Stop doing too much: The “minimum effective dose” for educators

Stop doing too much: The "minimum effective dose" for educators

Water needs to be heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) to boil. Trying to make it hotter wastes resources. As teachers, sometimes we overextend ourselves without improving the results of our work. Consider the “minimum effective dose.” (Flickr / Scott Akerman)

I always dreaded handing papers back to students.

After they had turned them in, I spent hours grading them. Marking them up. Correcting the errors.

Then, when I would hand them back, so many of them ended up in the trash without a glance at my work. My work to help them improve.

I knew it was time to change my strategy.

I believe that I, as well as many other teachers, do too much. (I know … this sounds like heresy. But hear me out.)

I see teachers that arrive before school, stay after school for hours and take work home with them.

They grade papers. They write lessons. They create bulletin boards and decorate their classrooms.

They spend hours of their lives, often doing things that really matter.

But they also spending hours doing things that don’t push the needle in terms of the change they want to make. (And so do I.)

The “minimum effective dose” could change things. Here’s the gist of it:

It’s “the smallest dose that will produce the desired outcome,” writes Tim Ferriss, the author of “The 4-Hour Workweek.” “Anything beyond the MED is wasteful. To boil water, the MED is 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it ‘more boiled.’ Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something more productive.

Ferriss uses this concept in “The 4-Hour Body” to optimize exercise.

Michael Hyatt uses it to optimize his time blogging.

I submit that we as educators should use it to optimize our time and resources teaching.

Take my graded papers example above. I learned from watching students pitch corrected papers in the trash that the “red pen technique” wasn’t an effective way of helping them learn Spanish (at least for some of them).

Maybe times have changed. Maybe it wasn’t that effective a practice in the first place.

Regardless, with these students, I was overboiling the water.

Since then, I’ve had my students blog more, and not because writing in blogs is more effective than writing on paper. It’s because I can help them work through the writing process.

They write their blog posts in class. As they write, I circulate around the room, spotting changes and praising their good work. It’s instant feedback. If I stop and explain a concept they’re struggling with, they’re more likely to see it as working side by side to learn how to write more accurately instead of nitpicking grammar with a red pen afterward.

Returning papers with errors marked in red highlights what they did wrong after the fact.

Helping through the writing process helps them write better in the process.

And, to tie back to the minimum effective dose, it’s the least amount of resources to produce the most impact. When those blog posts are done, I’ll write a couple quick comments on them and assign a grade, but I won’t rehash every little mistake. (Often I won’t need to because that work will already be done — and there will be fewer mistakes.)

I’m not saying that we should cut out all activities that don’t improve our students’ skills. And I’m certainly not saying that we should eliminate everything that doesn’t make test scores and grades improve.

We need to keep a laser focus on what we want to accomplish. We need to reduce or eliminate what is ineffective and try to find alternatives that do the same or better with less time, effort and other resources.

Teachers often say they’re overworked and underpaid, and they are. But maybe the overworked part is partially our own fault.

We need to stop overboiling the water.

What do you think of the “minimum effective dose”? Do you have any “overboiled water” activities? Have you ever identified any and replaced them? Share your thoughts and experiences in a comment below!

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