Me: Hey Son, what do you think about the claim that teachers make 3000 non-trivial decisions a day?
Son: Well, they make a lot, maybe 100, but you’ve got to be realistic.
And realistic is exactly what everyone (and it is nearly everyone) making the 3000 non-trivial decisions a day claim is not being, particularly when they add the authentic sounding modifier, “non-trivial.”
I first heard the statistic from a senior colleague in one of my first years teaching. I didn’t ask him where the it came from, and since I’ve grown skeptical, I have never found any original work to support the claim. It would be nice to find even one article, with data, documenting actual researchers sitting in the back of classes clicking those little counting things every time a teacher made whatever had been predetermined to be a non-trivial decision.
But tracking down original work on the 3000 decision claim is like trying to find which of my wife’s relatives really did see a ghost. She said it was her uncle. But he said it was his sister. But she said it was her nephew. But he said he thought it had been his sister, my wife.
With the decision data it’s gone something like this – Stories from School Blogger Angela Buzanand said it was Marge Scherer in (2003). But Marge Scherer said it was Charlotte Danielson in (1996). But it seems like Charlotte Danielson was quoting Arthur Costa from a decade earlier. Maybe Costa would say he heard it from my wife. (If I were she, I’d blame the ghost.)
Looking separately at the two parts to the claim – the number of decisions and that they are non-trivial – reveals its absurdity. Three thousand decisions in an eight hour day works out to about one every 6.25 seconds. Of course, that’s if all you do is make decisions, every second of every minute of every day. You have to make them a lot faster to make up for time doing anything else. (Do you think deciding how long to heat up my burrito counts as a non-trivial decision?)
So, you start the clock at 8:00:00.00 am. You’re immediately hit with a dilemma. You weigh your options in light of your goals and needs. You make a decision (make sure it’s non-trivial), observe its impact, and reflect. Stop the clock. It’s 8:00:06.25 am. Now, repeat that 2999 times before 4:00 pm and call it a day.
Real non-trivial decisions impact their subjects meaningfully for a significant period. A bad non-trivial decisions carries a high cost. By those standards I’d say I make, maybe, 100 per year. But that’s far short of my kid’s 18,000 per year estimate and barely 0.018% of the 540,000 yearly non-trivial decisions that Scherer, Danielson, Costa, and the ghost estimate that I make.
Moreover, most of the non-trivial decisions I make aren’t made during class but come from deliberate consideration long before they are executed.
Certainly, in the flow of the day, I am constantly bobbing and weaving, tweaking and mending. But most bobs could be weaves and most tweaks could be mends without damaging too many folks for too long, and that makes them trivial. (At least individually, the cumulative effect of all the bobs, weaves, etc. throughout the year is by no means trivial. It determines to a large part how much my students learn and how much better a teacher I become. But that’s rarely emphasized.)
As push back against an iconic conceit of teachers, this is a fun academic exercise. But I think the claim damages the public perception of teachers. First, any outsider hearing the claim can run the numbers for themselves and come away judging us cynically, “Really, Teacher, 3,000 non-trivial decisions a day? Name ‘em.” Worse, the claim illustrates nothing about the real decision-making expertise that is the hallmark of accomplished teaching.
Instead of talking about the number of decisions we make, a better choice would be this proposal from myarticle on teaching clichés* last September:
Accomplished teachers possess an intricate and unique skill set for decision-making. We make innumerable decisions on a broad range of time scales that impact a broad spectrum of issues and people.
*The other two clichés from the Edweek article are that spending years in school doesn’t qualify the public to know anything about teaching and that we really don’t get summers off.
Interesting essay samples and examples on: