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On Subtraction

In a May 2021 panel discussion on reimagining the K-12 educational experience organized by the International School of Luxembourg as part of their virtual Learning Loft series, I proffered that we should consider a new type of leadership, what I termed ‘subtractive leadership’ at the time. It seemed the right term to capture the essence of what I was trying to get at. In education, we are absolutely brilliant (and I mean brilliant) at addition. By contrast, we’re awful at subtraction. I’m not talking about acumen in mathematics; rather, I’m talking about our propensity to add more and more to the plates of teachers, counselors, coaches, administrators…everyone. “We need to do this!” is something we often hear. Excitement builds, early adopters identify and organize themselves, and suddenly we find that we’ve layered yet another thing on top of everything else we’re doing at school.

This additive phenomenon is not germane to education only; an April 2021 Forbes article captured the same issue in corporate workplaces. Bryan Robinson, Ph.D., writes:

Scientists at the University of Virginia conducted eight experiments in which participants could choose an additive or a subtractive strategy. In all the tasks, the vast majority of study participants chose an augment versus a removal strategy to solve the problems presented to them. They were less likely to identify effective subtractive changes when given a task that did not suggest they consider eliminating features. The same “addition bias” occurred when participants had an opportunity to recognize the shortcomings of that strategy as well as when they had to multitask other tasks at once. According to the researchers, their findings suggest that subtractive strategies require more effort to come up with than additive strategies, which explained why participants took a less effortful approach to problem solving. (“Business Leaders Often Overlook this Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy When Making Career Decisions” April 17, 2021)

Our oft-unnoticed ‘addition bias’ is harming education. With well-being informing so many discussions around our needs as educators and leaders right now, as it should, we have an opportunity to help ourselves (and our students) by becoming aware of this bias and seeking to exercise the power of subtraction.

Disappointingly, I have discovered that my desired neologism ‘subtractive leadership’ has been taken, but not in the spirit in which I intended it. The Journal of International Education and Leadership (Vol. 5.2, 2015) features an article by K.H. Larwin, Eugene M. Thomas, and David A. Larwin entitled “Subtractive Leadership.” They introduce the term in the context of distributive leadership, as a “leadership style that detracts from organizational culture and productivity. Subtractive leadership fails to embrace and balance the characteristics of the distributive leadership styles by instead encouraging collusion, self-interest, and self-promotion.”

Leidy Klotz, a professor at the University of Virginia who was a co-author of the study cited in the aforementioned Forbes article, and who founded and directs the university’s Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative, provides further clarity on the power of subtraction in his tome, Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less (2021). He illustrates powerfully how we regularly overlook our addiction to ‘more’ in all things, perhaps because it is much more challenging to be oriented toward subtraction: “just as it takes more mental steps to think of subtraction, it takes more physical steps to do it.” (148)

“Teachers everywhere,” he writes, “encourage us to add. History professors specify that an essay should be ‘at least ten pages.’ Math instructors take off points if you don’t ‘show your work.’ Even when our teachers don’t explicitly ask for more, we provide it. Who among us hasn’t left in part of an essay, design, or calculation not because the part improved what we turned in but because we wanted someone to see the work we had done?” (154) In an amusing example, he cites an application question asked by Harvard’s Graduate School of Design:

What is your reaction to the phrase, “Less is More,” an aphorism found in many disciplines? (300 words)

What if your reaction to the phrase constituted 37 words in total, yet was superb? Marie Kondo would be proud, but the admissions professional (or professor) reviewing the essay wouldn’t share the same view.

I found Klotz’s reference to Kate Orff (owner of an urban planning firm) helpful, in considering how to employ subtractive strategy more effectively. She avoids the use of the word subtract because of its negative associations (not trying to be funny: we all tend to view/value certain words in our languages as positive, negative, or neutral). Instead, she organizes her approach with four verbs: reveal, clean, carve, and connect. (166) Think about it for a moment. If you subtract something, you reveal the simpler truth that is underneath. You can clean that, you can carve around it to reveal yet again something unnoticed before (by going more minimal), and then you connect with something far larger (an idea, a vision, etc.). I have seen far too many strategic plans in schools that would benefit from a subtractive strategy/design!

Klotz goes on to talk about how to share and scale the concept of less, but what strikes home for me is what he terms “a legacy of less,” which is the title of his penultimate chapter. Here is our focal point, then, as educators and leaders: how might we leave a legacy of less, in the spirit of Lao Tzu, who advised, “To attain knowledge, add things every day; to attain wisdom, subtract things every day”? Our mental models in education have been (and continue to be) additive. As Klotz writes, “The deck is stacked against subtraction. Less is harder for us to imagine.” He offers a helpful distillation of takeaways (250-51):

  1. Invert. Try less before more. Subtract detail even before you act, as with triage. Then, once you are ready to make changes, put subtracting first–play Jenga. Clean, carve, and reveal.

  2. Expand. Think add and subtract, which are complementary approaches to change. Adding should cue subtracting, not rule it out.

  3. Distill. Focus in on the people. Strip down to what sparks joy. Decluttering delights, and so does the psychology of optimal experience. Embrace complexity, but then strive for the essence. Forget objects, remember forces.

  4. Persist. Keep subtracting. Don’t forget that you can use your subtractions. After all, doughnut holes are subtracted from the doughnut, but can be used (sold) as doughnut holes. Subtract stuff to leave a legacy of options.”

As you look ahead to the new school year, how might you use the time and pandemic-provided opportunity to subtract, leaving a legacy of options?

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