As many of you know, I like to read widely as I feel that there are lessons to be learned about education from books that are not specifically education books. I have a whole shelf of books in my office that is devoted to leadership, economics, and behavioral sciences. Related to that, I also listen to a wide variety of podcasts because again, there are lessons about education from non-educational podcasts. One of the podcasts that I love is called Freakonomics. It came about after Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote a book by the same name. The gist of Freakonomics is that there is a hidden side to everything and that when you view things from an economist’s standpoint, you may be able to better understand why things happen the way that they do.
In a recent episode (which you can find here), Dubner had the behavioral scientist Richard Thaler on the show. Thaler is the author of the book Nudge, and after listening to this interview, I added it to my Goodreads list! In the recently updated version of the book, there’s a three-word quote from Barack Obama. “Better is good,” he said.
Here in education, sometimes I feel like we have conversations around what’s happening, and we’re looking for the silver bullet. The thing that will suddenly make everything better. A couple of examples come to mind:
When we are talking about our school improvement plan, and we have set goals that feel too broad, we come to the realization that it’s not possible to meet all the steps that we want to take in the time frame that is available. We need to narrow our focus a little. But invariably, that means picking something that we all know is important and cutting it out of the plan, knowing that we can’t do all the things at one time. But how do you decide? Depending on who is involved in the conversation, there may be people with different “sacred cows” that they are not willing to let go of. So ultimately, nobody wants to be the one who says we must cut this one thing. But we end up having to make some difficult decisions because in the end it is not possible to do it all!
Another time that we want to have the perfect solution is when we’re dealing with student behaviors. There are times where we might bring together a team of people to come up with the best solutions. A student might be acting out, or putting hands on other students, and ultimately not appropriately participating in learning opportunities. It’s tempting to think about what we are going to do to be able to get that child to actively participate in the classroom. But the reality is that we cannot address that issue until we take time to address the underlying behavior of acting out. We must set a priority for a student, and attack the first issue with all our energy, then once that is under control, we can move on to the next biggest problem. Sometimes we’re tempted to build a behavior plan that tries to get at all the issues. In my experience, those big plans do not work because we are never able to devote enough time to any one thing, which means that nothing gets better. We must pick one thing to be the focus for right now. When it’s better, then we can pick the next focus.
Hopefully, these examples can serve as a reminder that there is no silver bullet (perfect solutions), but maybe there are lots of bronze BBs (better options).
Voltaire is credited with having said:
This aphorism is one that’s often hard for educators. Think about it, most of us have known we wanted to be teachers ever since we were little. Many of us were probably that teacher’s pet, doing all the things that a teacher asked, and then some. We probably played school, and you better believe we had the PERFECT classroom! Not only did our students (maybe our stuffed animals at home, or our friends at daycare) behave perfectly, but our classroom was decorated to perfection!
But the truth is, perfection is an unattainable goal! Think about that for a second. One of the things I have learned is that every time I say to myself “It will be perfect after this one more thing,” then I find something else I could do that would make that version perfect. The finish line for perfect just keeps moving farther down the road!
So back to that quote “Better is good.” Sometimes we might be having a conversation about some issue that we can’t completely solve, but we have an idea that might make things better. What we must be willing to say to ourselves is “Well, better is good.” We can talk until we’re blue in the face to come up with the perfect solution, and maybe never actually get there. In that case, we should do what we can to make a small change here, or a small change there, because better is good.
Can you ever think of an experience you’ve had where you had to take incremental steps to make things better a little bit at a time? Share your comments below!