The benefits of becoming a minimalist teacher.

19 May 2017


Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all. — Nathan W. Morris

It is an image familiar in educational environments throughout the land: the red faced, exhausted and agitated teacher, surrounded by streams of student books, paper strewn haphazardly around their desk. The walls are covered in faded, yellowing posters – with the obligatory superfluous rules of the classroom dog-eared and tragically ignored at the side. The chairs and tables embrace this laissez-faire approach: they are misaligned, disjointed and embraced by legions of chewing gum fans. Into this cacophony of disorganisation stumble the next class…

I have been spending late evenings, nestled in between the last minute exam panicking, reading about classroom environment and its psychological impact on both us and young people over the past few weeks. Writing a book (cue shameless plug: ‘Slow Teaching’ will be published by John Catt Education in 2018) about trying to orchestrate the busy, speed induced world of education better begins with the place we spend most time: the management of our classrooms. Now part of that has involved reading a range of books on minimalism (my wife almost had a heart attack when she discovered the consequences of Amazon induced spending recently!) and considering how the principles of minimalism could be implemented in the classroom.

I have also been re-reading sections of Malcolm Blackwell’s ‘Blink’. Gladwell’s text is about our instant judgements: the decisions that we make without real thought. There is a fascinating section on the nature of young peoples’ capacity to make instant and lasting judgements, based entirely on the superficial judgments of first impressions. The book documents how a psychologist Nalini Ambady provides students with a silent three-second clip of a teacher, and asks for the students’ ratings of teacher effectiveness:

“A person watching a silent two-second video tape of a teacher he or she has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who has sat in the teacher’s class for an entire semester. That’s the power of our adaptive unconscious.”  Pg (13)

In the safety of our screen induced anonymity we can also secretly admit to the power of our own adult “adaptive unconscious.” Instant judgments, decisions and actions are an essential component of our every day experience. Within minutes of entering the house of a new acquaintance we have consciously or sub consciously formed impressions about that individual: our view on their organisational skills; our perception of their interests and families; the likelihood that we will share similar interests; perhaps we even cast aspersions about their emotional stability. How often have these intuitions proved lasting and influential in how we respond to people? More importantly: what can we engineer to ensure a more positive instant impression that will have lasting impact?

The classroom is our arena – it projects powerful subliminal messages to the young people who enter. Its makeup will, in part, dictate how they respond to our every day teaching. It will, inevitably, impact on their capacity to care about their work and seek to aspire to excellence. We are the models and manifestations of the values that we seek to inspire young people to reach. There is nothing more hypocritical than berating a young person for sloppy presentation or lack of attention to detail when our own classroom mirrors our unfortunate opening individual. Young people know this – they are attuned to the clarity and integrity of the messages we deliver.

Our classroom environment is also more important than we perhaps think in influencing the level of concentration and focus of our students. Recent research at the Princeton University Neurosceince Institute looked at the impact of visual stimulation  with interesting (if rather confusingly expressed!) results:

“Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.”

In short: a cluttered environment of visual chaos directly “supresses” and impacts young peoples’ ability to process information and focus – leading to their minds effectively overheating and becoming overwhelmed. This research was also reiterated in Fisher et all’s findings in a 2014 paper: ‘Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: when too much of a good thing may be bad.’ By running experimental lessons with younger children in a “decorated classroom” against a “sparse classroom” they found that students were less likely to remain focussed – indeed they achieved lower test scores.

The classroom is also the place in which we spent significant time (at times it feels like inordinately more than our own homes!) so it requires slow, deliberate and careful engineering to ensure that the image we project is one that can assist us in building meaningful relationships and develop the capacity of young people in our care to learn. Importantly, by doing this we also take the first step in influencing how we feel about our work.

The Minimalist Approach 

At the start of my teaching career I was a chief hoarder: all paper resources, all books were jammed into overflowing cupboards and shelves. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of anything, holding on to the misguided belief that it would come in handy at some point. I also convinced myself that I did not have time to develop any real organisation of the classroom: the work books and marking won every argument about how best to spend time. Gradually this meant that my classroom became a repository for every piece of paper, every resource, every treasured book I had accumulated. This served only to nourish and feed the ferocity of the NQT anxiety monster. I spent mornings frantically pulling out pieces of paper, desperately hunting for another misplaced student book – working my way up towards panic even before any young minds entered the room.

So how can minimalism provide the salvation? Certainly it is a movement that has been growing in popularity recently, driven by a modern culture that is obsessive about the collecting and hoarding of stuff. It offers a purification: a decluttering of our lives to facilitate a calmer and more organised method of living and working. It is not about living with nothing, it is about making more conscious and deliberate decisions about what is necessary. This TED Talk from Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of the very popular blog The Minimalists, is an interesting introduction:

It involves deliberate and frequent purging of all that is unneeded: an essential practice in avoiding the cumulation of wheel barrows of extraneous material in the classroom. By doing this it is a metaphorical lifting of pressure of one’s shoulders: the first step to a more serene and considered life.

In their book ‘Declutter your Mind’ S.J Scott and Barrie Davenport illuminate that “all this extraneous stuff not only sucks our time and productivity, but also produces reactive, anxious and negative thoughts”. This triplet of emotions is certainly what we do not want in our classrooms – particularly when seeking to balance the cocktail of emotions that over thirty young people can bring into our rooms. So how could we embrace a new ruthless, minimalist approach to our classroom environment?

Commit to a minimalist review

Familiarisation breeds a lack of perspective. We may believe our classrooms are indeed streamlined and organised but overconfidence and a lack of perspective is symptomatic of fast and rushed thinking. Time to ask the honest question: are we secret teacher magpies? Perhaps this week take fifteen minutes to look at your room from a new perspective. Sit in one of the student’s seats and examine the environment from their perspective. Objectively reflect: what image am I projecting? How much of the environment is conducive to enabling young people to learn? Consider the words of Shaa Wasmund in ‘Do Less, get more’:

“Think of a well-run restaurant kitchen; not only is the food delicious, cooked on time and beautifully presented, behind the scenes everything is clean, ordered and uncluttered so that the chefs can focus on the task at hand. From simplicity comes came focus and purpose.”

Slowly walk around and inspect all those dusty corners and drawers in the room – what has been used recently? How essential is the various paper documents that surreptitiously hide in corners – could they be made into electronic versions?

In their book ‘Essays by Minimalists’ Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus argue to begin with the most obvious and “easy” elements in the cleansing process.

“Start with the easy things: the superfluous clothes jammed in the closet, the junk drawers teeming with junk, the unused kitchenware taking up space just in case.”

While the odds of having superfluous clothes in your room are low (I hope!), paper and equipment would most likely be the guilty hiders in the classroom. You may find yourself seeking to justify every element of your room, weeping as you seek to depart from various elements: don’t listen to the doubting, hording infested mindset. That poster that seems to communicate important behavioural values in the room has probably not been looked at for some time – it is about the clarity and consistency of your messaging in the room, not a poster.

This step is perhaps easiest with equipment. You may be genuinely surprised by the plethora of things in the classroom that don’t actually work or are broken. Get rid of anything that is surplus to requirement. Pull out cupboards, check around every element and find what is lurking.

Now move towards the paper. Here is where your new friend the scanner will be hugely enabling. If in real doubt, go electronic – copy and save to that wonderful decluttering enabler: the trusty memory stick (although remember the memory stick itself is ripe for decluttering and may need a minimalist review!)

If you are still fortunate enough to possess a teacher desk then this is perhaps the most important of the minimalist tools. Keep only what is essential on the teacher desk or area of work. The teacher planner, the pen, the computer. Experts argue to limit personal items to three or less, otherwise this facilitates distraction. As Tony Crabbe notes in ‘Busy’:

“Your brain is possibly the most complex object in the universe; it’s amazing, but it’s not designed for the level of demand, distraction and stimulation you are throwing at it”.

By applying a streamlined approach to the desk, it will then breed a clarity of thinking that can only be helpful moving forward. Having an explicit “no clutter” area is vital for filtering into other aspects of our work.

Sustain the minimalism

This is the challenging part. We may glow with joy as we look around our new sparse classroom walls and shelves, even allow ourselves some internal massaging: “My word. I am organised.” Yet sustaining this new minimalist habit is challenging.

For a long time I lapsed back into bad habits (and I still do): in the day to day rush of life in school it becomes easy to horde, to shove back in the nearest cave rather than look for proactive solutions. The solution lies in ‘The Ten minute Declutter: The Stress-Free Habit for Simplifying Your Home’ by S.J Scott and Barrie Davenport. The principal is simple and refreshing: commit to ten minutes of decluttering every day. While every minute is indeed precious for us in our daily work – the ten minute investment in this will have hugely positive impacts.

Leaving our classrooms at the end of the day in a position of organisation and structure will leave you feeling reassured; and result in you starting the next day with clarity. The alternative is that you might mark one or two more books. The books can certainly wait: the serenity of your mindset, the ability for young people to concentrate and the subliminal messages you are communicating can’t.

Thank you for reading, happy cleansing and “editing”!




Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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