Should schools count the opportunity cost? (Spoiler: no)

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the TES last year. 

Image: Pixabay

There are many ways to win an education debate, but one method has recently emerged as being more effective than all others. It involves the use of two little words. In the last few years, Opportunity Cost (OC) has been used by various teacher-bloggers to argue against increased demands on workload; against the teaching of skills as something distinct from subject knowledge; against group work; against the use of technology in the classroom; against ‘making posters and trailers, doing enquiry circles and opinion positioning, carousel group work and fun games’; against questioning; against Lesson Study; against assessing Shakespeare through ‘speaking and listening, role-play and drama’; and against providing students with immediate feedback on their work.

Since opportunity cost is a relative term, alternative practices are often simultaneously presented as more worthwhile – e.g. a knowledge-based curriculum, or a canon of challenging historical texts. In addition, there have been a number of attempts to argue specifically for the applicability of OC to the education debate.

Put simply, the language of OC is used to suggest that whenever you choose one way of doing something, there is a potential ‘cost’ as you could be doing something else that is a more effective use of time/efficient use of resources. On the surface, the idea is appealing – we all want to maximise the effectiveness of what we do, and so it is understandable that this idea has been adopted by those seeking to advance their favoured methods. But the more closely one looks at what OC actually is, the more problematic its increasing use as the Royal Flush of education debate becomes. Indeed, it could actually be damaging. Here’s why.

OC defined

OC is a fundamental concept in the field in microeconomics, and is linked to the idea of scarcity. Scarcity is the problem that arises when the unlimited wants of a population (e.g. nice food, a big house, Ferraris for all) are restricted by limited resources (e.g. labour, capital, time). Consequently, decisions must be made to allocate the resources in the most efficient manner possible. In essence, scarcity gives rise to compromise: in order to make more use of one resource, you must cut back elsewhere.

At this level, it is easy to draw parallels with education. Of course everybody wants our schools to develop core knowledge and soft skills; to produce world-beating academics, artists and athletes; to foster self-esteem and reduce social inequality and generally bring about a more harmonious state of world affairs. But there are only so many hours in the day (scarcity), and we teachers play a small but significant role in deciding how we should spend this time (opportunity). We also know that some practices are more effective at achieving certain ends than others (the cost). 

So what’s the problem?

To help decide how best to allocate resources in the context of scarcity, an economist might carry out an OC analysis – a systematic method for weighing up the pros and cons of two alternative courses of action. Here, we find OC precisely defined as ‘the value of the next best alternative foregone’ (i.e. not chosen). As summarised on Wikipedia: “Assuming the best choice is made, it is the ‘cost’ incurred by not enjoying the benefit that would be had by taking the second best choice available.”

Let’s look at a classic example of an OC analysis as it relates to education – the decision faced by 6th form leavers whether to go to University, or enter the workforce straight away. If they choose option A (University), then the OC is the value of option B (their wages over 3 years) added to the tuition fees and any additional student debt incurred as a result of having chosen option A.

Even in economics however, it is recognised that OC can be measured in a number of ways, ranging from tangible things like time and money, to aspects of our lives that are more difficult to measure – fulfilment, learning, social life etc. From here we start to get into questions of how you measure cost – what you measure, what you don’t measure and why. And before you know it, what may at first have seemed a straightforward, hard-headed comparison between two alternative courses of action soon becomes a multidimensional meditation on what you value as most important.

Image: Pixabay

The overbearing guest at the education debate

Until recently, on the rare occasion that OC was mentioned in educational circles, it was used in purely economic terms – the OC of smaller class sizes, for example. Here, the financial consequences of smaller class sizes mean that an OC analysis is entirely appropriate.

Similarly, in the debate on teacher workload, where the hours teachers spend doing various activities can easily be totted up, the notion of OC is well-suited to the task. Whenever a minister or school leader announces “what everyone should start doing next”, it is entirely reasonable to reply: “and what would you like us to do less of”?

However, many of the contexts in which OC has been applied in recent months relate to curriculum and pedagogy, and I for one am concerned that OC has started to make itself a little too at home in the education debate. Here are four reasons for politely but firmly ejecting this intruder from our classrooms.

1. The impossibility of implementation

As teachers, most choices we make carry an OC, whether we are aware of it or not. In economics, it is referred to as “the value of the best alternative foregone”; on this, we can all agree. This is also true for decisions we have already taken. As such, to argue against introducing a new idea on the basis of OC is to suggest that your practice is either already more effective than what is being suggested – or that you have a better idea up your sleeve. And if OC is going to have any meaning at all, you’re going to need some way of establishing that fact.

Suppose you wanted to calculate the OC relating to some aspect of your practice. Let’s choose something simple – whether to meet and greet your pupils at the door, say, or spend that time getting resources ready. First, you would have to make a decision about how you wanted to measure the ‘cost’ of each alternative. And that would depend on range of factors. When did you last see the class? Do you have lots of material to cover before an upcoming exam? Are there students you know will benefit from a kind word as they enter the room? Is ‘meet and greet’ a whole-school expectation… and so on. Not only does the decision whether to meet and greet at the door carry an OC – so do each of the factors that contribute to that decision.

Self-evidently, each of these factors are dependent on context. But in the examples listed at the top of this article, context is notable by its absence; rather, OC is increasingly being used as a prima facie argument against entire educational practices, regardless of context. This seems to me to represent a kind of pedagogical extremism, since it is intolerant to contextual differences. I don’t think this is as worrying as some other forms of extremism, but to quote one blogger’s critique of the admittedly reductive TES promo version of this article, it does strike me as “a bit silly”.

The attempt to apply the logic of OC to educational contexts is also extremely impractical. Ted Wragg once estimated that teachers make more than 1,000 evaluative decisions on any given school day; others have placed the value upwards of 3,000. To attempt to carry out a systematic cost-benefit analysis for even a fraction of these decisions would be absurd. What’s more, there would be a serious OC associated with spending so much time carrying out OC analyses. You would disappear into a hole of your own making before you could say scarcity.

2. The OC of limiting your repertoire

Aware of my secondary bias, I asked a primary colleague what she makes of the OC argument against doing ‘fun’ things like drama and role-play. She replied “direct instruction is obviously the most efficient way to get something across, but it only seems to work for about 70% of the kids. Some of them just don’t engage when you teach from the front of the room. But if you try different things, you can draw them in. Like with Alfie the other week, we were doing a writing task about knights and castles and he just wasn’t engaging in it at all. And so I spent some time getting him to imagine people climbing up the school walls, throwing things through the windows, and him wanting to protect his friends and family from the attackers. It did the trick, and he produced some of the best writing I’ve seen him do. Fun and games aren’t needed by everyone, and so to make everything seem ‘exciting’ would waste time – then again, you know you’ve got the 70% in the bag anyway, and it’s nice for them too…”

This highlights another problem with the OC argument, which is that it assumes that education is a zero sum game comprised of mutually exclusive courses of action, whereby gains in one area are offset by deficits elsewhere. This is clearly not the case – it is possible to have win-win scenarios. And even where win-wins are not possible and hard choices must be made, the question arises: what kind of teacher is most likely to be able to cater for the diverse needs of all the students in their care – one who is able to draw upon a range of strategies in response to a range of contextual demands, or one who dismisses entire pedagogical approaches and pursues only utilitarian practices – the greatest good for the greatest number – in the name of OC?

Image: Pixabay

3. Ideological objections

As we have seen, when OC calculations are applied to educational settings they quickly become subsumed by the values that teachers place on different courses of action within the context of their professional lives. As such, any reference to the notion of ‘cost’ as shorthand for the objective ‘worth’ or ‘impact’ of an educational practice is hopelessly simplistic, as it masks a dizzying array of assumptions that quietly undermine any such attempts at definitive closure.

In the example above, what mattered most in that moment – Alfie’s use of alliterative adverbials in the knights and castles writing task, or his sense of feeling cared for? And how might you measure the “cost” of the teacher’s decision to give 5 minutes of her lesson to engaging Alfie,  against the gains that might have been made elsewhere had she spent that time attending to one of the other students in her class?

Would advocates of OC suggest that it all boils down to the class’s value-added score for literacy perhaps? I’m not saying this is not a worthy cause, but should such things really be the basis of all educational decision making? How does this sit with the following scenario, shared by Tom Sherrington recently:

My best ever GCSE results from a class came after a mad cramming dash to the finish in a reduced-time situation where every lesson featured past-paper questions.  Teaching to the test to the max. It worked. A*s galore. Physics take-up at A-level – not good. Did they enjoy it? No. Were they better at Physics? No.

Do advocates of OC factor such things as ‘A-level take-up’ into their calculations I wonder – or does “teach to the test to the max” serve as a succinct mantra for the OC mindset? My suspicion is that the use of the term as it is currently employed within the education debate does not run so deep as to support or resist either of these interpretations.

Aside from the exceptions of class size and workload, the way in which OC is increasingly employed as an argument for rejecting entire educational practices – many of which practices are backed by compelling evidence as to their academic utility, when used effectively – suggests that this use of the term is not so much a practical cost-benefit analysis of competing alternatives, as a manifestation of ideology and values, combined with a selective reading of the research literature.

4. The risk of stagnation

In universities, there are essentially two kinds of research: that which responds to what has gone before, and that which seeks to break new ground. Since the one thing almost everybody does agree on is that there is ‘room for improvement’ in our education system, it is important that teachers do not feel cowed into limiting their repertoire in the name of OC.

Take the history of aviation throughout the 20th century – from the comically catastrophic early attempts at manned flight to there being half a million people airborne at any point in time – to see the short-sightedness in using OC as a reason for sticking only to tried and tested methods.

It should go without saying that we as a profession should continue to innovate and take risks, where appropriate – as well as trying to make educational ideas work better where their forerunners may have fallen short of realising their potential. Because the alternative to innovation is stagnation: and who would argue for that?

Image: Flickr (CC)

The opportunity cost of opportunity cost

A study by researchers from Georgia State University revealed that most PhD-level economists don’t really understand OC. If this is true of economists, it is even more so true of teachers. While the language of OC may masquerade as objective evaluation, in reality it is a divisive rhetorical device which is used to apply a binary yes/no filter across a range of complex, nuanced contexts. The OC of disregarding potentially useful strategies in the name of OC is vast. Thus, the logic of OC itself suggests that educationalists should desist from further use of this simplistic and unhelpful term, forthwith.

In the spirit of OC, I would like to suggest a more helpful alternative. Thankfully, teachers do have a handy tool for navigating our way through the jungle of decisions we face with every day. It’s called professional judgment. An alternative word for this is phronesis, an Aristotelian term meaning something akin to ‘practical wisdom’. If seeking to dismiss vast swathes of pedagogical practice in the name of OC represents one end of a scale, phronesis is its pragmatic counterpoint. One-size-fits-all approaches to education leave the majority wearing ill-fitting clothes. So let’s dispense with the rhetoric of OC, and work on cultivating phronesis instead.

10 Comments

  1. Very clear piece, thanks.

    My own objection to the use of ‘opportunity cost’ is that it rather assumes children only learn when they are at school. How on earth do we measure the potential long term impact of helping children to love learning, or to love a subject, or to gain confidence in themselves? About 30 years ago, a wonderful teacher did that for me. Sadly she died very young, but the time I spent with her (brief as it was) has affected my entire life for the better.

  2. For me, what’s underlying this is a ‘common-sense’ assumption about utility. Once (as an educator) you decide exam grades are the most important objective of education (which you can in terms of social justice) then OC becomes a logical frame for judging the effectiveness of pedagogy and curriculum.

    1. Is strategy A a more effective and direct route to outcome X than strategy B – yes or no? If yes, use A and disregard B.
    2. Does disregarding B come at a cost – yes or no? If yes, does it outweigh the advantages of A in furtherance of X? If not, use A.

    This ‘logical’ formula gives a simple method for deciding on which strategies to use and which ones to disregard. We can play lip service to the ‘soft’ outcomes, while maintaining their subservience to outcome X.

    I’ve seen this tactic used recently in various ‘cuddly’ blogs about inclusion, while maintaining a focus on outcome X. It’s a sharp move because it avoids the accusation of being uncaring – “Of course we care, we care about how well students do at school – don’t you?” But, underlying it is a utilitarian objective that overrides other concerns when push comes to shove. Hence the ultimatum to parents – “If you don’t like the way we do things you can always move your child to a different school.” It’s a neat trick.

    It falls down in reality (as you argue eloquently) because in the real world children are far more complex than the utilitarian model allows, and using utility to make moral choices comes at great personal cost to individual human beings. This is something moral philosophers realised a hundred years ago, but seems to be taking longer for some in education. It’s a bit like the behaviourist ‘common sense’ assumptions that underpins much behaviour management.

  3. This is interesting. On one hand I think that OC is a reasonable short-hand for discussing how we spend our time. I think that CPD time fits an OC model; time spent in the hall listening to a crap visiting speaker chosen by the Deputy Head is time you’re not in your team sharing ideas and planning together. But, as ever, it can quickly become very black and white in relation to pedagogy. A couple of thoughts.

    1) The nutrition model. Our bodies need lots of trace elements; we only need them on a sufficiency basis normally obtained from a balanced diet. Vitamin supplements can give us way more of certain compounds than we can absorb; eating them to excess is unnecessary. In learning terms, I don’t think we understand enough about the limits of certain approaches; we may well benefit from Strategy A – but only up to a point beyond which the benefits don’t increase. Strategy B wouldn’t have an OC if we’ve exceeded the effectiveness limit of strategy A. Because we can’t know these things, a balanced diet of A and B may be more sensible.

    2). The optimum combination model. Imagine the effect of two strategies fits a model z = (X^2)Y. If, X+Y has a finite limit because of time, X is squared so we need to spend more time on it compared to Y – but, crucially, it would be a mistake to do all of X and none of Y. In fact, the optimum is 2/3 X, 1/3 Y (from calculus!). Again, we can’t know these things – and the variables involved are way way way more complicated. So – balance between competing strategies is likely to be more sensible than moving all the way from one to another, if each strategy has at least some benefit and are mutually reinforcing.

  4. Love this. Nails the misgivings I’ve always felt about pedagogical extremism. ‘Try this, it worked for me’ is helpful. ‘Stop doing that, it’s rubbish’ (in all contexts) is not.

  5. Reblogged this on Disappointed Idealist and commented:
    Interesting Blog which tackles a tendency in education towards a view that there is a “right” way to teach which should result in the abandonment of all the “wrong” ways of teaching.

    I’ve written before of my First law of Education : “Anyone who claims there is a universal “right” way of teaching is automatically wrong.” I’ll stand by that.

  6. OC tends to override all pedagogy in my recent years. When the end game is test scores, it all boils down to cost. Unfortunately, it costs many students (and teachers) their long-term interest in learning in deference to a number on a test.

  7. I agree that there is no single ‘right’ way to teach. However, in the example that you give, there is an assumption that the rest of the class were indeed fine and learning as well as they could. Or is it – as would be the case – that they were not obviously harmed by the inclusion of certain types of learning.

    As the person themselves said that 70% of the class learn from direct instruction. Therefore you are adapting teaching to the 30% who don’t. Is this to the detriment of the 70% – well it all depends on the skill of the teacher and how they use such methods.

    I speak as a traditionalist who has happily embraced the use of technology and would use a whole host of different methods if it suited however the key was always that the curriculum content and high level of challenge. For other teachers using drama is a way of getting out of teaching the ‘hard stuff’. So whereas I got the children to create a video about different types of greek government, there would instead be a fluffy piece about how Greeks lived or what they enjoyed eating (not that these don’t have their place but there is an overemphasis on these aspects which are repeated for every history unit.)

    I don’t think it is fair to label drama, art or music (or any other ‘creative’ subject) ‘progressive’ – I think those subjects were around for a long time. Equally the best in all those subjects are people who have learnt through direct instruction (even if they are instructing themselves), hard work and perseverance.

    Ultimately the problem that progressive methods have is quite possibly the teachers they are aligned to and you do have to ask why that is the case.

    Opportunity cost may not always be applicable however I would refute the notion that because an individual may not benefit that we must then do things a certain way. Playing the fiddle to a single child while Rome (the classroom) burns is too frequently a scenario I have come across. The ethics of putting 1 or 5 children’s needs above the other 25 is rarely touched upon by certain quarters because they don’t want to think about what they are really doing.

    Innovation is one thing but the fact that some adults in education seem to want to minimise the role of adults within teaching is something to be skeptical of. Should we always do things a certain way because we’ve always done them? No. Should we however sleep walk our way to a situation where we infantalise children for the benefit of adults who wish to see childhood stretch forever because of their own inability to grow up and take responsibility? No.

    It’s true that my view of progressive ideology is marred by my experiences but I ask again – does Alfie actually succeed in the long term? Where is the evidence for that? Where are the longitudinal studies of progressive methods? Why are they avoided/overlooked? Above all – you are right that teachers arguing over methods is not helpful but the reality is that I can’t see the pupils who have been taught in a more progressive way coming to its defence. As a pupil who has been given a traditional education I would like to speak to my equivalent – I may be more convinced in that situation that there is indeed a benefit in the long term to a child. Universities by the way are not upset because students come in without transferable skills, they are however besides themselves having to teach what used to be A-Level content instead of what they would have learnt.

    If it looks, smells and feels like dumbing down then it is indeed dumbing down.

  8. Really useful article James and one that clarifies and defines a phrase that I think too many people have been using wrongly and flippantly. I remember reading a couple of tweets once that accused a teacher who had used Star Wars to teach mythical narrative structures of opportunity cost “why not teach the Odyssey?” But if the teacher’s aim was to explore Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey, then Star Wars is the most perfect example as it was written to Campbell’s structure. It then becomes possible to apply the theory to a range of other examples. The young teachers shouting “opportunity cost” did not take the time to understand the teacher’s thinking, the possible learning gained, the interest of the children or anything other than his own belief that all children should learn the Odyssey. This short sighted and often arrogant stance is too frequently being taken in my opinion.

  9. “Really useful article James and one that clarifies and defines a phrase that I think too many people have been using wrongly and flippantly.”

    I agree with Debra that too many people have used the term wrongly and flippantly, however I think you have fallen into the same trap.

    You had a section headed “OC defined” but you then did not define OC.

    You refer to microeconomics where OC has a specific meaning but you then go on to completely ignore that meaning.

    My understanding is something along the lines of…..

    “Given mutually exclusive uses of resources, OC is the benefit foregone in not choosing the second best alternative”.

    I would avoid using the term opportunity cost in many of the examples you talk about as they are too woolly to come within the definition.

    I think cost benefit analysis would be a much better model/tool to use for most of the things you discuss here.

    Often there is no consensus of “the best” and “2nd best” options therefore OC for me is a waste of time.

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