Satisficing isn't my word. It's Nobel winner Herbert Simon's. It means, “Doing something at the good-enough level, not the optimal level.” Few skills are as critical to the well-lived teacher's life. Here's why.
On paper, teaching is an impossible job. So is administration. Doing education by the book in the twenty-first century is hopelessly Byzantine. It's like memorizing the fine print on your teaching contract or your renter's agreement or your car insurance. Sure, you can do that — but it'll take lots of time that could've been invested elsewhere. I'm thankful for the folks who do make it their job to get down into the nitty gritty. But for the classroom practitioner, that level of nitty gritty will drive you completely nuts.
So here's how to get good at satisficing ASAP.
Method 1: Use a stopwatch.
For any task that you need to do but you know doesn't need to be done optimally, get out your stopwatch app.
For repetitive bulk tasks (e.g., email, feedback, grading)
For tasks that require lots of repetition — e.g., responding to email, giving feedback on student work — click the “lap” button on your stopwatch app each time you complete a single iteration.
So, if you're doing email, every time you respond to an email, click lap. This'll let you see how long it takes you on average to read and respond to an email, and most apps will highlight your quickest and slowest laps, too — a nice little visual cue to keep you sharp.
If you're doing feedback or grading, do the same thing.
But Dave, shouldn't feedback on student work always be optimized? Why are you satisficing that?
Great question — after all, feedback is among the greatest levers for helping students toward mastery. But for feedback to be its most effective, it also needs to be quick — like, I get the best results with student feedback when there's a one-day turnaround on it.
But in order to do it that quickly, it means I need to satisfice on quality — so, I use a stopwatch.
(For more on speedy feedback, check out “Fast Feedback is Effective Feedback: Here's How to Do Better.”)
Method 2: “What if I had to get this thing done in an hour?”
What about big tasks that I want to get better at doing quickly — things like planning a unit or reading a book or writing a weekly newsletter to student families?
For these, you set a timer — say, for an hour.
You're basically asking yourself, “If I had to get this thing done in an hour, what would that look like?”
So let's say you've got a faculty book study you're involved in, and the book is supposed to be finished in three days, and you've not even started yet, and you don't have six hours between now and then to sit down and read the thing. This is a perfect scenario for satisficing. You're going to:
- Accept the fact that you won't arrive having perfectly read every word of the book (if such a thing as perfectly reading a book even exists).
- Accept the fact that the book was designed by an intelligent author, and as such at least some of its core ideas ought to be available to a person willing to give it an earnest hour of inspectional reading.
- Find an hour — maybe with a foldable camp chair out in a patch of woods — and set a timer for one hour and seek to get as much as you can from the book in that hour. This'll naturally lead to you:
- Reading the introduction and conclusion chapters in full, and letting that guide you to specific chapters of interest to you;
- Getting a gist of each chapter;
- Annotating and marking the pages of a few excerpts that provoked your thinking.
After the hour, you'll have “read” the book inspectionally — very similar to what one might get out of listening to an audiobook while doing something with their hands.
That's the idea.
All right — time to practice
Want to see my psychic abilities? Here goes: you've got more on your to-do list this week than can possibly be done.
How did I do? Probably pretty good. I might as well have predicted that you're breathing right now.
So, this week: practice satisficing.
And have fun! Because
managing our time stewarding our lives as teachers and people can be fun, even though it's hard. It's all in how we approach it.
Best to you,