The Art of Tidying


I just read a fascinating book titled “the life-changing magic of tidying up.”  It’s written by Marie Kondo, a Japanese woman whose central thesis about clutter and tidying is that if you do a little a day you’ll never make it.  Rather, you have to shock the system and experience the benefits of a new reality in order to maintain a long-term transformation.  It sounds a lot like Alan Bersin, former superintendent of San Diego, who famously claimed that if you don’t shake up the system within the first 6 months, you’ll simply be digested by it.

I often hear things like “change takes time,” and “iterate your way towards improvement.”  Sometimes I’m the one saying these things.  I’m a devotee of improvement science, and there is plenty of research suggesting that a rigorous diet of cycles of improvement will eventually get you where you need to be.  But my goodness, change comes slow that way.  Even when we recognize the need to make substantial changes, we’re simply not wired for it.  We keep buying when we know we can’t afford it.  We keep accumulating stuff when we know we won’t need it.  We keep eating when we know we should stop.  The psychology of this stuff is fascinating.

Now, I’m not suggesting miracle solutions.  This isn’t about silver bullets and snake oil.  When Kondo talks about completely tidying your house in one deliberate swoop, she suggests a 6 month process, not something that happens in a weekend.  Yet she also isn’t suggesting that you iterate your way there slowly.  She leaves little room for “let’s try a few things and see what works out.”  Rather, she advocates a deliberate, committed move from old to new practice.

And Kondo suggests an interesting corollary, which is that you can’t tidy things that don’t belong to you.  She even applies this rule to family members.  In short, trying to tidy on behalf of others will only undermine your ability to convince people who are not you of their dire need to tidy and simplify.  So, while transformation only comes when you shock the system, you can only shock your own system.

This part is hard.  In the realm of schools, I go into a lot of classrooms that are functioning smoothly.  Teachers are working hard.  But admittedly I am thinking to myself, “students could be so much more engaged.”  When I see this, I’m immediately filled with judgement, just like I might be when I walk into a messy house, or my own garage.   I want to help them tidy up, so to speak.

Perhaps this is all just paternalistic – believing that somehow there is a right way to keep a house, or an ideal bodyweight.  I’m certainly open to that critique.  Yet as an administrator dedicated to accelerating student learning, I feel compelled to take  action, especially when I know what truly powerful learning can look like in action.  When I read a book like Kondo’s, it breathes more urgency and hope into bolder plans and more aggressive reforms.  I certainly take to heart the idea that meaningful change has to start with me.   I just want to make sure it doesn’t end there.


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