Colleges must fight against ‘always busy’ culture that crushes innovation, writes Brian Banks
Two strange things happened to me the other morning.
First I tried making a pot of coffee using a tea bag. I remember looking into the coffee maker, vaguely aware that something was wrong, but what?
Then, later, I couldn’t remember whether I had washed my hair or not. My hair was wet, but did I use shampoo? Complete vacuum.
It was as if I had opened too many browser tabs and these simple extra tasks had tipped the operating system in my head.
I had exhausted my mental bandwidth.
Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, both American academics, define “mental bandwidth” as two components of mental function. The first is cognitive ability, including the ability to reason in the abstract and solve problems. The second is executive control, our ability to manage our cognitive activities.
In 2016, Mullainathan, along with economists Heather Schofield and Frank Schilbach, used this model to claim that people living in poverty use so much bandwidth just to cope with the demands of daily survival that they are running out of space. cognitive skills to develop innovative strategies to escape this poverty.
Perhaps factoring mental bandwidth into our practice could provide colleges with tangible and quickly achievable benefits.
Helping teachers develop their mental bandwidth fosters creativity and innovation in teaching and learning.
Becoming a reflective teacher is an integral part of any educator’s journey, and rightly so. Yet this is often just another box to fill out on a lesson plan form, rather than the transcendent practice it is meant to be. Why?
I think it’s because real thinking takes time: real time, not five minutes in the hallway to go to another class. And time costs money.
It also needs a lot of bandwidth. Just as you can close some tabs to stream HD movie, we also need to close some of our mental feeds to reflect and learn from our experiences.
Taking reflection notes in case a lesson plan is watched is a sham of real thinking, which only benefits those who have other boxes to check off.
Reflection is often just another checkbox to fill in ‘
Yet investing in proper thinking time is money well spent, for “thinking time” is where we find the seams of teaching gold. This is where “good” becomes “exceptional”. By giving our subconscious mental processes time to function, we encourage our deepest learning and produce our most innovative and inspired ideas.
What it looks like in the real world might not be what people consider to be working, but off-task contemplation is indeed valuable work.
The question is, in organizations where people feel they always have to seem busy, how can we change the college culture to make this time spin-down?
One solution is to remove superfluous tasks to free up space for primary teacher roles.
Anthropologist David Graeber was taken aback by the ever-increasing administrative demands placed on academics.
Administrators have filled their mental bandwidth, so instead of outstanding teaching, learning, and research, universities have had tons of mediocre administrators, with exhausted and disillusioned academics.
This highlights an important point. While easing staff bandwidth has its benefits, not doing so comes at a significant cost.
If staff live with their bandwidth in the red most of the time, exhaustion is never far away.
Think time is also recovery time, and freeing up bandwidth is a strain on a busy brain.
Since it can take months to recover from burnout, it makes financial sense for institutions to do everything possible to prevent staff from reaching this dangerous mental state.
It’s hard to create a culture in colleges that allows minds to reclaim some of the bandwidth consumed by increasingly busy lives.
But doing this makes staff happier and more efficient; for teams overflowing with innovative solutions to move the organization forward; and students who have the motivation and the ability to achieve excellence in their learning journey.
And that makes a better pot of coffee in the morning.