Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why Teachers Need to Care About Workflow

This exact question came up in a #CdnEdChat a little while ago. I asked people to volunteer examples of their favourite workflow, and... cue the cricket noises.

So I went hunting for good examples of workflow in education. I mean, I know what it is, but how do I explain it in 140 characters? Solution: find an image that explains it. Problem: turns out, no one has made a graphic that illustrates education workflow. It's all about manufacturing.

The first job is to define workflow.

A workflow is the approach (techniques, tools and timeline) that we use to solve a problem or manage a task. That sounds complicated, but in actuality, we all use workflow every day. An example would be when I want to cook dinner: I need to ensure I have the materials (ingredients), tools (cookware), technique (cookbook or experience), and sufficient time. The more often we do something, the more natural the workflow becomes.

What about workflow in teaching?

The workflow I used when I started teaching was very different from what I use now. Back then, it was mostly about paper management and chasing after missing work. Create the material. Copy it for each student. Make a few extra copies for the kids who might lose it. Hand them out. Make sure every student puts his/her name on it. After they've had enough time, collect them. Organize them and check to see that I have every student's work. Chase after the students who forgot to hand it in. Read and correct. Hand them back. Students look at the grade, then the paper ends up at the bottom of their locker until June.

So why should you care?

Effective workflow is all about harnessing the power of the tools at our disposal to become more efficient. I believe that it's not about saving time (since we know that educators are more likely to work overtime more than any other industry). No, we're not going to be clocking out at 3:30. What we'll be able to do is better use our time, to understand students, differentiate to reach them more effectively, give them more detailed feedback more quickly... The list could go on (and might end up being an entire blog series in and of itself). Being better at the low-level thinking tasks frees up resources (mental and time) to spend on more impactful actions.

Where do I start?

Really, the way to start building an effective workflow is to think about what you're currently doing. Where are there holes? What's inefficient? Henry Ford revolutionized industry by finding ways to do the same thing in less time. Nikola Tesla found a way to use existing infrastructure to deliver power with less loss. From its roots in the railway industry and manufacturing, the concept of effective workflow management has grown to encompass a plethora of industries.

For me, the answers is obvious (possibly because I highlighted them in blue). We should start by finding ways to spend more time focusing on evaluating student progress while they're still working, and giving faster feedback so students can capitalize on their learning. You may have noticed a colour code up there. Red signifies tasks that take up more time than the value they provide, while green are relatively simple or provide a good payoff for the time they take.

The answer of where to start lies in what takes the most time. Here are a few examples of how I've approached the problem:

  1. Finding and refining great ideas from my network of brilliant educators.
  2. Building a shared space of resources so I can create, but I can also pull from a library of great work from friends and colleagues.
  3. Check on student progress by jumping into their Google Doc while they're still working, and adding a few comments.
  4. Using rubrics to give assessment that shows students what they did well, and what they should work on.
The list can go on and on. Basically, if there's a tool that can help things (and I tend to focus on Google Apps for Education, but you're welcome to use what you're comfortable with or interested in), use it. If it doesn't work, move on to something else. If it works well, find other tools that can connect or build on your workflow.

This has already turned into a long post, but I think it's a topic worth covering. Let me know in the comments if you want to read more, or what tools you find helpful in making managing and organization more efficient, so you can spend more time on learning and teaching.