“Whatever it Takes” I’m not sure…

This post was born out of a conversation I had with teachers a few weeks ago. I was sitting in a computer lab with about a dozen top-notch educators who had either been using Discovery Education’s Science Techbook or were just being introduced to it. After exploring it for an hour or so and having lots of dialogue one teacher said something to the effect of, “I don’t see why any teacher wouldn’t use this. It’s got everything you need, aligned to the new curriculum. Not only is it an amazing resource, but it’s also a real time saver.” To which another teacher replied. “It is a time saver but in order to get there, you likely need a couple of days of PD or just time.”

I suddenly had an image in my cost benefit analysis scale.

It occured to me that this is essentially what humans are doing constantly as they explore and entertain new ideas. Is that cost worth the benefit? Also, what is the cost and what is the benefit? Whether it’s software or a new initiative or policy, professional learning or teaching strategy, this is what we all do intuitively. Most often in education and likely any organization, new ideas begin with the benefits. After all, why even explore something if we don’t see or think there may be benefits. Many times innovative ideas are the most challenging because the benefits are largely perceived and speculated rather than proven. In addition, the process of exploring new ideas has benefits even if it’s not as successful as we might have hoped. The other challenge is cost. While implemented a new app or strategy might appear to have zero cost but that’s false. The time and energy devoted have a real cost and must be considered.

There are many things that are introduced and expected of teachers that are not innovative and yet the costs and even the benefits are somewhat nebulous. What’s the cost of adding 3 students to a class? What are the benefits and who benefits? Difficult to measure no doubt.

The reason I’m writing this however is to address a common mantra from many education pundits and leaders. “Whatever it takes”. This line conjures up images of athlete sweating profusely or playing through an injury to win. Win at all costs. This idea assumes that you should have no regard for yourself and sacrifice everything. After watching a few documentaries on brain injuries from football and hockey, I can tell you many who regret the “whatever it takes” sentiment.

While I don’t think teachers are facing CTE, I do think that teachers and leaders need to be more aware of the cost/benefit ratio. I’ve often heard it said that “if it’s good for kids then we should do it” On paper that sounds good and right but again it ignores the fact that some ideas are very costly. For example, let’s say a school recognizes that students could use more attention and care outside of class. So it would be good for kids to have after-school programs. It might be good if the same teachers who teach them all day could spend an hour after school with them in a less structured format. They would strengthen their relationships and potentially help students flourish more. But there are human costs. Whatever it takes?

Providing students with access to the best technology, furniture, musical equipment, having class sizes of 15 are all good for kids. But there are financial costs. Whatever it takes?

You might be saying “that’s not whatever it takes means” But that statement does not acknowledge the costs and benefits. Lots of things are good for kids but that doesn’t mean we should enact them. One problem we have is if a teacher suggests they may not want to devote extra time to learn something or do something directly for a student, they are labelled or thought of as selfish, uncaring or resistant to change.

Speaking out against something that seems inherently good for kids is taboo. But sometimes that argument is valid either because of the financial or emotional cost and sometimes because the benefit is relatively small. The “Whatever it takes” message suggests it’s about valour when I might suggest it’s a bit hyperbolic. Not only is this statement used to prop someone up as if to tell everyone how much they care about children but it also assumes that perhaps others don’t. Whatever it takes might be a belief my wife and I hold for our own children but we don’t need to remind ourselves of this or hear a motivational speaker tell us we should care them. I’m not sure teachers do either. I never held the same depth of care and love for my students and I don’t think we should. Yes, we have many students who don’t have that kind of love but we still can’t extend the same love for our students as we do for our own. That’s not an uncaring statement, it’s just the truth. Managing our time and energy is critical for long term success of ourselves AND our students. It’s possible to be PRO-teacher and PRO-student. It’s not a zero sum game.

I’m not usually one for data but I think weighing the cost/benefit of anything we do is natural and perhaps we just need to better articulate and examine those costs and benefits. Maybe we need to hear from teachers as I visited with who had some clear sense of the benefits but also recognized the costs. “Whatever it takes” seems to imply unlimited resources. If you’re the one suggesting “whatever it takes” be clear in what the benefits are and acknowledge and listen to those that may see and have to bear the costs that you don’t see. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care about kids, often they’re just trying to take care of themselves.