Getting Realistic About the Number of Decisions We Make

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 Buzan quoted it and said it was Marge Scherer in Keeping Good Teachers (2003). But Marge Scherer said it was Charlotte Danielson in Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (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 my Edweek article 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.


Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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