Teaching is an exhausting job.
If you’re a parent, you know how tiring it is with just one or two kids.
Imagine having a room full of them — Twenty to thirty children, each demanding your attention, each requiring your urgent help – every minute, every day, for hours at a time.
Back in the late 1980s, before education became totally absorbed by standardized testing and school privatization, we used to wonder about the effects of such need on a single individual.
We used to wonder how much was really being asked of our teachers.
Today no one outside of the classroom really gives it much thought. We think of educators as part of a vast machine that is required to give us and our children a service.
We’re stakeholders. They’re service providers. And the students are a national resource.
None of us are people.
Perhaps it’s this dehumanizing economic framework that’s helped the edtech industry and testing corporations make so much headway trying to replace educators with apps and iPads.
But back in the days before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind or Barrack Obama’s copycat Race to the Top, or Donald Trump’s blatant Destroy Public Education, we wondered about teacher psychology and how to best help our human workforce meet the needs of our human children.
That’s when researchers observed elementary school teachers and noted that, on average, they made at least 1,500 decisions a day.
That comes out to about 4 decisions a minute given six hours of class time.
In the decades since, this figure has come to be associated with elementary and secondary teachers. In fact, it’s become so ubiquitous that I wondered where it originated.
The first reference I can find to it comes from C.M. Clark & P.L. Peterson’s article “Teachers’ Thought Processes” published in the Handbook of Research on Teaching from 1986. (3rd ed., pp. 255–296). New York: macmillan.
Though subsequent studies came up with slightly different numbers, the basic argument holds.
Researchers Hilda Borko, Carol Livingston and Richard Shavelson mark the low end of the scale. In their 1990 article “Teachers’ Thinking About Instruction,” they summarize studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching or 42 judgements per hour, 252 a day.
On the upper end of the scale is Philip Jackson who wrote in his 1990 book “Life in Classrooms” that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 of these determination generating exchanges with students every hour (between 1,200-1,800 a day). Most of these are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teachers to make what they term shallower decisions or deeper judgments (p. 149).
So because teaching involves waiting for the right opportunities for learning, neither student nor teacher can say with confidence what exactly will happen next. It requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).
As a classroom teacher with more than 15 years of experience, none of this is surprising to me.
Just imagine the various tasks teachers are required to do every hour. We take attendance, review homework, help with seat-work, ask questions, etc. And that doesn’t even take into account all the times we’re unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected – upset students, administrative announcements over the PA, student questions, equipment breakdowns, etc. Each one of these requires us to make spontaneous, unplanned calls before the lesson can continue.
It just goes to show some of the various roles teachers are expected to fill in the lives of their students. They are expected to be information providers, disciplinarians, assess student learning, administrate school policies, facilitate student inquiry, act as role models and even be foster parents.
In any given lesson, we have to make decisions based on our plans AND decisions based on things that just happen to crop up unexpectedly – multiple times each day.
In fact, it seems to me that the research fails to account for innumerable situations that also require determination and deliberation as part of an educator’s everyday routine.
What about curriculum and instruction design? Grading? Written and verbal feedback to students? Reflection and revision of lesson plans?
When you think of all that, 1,500 decisions a day seems like a conservative estimate indeed.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about this is where it impacts teacher quality.
And when I say that, I don’t mean the basterdized modern meaning of that term – that teachers are responsible for maximizing student test scores on standardized assessments. I mean the quality of authentic instruction teachers are able to give their classes.
When we expect educators to turn on a dime more than a thousand times a day, doesn’t that impact the depth with which we can accomplish the job?
Busyteacher.org certainly thinks so. I’m not sure where the Website got its statistics, but they are sobering.
In a fascinating infographic, the site claims that multitasking leads to a 40% drop in productivity. It causes a 10% drop in IQ. It causes people to make 50% more mistakes than concentrating on one task at a time.
I don’t know if these statistics are accurate, but the general principle is sound. When we’re forced to “do more with less” we actually end up producing more with less quality.
Focusing on fewer things increases ones accuracy. Therefore, teachers who have to make fewer decisions in a day would probably be able to do their jobs more effectively.
And there are plenty of ways to accomplish this.
We could reduce class size. If educators can concentrate on the needs of fewer children, they would be more effectively able to meet those needs.
We could reduce the amount of time teachers have to be in the classroom in a given day. I’ve often thought teaching was analogous to being an actor up on the stage – but we’re also responsible for writing the script, operating the lighting, etc. And we have to interact with the audience many of whom would rather be elsewhere, and we have to do multiple shows each day.
In some countries, teachers spend a significant part of their days planning and grading and less in the classroom. They don’t have to do all that behind the scenes stuff on their own time without any additional pay.
In Finland, for example, teachers are paid 13% more than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average but spend 100 hours less in the classroom. And class size is between 9-14 students, the lowest in OECD countries. No wonder their children are near the top of the scale in international comparisons!
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we lived in a society that valued education and didn’t try to turn everything into economic quantities for corporations?
We could actually focus on the real phenomena of educating children and not have to fight warped education policies more concerned with turning it all into dollars and cents.
Perhaps teachers wouldn’t have to make so many thousands of decisions if our lawmakers could just make this one.
Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!