When good enough is good enough

When good enough is good enough

When it comes to preparing lessons, most teachers are perfectionists. Just one more tweak here, just one more activity there. In fact, I have a theory that computers have made teachers’ lives worse in this respect: when you were handwriting or typing all your resources, there was a limit to how many tweaks you were prepared to make. When adding a word at the bottom of a typed page meant retyping five pages, you soon learnt to say “this is good enough”.

There is also a matter of diminishing returns: if you keep tweaking and tweaking, there must come a point where the costs (mental effort, time away from the family, physical tiredness) outweigh the benefits.

Economists have a formal name for this: diminishing marginal returns. The word “marginal” refers to the extra bit. For example, working for an extra five minutes on top of the two hours you have already spent on lesson preparation makes that five minutes the marginal cost. The extra lesson preparation that results from that five minutes is known as the marginal benefit. Now, this is difficult if not impossible to quantify, but making the extra effort (marginal cost) is only worthwhile so long as it is outweighed by the improvements in the quality of the lesson plan. If that isn’t the case, then you are wasting your time.

There is an important point to make here, which is that you could, of course, go on working on your lesson plan to bring it closer and closer to perfection. Unfortunately, this will come at the cost of something else: your planning for other lessons, perhaps, or your assessment work, or your sleep.

So what one must do is make a conscious decision that this piece of work — whatever it happens to be — is good enough.

If this goes against the grain for you, then think of it in terms of computer programming. If you create a computer program, you will try to make it as good as possible. But unless you have too much time on your hands, you are unlikely to test it against every possible contingency. You will be much more likely to tweak it as issues present themselves. The alternative would be to spend so much time on the program that not only will other things suffer, but even the people who might benefit from the program will suffer by not having it!

The concept of “good enough” can and should be applied in other spheres too, such as when assessing students’ work. If a student writes an app, rather than judge it against some council of perfection in terms of how efficient the code is, judge it according to whether it is good enough for all practical purposes. Ihave never really been convinced by purists who insist on writing code in a particular way because it shaves three nanoseconds off the running time. Unless you’re writing a program that will be used by the military or in a vehicle of some description, who cares? I came across a great quote, in a book of statistics I studied at university (it was a long time ago, so don’t ask me to remember the author!): a difference is only a difference if it makes a difference. Exactly!

The “good enough” approach flies in the face of conventional wisdom. We are brought up to believe in that old saying: If a job is worth doing then it’s worth doing properly. If only that were always feasible.

About Terry Freedman

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT and Computing consultant in England. He publishes the ICT in Education website at www.ictineducation.org.