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Ed. Magazine

Does It Have To Be So Complicated?

Education, especially education reform, isn’t easy. Yet, does it always have to be so complex? With the help of members of the Ed School community, we found that the answer sometimes is a simple no.
Keep it Simple

Education isn’t easy. In fact, in its formal state, it’s probably one of the most complex, challenging things we do in our society, especially now, given the growing diversity of our student body and the greater amounts of information students are expected to know. As Diane Ravitch wrote a few years ago in the Los Angeles Times, “There are no simple solutions, no miracle cures to those problems. Education is a slow, arduous process that requires the work of willing students, dedicated teachers, and supportive families, as well as a coherent curriculum.”

Yet, does it always need to be so complex? Do our efforts — the big promises, the national commissions, the task force-created initiatives — always need to be so ambitious and lofty, filled with reams of jargon-laced documents and action plans? As Associate Professor Hunter Gehlbach wrote recently in Education Week, “Do we really need any more comprehensive, costly initiatives to fix our most challenging problems? If history forecasts the future, these large educational investments will pay minute dividends. As we race to the top after having left quite a number of children behind, we have to wonder why so many grand educational initiatives yield such limited benefits.”

This isn’t to say that education reform can always be reduced to a few simple ideas. We do sometimes need big ideas. The creation of public school for all children — boys and girls, the rich and the poor — was, in itself, a big idea. But perhaps in order to make some big initiatives yield bigger benefits, educators need to look more often at simple ideas that have proven to help, even if for just one student or one school at any given time. Ideas that have clear intentions and doable goals. Ideas that have staying power. Take Steve Jobs and long-enduring Apple computers as a successful example of this thinking. As the authors of Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity point out, Jobs was the champion of simplicity. “While other companies complicated their gadgets with proliferating bells and whistles, Apple succeeded by anticipating users’ needs through streamlining and paring down — one button replacing three, and easy-to-understand icons in place of techie jargon.”

As Jobs figured out, trying to address complex needs with equally complex bells and whistles was not the answer. As some of the educators in this story also learned, simple sometimes really is better.

Be Kind

Instead of focusing just on making kids happy, Senior Lecturer Rick Weissbourd, Ed.D.’87, and Associate Professor Stephanie Jones at the Making Caring Common Project report that it’s more important for teachers and parents to help children become respectful and caring. For some young people, this is intuitive, but for many others, it’s not. While they may know what’s expected of them academically or socially, they need guidance on what is expected of them ethically. The lack of this understanding can lead to students being at greater risk for many harmful behaviors, including being mean and dishonest. What can educators and parents do? Give young people a chance to practice taking another’s perspective by playing charades, role-playing, and having “what would you do?” talks. Pair older students with younger students, allowing the older students to act as mentors. And, of course, practice what you preach.

Start The High School Day Later


The science is there. As a recent New York Times article noted, “Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a health professional, a sleep scientist, or educator who would defend starting high school in the 7 a.m. hour, now the norm for many U.S. high schools, as good for physical or mental health, safety, or learning.” Experts say teens need about nine hours of sleep a night — and they’re not getting it. A 2006 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that fewer than 20 percent of teens get that much, while 60 percent of children under the age of 18 complained of being tired during the day. Research shows that better syncing school start times with student body clocks decreases depression, sleepy driving, dropout rates, and poor academic performance.

Teach Students To Ask Their Own Questions

Seems obvious, but it’s a valuable skill that’s rarely taught, at least deliberately, says Dan Rothstein, Ed.D.’85. Yet, as he writes in his book, Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions: One Small Change Can Yield Big Results, “When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension, and make new connections and discoveries on their own.” Using a strategy called Question Formulation Technique, Rothstein, the co-director of the Right Question Institute, explains that teachers stop asking the questions and students start asking them — and asking them and asking them. It’s a powerful way to learn, writes Rothstein. “In the absence of one simple, perfect solution, and given the complexity and seeming intractability of the many problems facing our schools, we should at least seriously consider Occam’s razor solution — a modest, simple approach that goes a long way to producing the optimal result we want.”

Simplify The Financial Aid Form

For years, Professor Bridget Terry Long has been fighting to help low-income families better navigate the path to college. When her research revealed that too many students weren’t going because they felt they couldn’t afford it, or were going but not taking advantage of financial aid, even when they qualified, she decided to try something new: simplify the arduously long and complex FAFSA form that families fill out in order to apply for federal and state financial aid. She did it by partnering with H&R Block, which was able to transfer to the FAFSA a fair amount of tax data collected after families filed their taxes. Extra help was offered to fill in the rest, with the entire process lasting about eight minutes, on average. What Long and her team found was that this easy intervention actually helped. Those eight minutes increased college enrollment by 7 percentage points. Three years later, those students were 8 percentage points more likely to be enrolled for two consecutive years. Long told an audience at a recent Ed School lecture, “Small things can make a big difference. We know this is true with barriers, and we know that is true with interventions.”

Slow Down


What could be simpler than this? As Lecturer Shari Tishman, Ed.D.’91, wrote in Ed. in 2013, maybe we should slow things down in school. Schools, she says, are in the business of teaching complex knowledge, but knowledge develops slowly. “Slow learning involves radically expanding the typical timeframe devoted to learning about complex things,” she wrote. “It might mean spending a few hours looking at a painting rather than a few minutes, or spending an entire afternoon examining the pattern of weeds growing at the edge of the playground. … It might mean taking weeks or even months to explore a historical event from a wide variety of perspectives. It might mean spending an entire year exploring a problem in the community and designing and testing a solution.” This doesn’t mean learning has to be done at a snail’s pace, but rather, at the right pace. As one blogger noted in a piece about slow learning, “It’s about savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them.”

Make Meetings More Useful

In their book, Meeting Wise, lecturers Elizabeth City, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’07, and Kathryn Parker Boudett make the case for something obvious: If educators are going to have to spend time in meetings, the meetings should at least be useful. Says Boudett, “One simple thing educators can do is to start every meeting by clarifying the objectives of the meeting and then dive right into tacking the most important objective early in the meeting,” rather than loading the beginning of the meeting with “easy” agenda items that we believe — often mistakenly — that we can get through quickly. City says simply having an agenda is also key. “Even if it’s an informal list, that’s better than showing up with no agenda at all,” she says.

Use Checklists

Surgeon and Harvard Medical School Professor Atul Gawande made the checklist famous. After studying the extensive and successful use of checklists by pilots before takeoff, Gawande wondered if his own extremely complex field of medicine could also benefit from checklists. It did. In his own practice, as he writes in The Checklist Manifesto, he has not gotten through a week of surgery where the checklist has not caught a problem. Using checklists in education might not save lives, but it could free teacher and principal brain power for more creative things or even save time. End-of-day checklists for students, especially young students who often “forget” homework or important notices in their desks, can prevent later frustration and get them started on becoming more organized. At meetings, as City and Boudett write in Meeting Wise, using checklists can bring simplicity to the process of planning or facilitating meetings. “It takes people less than five minutes to look through the checklist as they are planning an agenda and see if it sparks any ideas for how to make the meeting better,” says Boudett. “That is pretty easy!”

Greet People Warmly

Smiley face

This action may actually be the simplest — ever — and it’s one that Chris McEnroe, Ed.M.’12, has made a daily goal at Tabor Academy, where he teaches English and supervises a resident dormitory. “As a teacher I carry an implicit authority and responsibility within the learning space,” he says. “If we hold that teaching and learning is a social interaction, and that the most substantive learning is afforded by an engaging and personalized context, then the best way I can meet my goals as a teacher is to be engaged and to be engaging with as many students in my community as possible. The learning space exists at all times and with all people.” The impact so far? “The impact is that learning feels good all around.”

Let Students Move


Imagine asking an adult to spend seven straight hours in meetings and then be productive. “This is what we often ask of our children,” says A. Kevin Qazilbash, Ed.M.’98, principal of Spark Academy in Lawrence, Massachusetts. His school’s simple idea: Align the school day to natural human physiology. “In our school day, we build in two full movement classes during the day along with short movement bursts, what we call brain boosts, to break up classes and get kids active rather than having them sit for hours and hours straight.” They are seeing progress. In the first two years, in both fifth and sixth grades, Spark students showed the highest achievement in the history of the building in math and ELA on the annual state MCAS test. And from one of their periodic student surveys, they also learned something more telling: Kids at Spark like school. From the survey, 86 percent said they feel successful while 85 percent said they feel like Spark is a good place for them to learn. Even more, 91 percent said that they work hard on their schoolwork.

Revamp The Open House

Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp, Ed.M.’93, Ed.D.’99, has made it her mission to revamp the school open house. “There are 15,000 of these open houses on any given night in the United States” in the fall, she told an audience at the Ed School, “and we blow it.” At most open houses, Mapp says, parents file into the auditorium to hear the principal talk for a half hour about rules and then they file to their classroom to hear about more rules. “It’s not linked to learning.” Instead, the author of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family/School Partnerships, says open houses should be opportunities to share with families specific grade-level learning goals that have been identified for students. They should also “have time built in where families can share with staff what they know about their children’s challenges and strengths as well as strategies they may be using at home and in the community to support children’s learning.”

Replace Timeout With A Safe Place

In her work with schools around the world as part of the new Research Schools International Initiative, Adjunct Lecturer Christina Hinton, Ed.M.’06, Ed.D.’12, has seen many simple, successful classroom practices including one for preschoolers: games that help them develop emotional regulation skills. “In many preschool classrooms, children who are disruptive are put in ‘timeout,’ which is an empty chair that is perceived by them as punishment,” Hinton says. “At one preschool, children who are feeling overwhelmed by emotions are invited to go to a ‘safe place,’ which is a warm, colorful area with a few games they can play to help them regulate their emotions.” In a simple balloon game, children fill up their bellies like a big balloon and then let all the air out in one big gust. In the faucet game, children put their arms above their head, and then drop them down while making the shhhh sound of running water. “With this simple strategy,” Hinton says, the preschool “is teaching these young children that emotions should not be suppressed, but rather experienced and dealt with in constructive ways.”

Find Similarities


“Take a group of students who are arbitrarily assigned to spend a year with a particular teacher, who probably had no choice in selecting the students, and make them get along well,” says Associate Professor Hunter Gehlbach. “That is a complex challenge to say the least.” So Gehlbach and his research team designed something that helps: a get-to-know-you survey, which they gave to 315 ninth-graders and 25 of their teachers. The survey asked personal questions such as favorite hobby and what they think are characteristics of a good friend. The research was based on a simple theory: We tend to like those who are like us. The research team also randomly assigned some students and teachers to discover things they have in common. They found that when teachers realized they shared commonalities with students, they rated their relationships as more positive and those students tended to earn higher grades. Gehlbach says that while this relatively simple exercise is easy to do at the beginning of a school year, he doesn’t recommend that teachers do their own survey. “The rationale is that the do-it-yourself model would allow teachers and students to see their differences,” he says, “rather than our intervention, which only highlights what they have in common.”

Use Texting To Keep College-Bound Students On Track

Thought bubble

We’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. Even when students are accepted to college, as many as 40 percent (particularly students from low-income families) fail to matriculate to any postsecondary institution, a phenomenon referred to as summer melt. Benjamin Castleman, Ed.D.’13, and Lindsay Page, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’11, authors of Summer Melt, found that something as simple (and low cost) as sending a handful of personalized text messages over the summer to these students, reminding them of important dates and tasks they need to complete in order to matriculate, helps a large number of them stay on track. In one study in Dallas, for example, matriculation increased by up to 4 percentage points.

Help With Transportation

Sometimes simply realizing that a student is having trouble getting to school can make all the difference. In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, the GirlUp nonprofit discovered that a huge barrier for girls going to school was the commute — often a 20-mile walk round trip. Last December, with the United Nations, they donated 550 bikes to girls in the country, what they called “wheels of progress.” Closer to home, Barbara Carletta Chen was volunteering at a free, private middle school serving first-generation students in San Diego. One of her eighth-grade mentees was struggling academically. Chen discovered that it was due to absenteeism. The school was far from her home, and the county did not provide free bus service. Chen helped get the paperwork started for a fee waiver for the bus, and the student got back on track. “She will graduate this spring and is headed to her local community college,” says Chen, “the first in her family.”

Include Dads

In Boston, the Edward Monroe Trotter School, run by Principal Mairead Nolan, Ed.M.’97, offers a weekly book club called Dads Read, primarily for the men in students’ lives. Each session includes dinner, and the students get to take home a free book. Teachers and coordinators read stories, too, modeling how to read for understanding. Says Heather Weiss, founder and director of the Harvard Family Research Project, “Dads Read is a powerful twist on a book club. It is a small intervention addressing a big, important question: How can schools successfully engage dads to support their children’s learning and literacy and make the learning fun?” It’s one small but effective example, Weiss says, of how a school can build relationships with families and support learning at home. 

Install A Buddy Bench


It’s a simple way to make sure that no students on the playground are left out. More schools around the world are installing a bench on the playground designated as a “buddy bench,” where students can sit if they’re feeling lonely or even bored. Other students can go up to that student and invite him or her to play. The hope is not only will the bench help kids feel more welcome in the moment, but it could also help prevent bullying down the road. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, as many as 30 percent of U.S. students have been bullied or have been a bully.

Create Student Crews

It certainly doesn’t have to be called a crew, but as headmaster Meg Campbell, C.A.S.’97, found at Codman Academy, a public charter school in Boston, creating student-led advisory groups for high schoolers that are single gender and multi-age has had a huge impact on students feeling like school is home. “At Codman our ‘crews’ are composed of all girls or all boys, in grades 9–12,” she says. “This means every ninth-grader has a big sister or big brother in each of the other classes.This vertical integration, as opposed to horizontal integration of grouping students in grade levels by age, fosters deep friendships across grades and promotes a feeling of family in our school community. When alumni return to visit, they always go to their crew first.” Why divide by gender? “It gives students a break from what I call hormone display behavior,” Campbell jokes. It’s also why the school made uniforms unisex: all pants, no skirts. “Solves a million problems.”

Ask Outside Groups For Help

Flotation device

One of the first things Darienne Driver, Ed.M.’06, Ed.D.’14, noticed as the new superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools was that the fine arts and athletics in the district were disappearing. “We’ve lost some of the things that make a well-rounded experience for kids. But when we talk about channeling student energy? Wow!” she says. “So we are now working on expanding the arts across the district. That’s what makes kids come to school.” The district has reached out to dance and theater companies in the community, as well as local arts teachers. She told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We cannot improve schools in isolation.”

Use Personal Stories To Motivate Students

A couple of years ago, while working with high school students, Chris Hulleman at the University of Virginia and Judy Harackiewicz at the University of Wisconsin–Madison discovered that asking the students to write short essays relating the content of their science classes to their personal lives did something important: It motivated them to become more interested in science, which in turn improved their grades by about three-quarters of a letter grade.

Make Space Flexible

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a movement in the United States toward redesigning schools to be more open so that students and teachers weren’t so boxed-in. Some schools tried this, but it didn’t stick, in part because the rooms were too open. Today, new schools embracing this decades-old ethos are still looking at open spaces, but with a twist: They have dedicated quiet “zones” or nooks, or they can easily be reconfigured, such as the new class space on the third floor of the Longfellow building that has moving walls that allow the room to be divided or opened as needed. And the cool part? The lime-green chairs swivel and glide around the room.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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