Workload: Insights from Evolutionary Theory

Workload is a huge concern for teachers. In many cases, teachers are doing work they know is not impacting their pupil. This is both frustrating and demotivating. In other cases, some school leaders are explicitly or implicitly signalling to teachers that in a profession like teaching, we must make personal sacrifices if we are to transform our pupils’ lives. This is wrong. This is unethical. Teachers will leave the profession if this continues, and we must find and implement solutions quickly. However, to do so, school leaders first need to make workload reduction a priority. In the first part of this blog post series, I use a (super-interesting!) evolutionary analogy to outline the reasons why workload is so damaging, and why school leaders must demonstrate ethical leadership. In my next post, I will offer some solutions to the workload crisis and discuss barriers to be overcome.

Behavioural Ecology

Peer into the nest of a gannet, and you will find a single egg. Why does the gannet only lay one egg, when it might be evolutionarily adaptive to lay two or more? After all, this would result in the gene for laying more eggs to spread, right?

Gannet nest


To answer these questions, we must look at costs: both in the short-term and in the long term. First, let us consider the short-term – the current clutch size. David Lack (1947) first suggested the idea of birds having optimal clutch sizes since eggs come with a cost – they need to be provided with food, which is a limiting factor. This idea was taken further and conceptualised as a trade-off between number and quality of offspring. Observational studies show that both chicks are unlikely to fledge in nests where gannets lay two eggs. Experimental data reveals that egg production, egg incubation and chick rearing all bear costs for the mother (Jarvis, 1974). Instead of contributing her resources to creating, looking after and rearing one offspring, she must spread her resources thinner to perform these tasks for two. Short-term costs potentially prevent the successful rearing of both chicks: laying two eggs is a gamble.

What has this to do with schools and workload? If school leaders are not considering the workload of their staff, then they are taking a gamble on their pupils. The extra workload will mean teachers’ investments spread thin, and the support they can offer their pupils might not be optimal. They will spend less time planning high quality lessons when they are having to triple mark their books and enter unnecessary data. They will spend less time improving their subject knowledge when they are over-planning the few single lessons that they are being formally graded on. They will spend less time reflecting on their teaching practice if they are too busy being directed to perform tasks perceived to be Ofsted-pleasing yet have no impact on pupil success. The result: this year’s pupils receive a lower quality of instruction than they deserve.


What about long term-effects? Fascinatingly, ecologists can point us to the answer through experiments that reveal long-term costs of increased workload in animals. This second trade-off that must be considered was first recognised by G. G. Williams (1996). When scientists calculate the optimal clutch size of some animals, they find that the observed value is less than the predicted value. Why do some species appear to lay fewer than optimal eggs in a given clutch? One elegant explanation is that the parental cost of rearing offspring affects the parent’s future ability to successfully rear offspring. This might manifest as increased adult mortality or as reduced future fecundity. For example, experimentally increasing the brood size in collared flycatchers reduces their brood size the following year (Gustafsoon & Sutherland, 1988). For kestrels, increased brood sizes can reduce both parents’ survival (Daan et al., 1996).

The big picture, then, is that animals have evolved to maximise not their current reproductive success, but their lifetime reproductive success. Only the genes that promote clutch sizes and behaviours that maximise the total number of successfully reared offspring in the lifetime of an individual will spread.

So, how does this intriguing evolutionary analogy map onto teaching and workload? I see ‘lifetime reproductive success’ as being analogous to a teacher remaining in the profession for life. If we are investing enormous amounts of time and money training teachers, but they are leaving the profession because of workload, then we are failing.

Group-selection: ‘good-for-society’ model is wrong

Another commonality between the evolutionary analogy and workload concerns the mechanism that results in the observed outcomes. The driving force that optimises lifetime reproductive success is natural selection. Prior to the influence of evolutionary theorists and ethologists including: John Manyard Smith, Robert Trivers and Richard Dawkins, the predominant evolutionary explanation was group selection. Scientists such as V. C. Wynne-Edwards propagated the idea that organisms acted for the ‘good of the group’. We now know this is wrong – it is fundamentally flawed. Natural selection operates at the individual level, not the group.

Similarly, with respect to workload, the narrative that we should expect teachers to work so hard that they must sacrifice their personal lives for the good of society, is flawed. We have to consider teacher work-life balance because we want our teachers to succeed (do the best for their pupils) in a given year, every year. And I am talking about each teacher as an individual. We want each of our teachers to remain in our profession for their lifetime. Scientists have proved group selection wrong; we teachers and school-leaders must also prove the high-workload, teacher-burnout, good-for-society model wrong.

The analogy goes further, yet! Natural selection at the individual level is the driver in nature – so what should the driver be in our profession? Ethical leadership is the natural selection in the world of teacher-workload. Geoff Barton recently spoke at a conference about school leaders displaying ethical leadership to drive school improvement. What does ethical leadership look like? For me, it includes leaders answering the question: ‘What are we doing to ensure we are offering the best to our pupils by ensuring our teachers are at their best?’ Reducing workload for teachers must be a priority for school leaders that claim to be ethical leaders. It is ethical at the individual level, for each teacher to feel valued and feel able to use their time in an impactful way. It is ethical for each teacher for the rest of their lives, since they will be satisfied with their job as well as their work-life balance.

The lesson from evolution is this: if we want more, there are costs to bear; but more can be achieved if we think long-term and appreciate the agent of change. Our current solutions to improving pupil outcomes are resulting in an increase in teacher workload. But we can achieve more for our pupils by considering the long-term impact of our ‘solutions’, and seeing ethical leadership as an agent for change. Leaders: make reducing workload a priority.

In the next post, I suggest frameworks for reducing workload.


2 thoughts on “Workload: Insights from Evolutionary Theory

  1. Pingback: Workload: Solutions Part I | Bunsen Blue

  2. Pingback: Workload: solutions part II – why do systems in schools fail? | Bunsen Blue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s