Essentialism and Getting Back on Track
‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’ Stephen Covey
We have an awful lot of ‘stuff’ going on in schools that is getting in the way of our core business: teaching and learning. It’s time to take a hard look at this ‘stuff’ and decide whether all of it is really necessary. Take this example from Greg McKeown:
‘When an executive I work with took on a new senior role in the company, he inherited a process his predecessor had gone to a huge effort to implement: a huge, highly visual report on a myriad of subjects produced for the other executives each week. It consumed enormous energy from his team, and he hypothesised that it was not adding a great deal of value to the company. So, to test his hypothesis he ran a reverse pilot. He simply stopped publishing the report and waited to see what the response would be. What he found was that no one seemed to miss it; after several weeks nobody had even mentioned the report. As a result, he concluded that the report was not essential to the business and could be eliminated.’ 
Getting back to essentials is not easy, it takes real discipline. But it is worth it. There are three strands to getting back to the activities and processes that enhance our main purpose: the first is at organisational level, the second is at a personal level and the third is becoming comfortable with saying no to the activities which do not support the first two.
We have an awful lot of ‘stuff’ going on in schools that is getting in the way of our core business: teaching and learning. It’s time to take a hard look at this ‘stuff’ and decide whether all of it is really necessary.
The first step as an organisation is to go back to first principles: what are we in schools to achieve? We need crystal clarity about what our core purpose is and this takes deep hard work. It means going back to our mission or values statement and to treat it as the solid expression of the school’s purpose. It becomes the criterion by which it is possible to measure everything that goes on within the school. We have to ask ourselves that if our school values state that the ambition is for every child to achieve through a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, how does this match with teachers expected to mark every piece of work which means they have little or no time to develop their own subject knowledge, or to source resources that are high quality, or have time to reflect on their practice? There needs to be a thread which connects what we say on our websites with the actual experiences of professionals who want to live up to the aspiration but are bogged down with expectations to perform activities which are not adding value to pupils’ learning.
So much of what we do is urgent, but not important. And we need to remind ourselves that ‘What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.’ The important versus urgent matrix helps us to clarify those areas where we are likely to have the greatest impact. In order to get there, we need to make sure that we eliminate things which are neither urgent, nor important. There are many school practices that are candidates for this category and examples and include marking, data, production of differentiated worksheets.
As we do this, we shift from asking ourselves ‘how can I make this all work, to what is the problem that I want to solve right now?’ When we do this it shifts the locus of our efforts onto practices and activities that really do make a difference. And this not only produces clarity, but it also releases energy. One of the things we need to come to terms with, in the early stages of moving to essentialism is that it will feel uncomfortable - as we learn to set boundaries to make our core business more effective and more efficient, we can feel bereft. There is after all, something comforting about routine, about busyness, about feeling we have too much to do.
Stripping back redundant activities means that we are not so overwhelmed. To take some examples - if we are in a school where if it moves, we mark it and we shift to an approach of whole class feedback, where we stop marking everything that a child does, then what do we do with the extra time? Well for a start, we use whole class feedback to identity those pupils whose work is worth sharing, we identify common basic errors such as spelling mistakes and more significant misconceptions that need to be addressed. This involves more thinking rather than more activity. And that must be a good thing.