Why Schools Should Embrace a ‘Subtraction Mindset’ Instead of Constantly Adding

Teachers have been facing a punishing workload in recent years. Now, emerging from the pandemic, they find themselves dealing with longer days filled with classes, meetings, emails, grading, and professional development that goes beyond their regular work hours.

Unfortunately, the solution to the latest educational emergency—lower test scores and learning loss—has often been to pile on even more work. This approach rarely works, argues Justin Reich, a professor at MIT, and director of its Teaching Systems Lab, in a recent article for ASCD.

Reich states, “When the system isn’t working, and the people in the system are exhausted and overwhelmed, you can’t fix those problems by adding more things to the system and making it more complicated.”

Instead of adding more, the real solution may be to consolidate existing programs, reduce meetings, and simplify the school day. In other words, school leaders should adopt a subtractive mindset. While subtraction doesn’t solve every problem, it can reduce stress, lighten burdens, and give teachers the one thing they never seem to have enough of: time.

However, there are reasons why these subtractive changes are rarely implemented. Cutting programs can be seen as retrenchment by communities and external stakeholders. On the other hand, adding initiatives and tasks gives the appearance of progress. This bias towards addition is deeply ingrained in the human mind.

Research shows that when people think about improvement, they tend to focus on what can be added rather than what can be subtracted. Studies have found that individuals under stress are less likely to consider subtractive changes unless explicitly prompted to do so. This default towards additive changes is one reason why people struggle with overloaded schedules, bureaucratic red tape, and negative environmental impacts.

The good news is that subtractive changes don’t have to be extreme. They can be small, incremental changes like allowing teachers to disconnect after work or resisting the urge to add more technology tools to the school. Getting started with subtraction doesn’t have to be difficult.

Minimize Meetings

One area where subtraction can have a big impact is in the frequency and length of meetings. Many teachers and administrators find meetings to be a major drain on their time and productivity. In a discussion on Facebook about tasks that should be removed from teachers’ plates, meetings were a common complaint.

Research shows that effective meetings start and end on time, have clear agendas, and result in action plans. When everyone is on the same page, unnecessary elements can be subtracted, making the meeting more efficient.

One potential solution is to reconsider whether a meeting is even necessary. Announcements can be shared through emails or online channels where teachers can respond at their convenience. Some schools have adopted stand-up meetings, which are shorter and more focused, to avoid the inefficiencies of traditional meetings.

Defending the Right to Disconnect

Teachers often work long hours, well beyond their contracted time, due to an “always-on” mentality. They feel the need to respond to emails and messages outside of regular working hours. This pervasive connectivity can contribute to increased stress levels among teachers.

Some European countries have adopted the concept of a “right to disconnect,” which means workers