Educational waste: what’s missing in Australian classrooms

By Phillip Dawson, Monash University and Robert Nelson, Monash University

Have you ever walked out of a class without having learned anything at all? Or maybe you were on the other end, watching your intricately planned lesson go off the rails because students didn’t prepare for class?

If so, you might have experienced “educational waste”, and it’s something we need to talk about.

We define educational waste as the time and resources that are wasted and could be used more effectively while trying to educate. It’s morally wrong and inexcusably common.

Learning inefficiencies

Students, of course, experience educational waste. A lecture or a day of school might be described by a student as “a waste of time”. Class might have been filled with superfluous (but interesting) facts or extraneous quantitative details, that didn’t fully engage students.

A misalignment of teaching and assessment makes any learning that happened feel unproductive; students ask “is this going to be in the test?” and the answer is maybe. Travelling to school for such a wasteful class and purchasing textbooks that aren’t used creates financial (and environmental) waste. Worse still are dreams unfulfilled and promises broken by the education industry, resulting in wasted emotional investment.

Inverting our scenarios, waste is experienced by teachers too. Students waste our time by coming to class zombified by portable electronics. Our carefully designed course readings aren’t read before class by the majority of students, so our intellectual contribution to class is spent rehashing foundational materials.

Most of them didn’t collect their marked assignments, so it looks as if all of that feedback was a waste. Now that the students have gone home we’ve got a couple of hours for the myriad compliance activities aimed at improving teaching quality.

These don’t really change what goes on in the classroom; they just waste our energies.

At an institutional, systems, policy or national level, educational waste is phenomenal. In our attempts to improve education, we frequently employ methods that we know won’t work: generic add-on study skills workshops; tailoring our teaching towards “learning styles”; requiring students to repeat a grade at school.

Each of these approaches feels better than doing nothing, but research suggests they might actually hurt rather than help; at the very least they are using up time, money and emotional investment for not much gain. Recent high-level reviews of research urge us not to spend resources on things that help a little bit when we could spend them on things that help a lot.

But we didn’t use that research. Maybe we thought it was inconsistent in its findings and inaccessible: it was written for researchers, not for educational decision-makers.

So with each new government or education minister we see programs and policy proliferate; and each pharaoh must create a bigger pyramid than the last.

Careful planning and review of previous evidence about what works is rare; at best we find out through post-hoc evaluation that mistakes were made that echo past mistakes elsewhere.

Our culture of educational intervention and innovation produces the same wasteful results over again because (much like our students) we didn’t do our homework.

Looking closer

Although many of our examples of waste are discussed elsewhere, they are not united under the common phenomenon of educational waste.

Waste is a powerful word that invokes morality and can be an impetus for change. Teachers and students need to be empowered to talk about it.

Waste is, however, a dangerous topic to discuss in an environment of educational “efficiency dividends”. We support the study of waste not to advance an economic rationalist agenda, but instead to give us greater autonomy and freedom in how we intelligently and creatively use our scarce resources.

Give us back our time to think and talk to students that was being wasted lecturing to an empty room. Let us cut out that superfluous topic from this class so students can spend our brainpower on the ideas that really matter. But please don’t claw back financial resources that you think we’re wasting but our students think help them learn.

So it is with some fear that we want to enter into a discussion with you about waste, because we know the discussion is imminent anyway, and it might come with a fiscally conservative agenda.

In the new reality for universities which includes tightening government budgets and free online courses from the ivy leagues, the very act of teaching might be cast as a wasteful act: why replicate the teaching of first-year economics when Harvard, Stanford or Melbourne are giving it away online for free through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)?

Our salvation as teachers might come from a more thorough investigation of MOOCs. If up to 90% of students drop out of MOOCs, maybe there’s further waste happening: wasted dreams and wasted efforts.

In fact, when compared to MOOCs, our efforts towards pastoral care and time spent with students might not be such a waste after all.

Have you experienced educational waste? How did it affect you?

Phillip Dawson receives funding from the Office for Learning and Teaching.

Robert Nelson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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