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.

Are exams killing our planet? (Spoiler: Yes)

In this post (first written in 2014), I attempt to set out a long view for education reform. I realise that what follows is quite far removed from most of the current debate around education.

I initially intended on entering education not as a teacher, but as an academic. Back in 2004, I started arranging meetings with various teachers and academics to talk about my ideas. Initially, my intention was to carry out a hopelessly positivistic comparison of different approaches to education, in an effort to amass enough evidence as to ‘prove’ once and for all ‘what works’. (Hence my aversion to the ‘what works’ element in the current education debate – I oppose it with all the zeal of a recent convert.)

In one memorable meeting, a world-weary Anthropology Professor sighed and said “I’m not interested so much in mainstream versus alternative, or traditional versus progressive. What I’m interested in this: should schools focus on educating people to perform better than other people, or who work better with other people?”

Better than, or better with? This simple dichotomy hit me like a steam train. Does our education system inculcate an competitive, or a collaborative mindset? Which should it seek to nurture? Is this even a useful distinction, or are weighing scales a better analogy? And if so – where is the balance currently, and where ought it to be?

 

ind coll scale

Is competition itself winning? 

 

To explore these questions, it will be helpful to take a dual perspective: the big picture (which, I will argue, directs us toward a desired destination – let’s call it B), and the smaller picture (which describes where we are now – let’s call it A). How we might get from A to B is a question for some other time.

The big picture

There are no bigger pictures than the one below, taken by the Voyager 1 space probe on February 14th, 1990. Talk about a Valentines gift: in terms of shaping my educational philosophy, this photograph has been the intellectual love of my life.

PALE BLUE DOT

If you aren’t familiar with the picture, I would draw your attention to the tiny smudge of light in the middle right of the image. That tiny smudge of light – the ‘pale blue dot’, as it has come to be known – is the planet earth. It appears to be in a ray of light – “suspended in a sun beam”, as Carl Sagan put it; however, this is mere geometric happenstance, caused by sunlight glinting off the space probe.

Over the last 10 years or so, I have shown this picture to literally hundreds of schoolchildren, and we have often discussed it at length. However, in seeking to articulate what it can tell us about what it is to be human, it is not really possible to improve upon the words of Carl Sagan, the astronomer who persuaded NASA to take the photograph in the first place:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” *

This final sentence is where it’s at for me. These are the twin roots of my educational philosophy: I strongly believe we should seek to educate young people in ways that underscore our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish our fragile planet. In short – we should educate to be more steward, and less stupid.

The smaller picture

If I may take a moment to ‘state the bleedin’ obvious’, a cursory glance at your average news bulletin suggests that things aren’t panning out too well currently. Despite the uplifting trends pointed to recently by Pinker and Mack, the news in recent years has been almost unrelentingly horrific, marked internationally and at home by ever-increasing inequality, violent resource grabs, refugee crises and yet more trashing of the planet’s finite resources.

Now. I do not mean to suggest that the world’s education systems are directly to blame for the extremely unsatisfactory state of current affairs. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that education is on the side of the angels. However, perhaps herein lies the problem. Teachers often speak of education as having the power ‘to change lives’ – as in individual lives. But to what extent is education geared towards engineering a brighter collective future for our planet? One in which, we explicitly educate young people in the art of living together? Whenever I contemplate this, I find it difficult to escape the suspicion that if we had a different education system, the world might not be in quite such a mess.

Take exams. There is perhaps no clearer manifestation of a better than mindset than our annual exam frenzy. Every educational buzz phrase in living memory – raising standards, closing the gap, league tables, performance-related pay, target grades, growth mindset, value added, great teaching, what works – all these agendas are rooted in an unquestioned acceptance of exam results as the most suitable outcome (and measure) of education. But surely – surely – the outcomes that matter most are those we see in our news bulletins?

There are many problems with the examination system, and these have been well documented elsewhere. Personally, I take exception with their compulsory nature; but that’s for another time. For now, consider just one group of students, the ones we concern ourselves with the least: the winners. Those who succeed in our education system – those we see on the front pages on results day, leaping in the air clutching their transcripts – those who go on to study at our most esteemed Universities, and then on again to occupy the most powerful positions in our society. By definition, the people who assume positions of power and wealth in our society are there because they have performed better than ‘the competition’ in some way. Better at passing exams, better at hustling for money and power, better at climbing the greasy pole. These are the eloquent chancers of the bluffocracy, as the Spectator had it this week.

So when a politician describes their role to lobbyists as a ‘cab for hire‘… when the Prime Minister enthusiastically signs up to engage in another oil-soaked conflict, and declares it a humanitarian intervention… when bankers trash the economy with illegal and immoral financial practices, and then ramp up the scale of their already obscene bonuses rendered from gambling with other people’s money… and when head teachers and academy chain executives line their pockets with taxpayers’ money, at the expense of children’s education…  well, we really ought not to feign surprise. Given the nature of our education system, with its emphasis on rewarding competition, rather than collaboration – it could never have been any other way.

* Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech has spawned a thousand YouTube videos, lovingly edited by people who have been inspired by his words – return love letters, if you will. Here is a particularly good one, which was lovingly crafted over many hours by my good friend and a truly inspirational Science teacher, Paul Meredith.