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Colleges must fight against the “always busy” culture that crushes innovation, writes Brian Banks

Two strange things happened to me the other morning.

First, I tried to make a pot of coffee using a teabag. I recall staring in the coffee pot, dimly aware that something was wrong, but what?

Then, later, I couldn’t remember if I’d washed my hair or not. My hair was wet, but had I used shampoo? Complete blank.

It was as though I had one too many browser tabs open, and these simple extra tasks had tipped over the operating system in my skull.

I had exhausted my mental bandwidth.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, both US academics, define “mental bandwidth” as two components of mental function. The first is cognitive capacity, including the ability to reason abstractly and solve problems. The second is executive control, our ability to manage our cognitive activities.

In 2016 Mullainathan, with economists Heather Schofield and Frank Schilbach, used this model to argue that people living in poverty use so much bandwidth simply coping with the demands of daily survival, they lack cognitive space to develop innovative strategies to escape that poverty.

Perhaps factoring in mental bandwidth into our practice could provide colleges with tangible, quickly attainable, benefits.

Helping lecturers to grow their mental bandwidth nurtures creativity and innovation in teaching and learning.

Becoming a reflective teacher is a baked-in part of every educator’s journey, and rightly so. Yet it is often just another box to fill on a lesson plan form, rather than the transcendent practice it is meant to be. Why?

I think this is because true reflection takes time: real time, not five minutes in the corridor on the way to another class. And time costs money.

It also needs plenty of bandwidth. Just as you might shut down some tabs to stream an HD movie, so we need to shut down some of our mental threads to reflect and learn from our experiences.

Jotting down reflective notes in case a lesson plan gets monitored is a simulacrum of true reflection, of benefit only to those with other boxes to tick.

Reflection is often just another tickbox to fill in’

Yet investing in proper reflection time is money well spent, as “thinking time” is where we find the seams of teaching gold. It is where “good” becomes “outstanding”. By giving our subconscious mental processes time to run, we encourage our deepest learning, and produce our most innovative, most inspired, ideas.

What this looks like in the real world may not be what people generally consider working, but off-task contemplation is valuable work indeed.

The question is, in organisations where people feel they must always appear busy, how can we change college culture to make this spin-down time?

One solution is to remove extraneous tasks to free space for lecturers’ primary roles.

The anthropologist David Graeber was baffled by the ever-increasing administrative demands on university academics.

Admin filled their mental bandwidths, so instead of exceptional teaching, learning and research, universities got reams of mediocre admin, with burned-out, disillusioned, academics.

This highlights an important point. While facilitating staff bandwidth carries benefits, failing to do so carries considerable costs.

If staff are living with their bandwidth in the red most of the time, burnout is never far away.

Reflection time is also recovery time, and freeing up bandwidth is a pressure release for a busy brain.

Since it can take months to recover from burnout, it makes financial sense for institutions to do all they can to keep staff from reaching this dangerous mental state.

It’s hard to create a culture in colleges that let minds recover some of the bandwidth burned up by increasingly busy lives.

But achieving it makes for happier, more effective staff; for teams brimming with innovative solutions to drive the organisation forward; and students who have the drive and capacity to achieve excellence in their learning journey.

And it makes for a better pot of coffee in the morning.