When Best Practices Become Too Much Of A Good Thing

Photo Credit
Much of my inspiration is drawn from conversations held with other educators.  It seems that talking with other teachers, along with writing, helps me organize my many thoughts concerning education.

This discussion starts as many others: a quote from a meeting during a conference dedicated to sharing unique classroom best practices.

(I shared how writing proves to be not only therapeutic, but also as a development tool to improve professionally)

My colleague began:

"So there is this book by Daniel Pink, its called Drive.  In it he describes the necessary factors to encourage and promote productivity.  One of the factors is autonomy.  When given freedom, employees and subordinates are more productive.  Just look at GOOGLE!" 

(Drive is a resource worth your time)

He continued:

"So I've reflected on how this autonomy idea can be incorporated into my classroom, and from the start of school, I've given more freedom to my students.  I give them a list of activities for each topic and they choose which activities to do and when to do them.  I let them choose their cooperative groups and their homework.  I even let them choose when their work is due."

"Really, wow.  That seems exciting.  I'm assuming it is going well if you're sharing it?"  my supervisor probed. 

"Well, no.  My classroom is an absolute train-wreck" the educator replied in a somber voice.

"It seems that too much of a good thing can be bad..."

This article is about finding the balance between using a best practice and using it too much.

The phrase "too much of a good thing" hit me like a 2x4 across the forehead.  I had heard it in two places: from my grandmother growing up:

"You don't want to eat all of your Halloween candy now, that's too much of a good thing and you wont like it!"  I of course didn't listen and got sick... terribly sick,

and a recent interview with Malcom Gladwell concerning his book David and Golaith.  Adam Grant, the interviewer, referring to a study he authored said: "Everything we thought might be valuable-whether it is practice or generosity or pretty much any virtue- if you had too much of it, it turned negative"

Did my colleague's plan to give his students autonomous flexibility fail because he gave them freedom in every domain of his classroom?

I think, yes.  Adam Grant and Barry Schwartz agree with me and they call it the inverted U effect.

Photo Credit

Grant and Schwartz authored a very readable paper called Too Much of a Good Thing: Challenge and Opportunity of the Inverted U.

Though it does not specifically address autonomy in the classroom, it's implications are far reaching.

They state :

"All positive traits, states, and experiences have costs  that at high levels may begin to outweigh their benefits, creating the nonmonotonicity of an inverted U."

In other words: too much of a good thing can be bad.

There appears to be a point of diminishing return.  As you continue to be more of the good thing, the positive consequences begin to diminish and eventually the behavior (state of mind, disposition) becomes a hindrance and flaw.

Ray Dalio, CEO of Bridgewater Associates, agrees.

From Dalio:

"It is natural that it should be this way—i.e., that our lives are not satisfied by obtaining our goals rather than by striving for them—because of the law of diminishing returns.  For example, suppose making a lot of money is your goal and suppose you make enough so that making more has no marginal utility. Then it would be foolish to continue to have making money be your goal. People who acquire things beyond their usefulness not only will derive little or no marginal gains from these acquisitions, but they also will experience negative consequences, as with any form of gluttony. So, because of the law of diminishing returns, it is only natural that seeking something new, or seeking new depths of something old, is required to bring us satisfaction."

Dalio further argues that the action itself should be the motivation for the doing the activity- always a pragmatic perspective for educators.

The solution is to find the productive mean between too much and too little of the good thing.  Just like anything that has an optimum functioning level, this requires trial and error.  All or nothing is not a practice that works.

My colleague enthusiastically, and naively, thought that implementing his new found "good thing" in every facet of his classroom would have significant positive effects.  He was ignorant of the fact that too much of a good thing results in diminishing returns and eventual apathy.

His students were apathetic because they had been given too much autonomy.

The take away point is this: best practices are just like anything else in life: effective when used in moderation.

Sit down and make a list of what you do in your classroom that works.  Now consider how often you implement those practices.  I'm willing to bet that their use is spaced and sporadic.  I'd also be willing to bet that the reason your list of best practices works is because you don't use them all the time.

If you'd like to adopt a new practice within your classroom, start small and gradually increase the frequency of use.  Pay close attention to the behavior of your students; they'll "tell" you when diminishing returns begin to creep up.  When they do, scale back a bit and continue to tweak the good practice implemented.

Do you have any all or nothing implementation stories?  If so, share them with The Pragmatic TV Teacher!

Thanks for reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment