide

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