Every teacher comes to a juncture, usually in the first or second year of their career, where they become painfully aware of the gaping chasm between All The Things they planned to do as a teacher and their very present, very real, very frustratingly imperfect daily practice. This is a critical moment because, from here, the teacher can either get bitter and complainy, or get serious and settle in for the long haul. And a key piece in that puzzle is whether the teacher is aware of the important need to satisfice in a job as complex as ours.
What is satisficing?
From Daniel Levitin's The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:
Satisficing [is] a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the fields of organization theory and information processing. Simon wanted a word to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. For things that don't matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient. You don't really know if your dry cleaner is the best — you only know that they're good enough. And that's what helps you get by. You don't have time to sample all the dry cleaners within a twenty-four-block radius of your home. … Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don't waste time on decisions that don't matter, or more accurately, when we don't waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction.
How does satisficing apply to teaching?
The tricky thing about teaching is that, of the thousands of decisions we make every day, some may literally be matters of life and death, quite a few are matters of long-term flourishing, but an incredible amount just aren't mind-shatteringly important. (See Figure 1.)
Steps to Follow to Increase the Odds that You'll Satisfice the Right Stuff
Step 1. Make sure you're clear on your top level goals.
Step 2. Run decisions through the filter of your top level goals. How close is that decision to the top-level goal? The stuff that's closest to the top level goal gets your best effort and your first chunk of non-instructional time.
Step 3. The stuff that's furthest away from the top-level goal gets satisficed. Don't ignore that stuff! After all, it's very difficult to keep your teaching job if you decide to forever ignore grading or emails completely or the neatness of your classroom. Instead of ignoring it, we satisfice the heck out of these things, doing them as quickly as we can (e.g., grading articles of the week, reducing or managing our inboxes).
I love satisficing. I had no idea that I was doing this but it is glaringly evident that 90% of my whole life is satisficed. This is sad. I am happy to say that the top-level items are being attended to, but not nearly as adequately as they could be if 50% of that 90% were just removed or delegated. I walked into a school year already well under way after the original teacher left 2 weeks into the new school year and a reliable but not kid-friendly substitute had been managing the class for 6+weeks. As a first year full time teacher, I jumped in and did my job, kept the flow, and was all in with the curriculum and classroom personalities. MISTAKES! I am still struggling with classroom management because I did not properly transfer my top-level goal of a respectful classroom to my students. Don’t get me wrong, my kids are completely amazing and I only have one student out of 98 that I have to ignore the goofy and disrespectful things she does. (I just can’t bring myself to write up a referral for making rat faces at me. She is alienating herself from her peers by doing so and her stressors are few but debilitating.)
Because of this article, I have a beautiful new word for my vocabulary, the ability to prioritize and define how and what becomes top level and figure out how to satisfice the things that need satisficing. Thanks!
Brooke, I am so glad to hear this my friend 🙂 That is what I LOVE about this concept — that it exists, and that it gives us a word to hold in our head and hearts as a goal and a way of life!
Sherri Wilcox says
Dave, I just learned this word after watching the replay of the webinar from last week on “We’ve Gone Remote: Ten (Or So) More Things That Are Helping Right Now.” Finally got around to following up on your suggestion and rereading this article (because I read all your articles. But this one needed this context we’re in now to really sink in). I know it’s been 18 months since Brooke left the comment in this thread, but I want to comment that rather than being sad that so much of our life is satisficed, I find it to be very freeing to know that its OK to satisfice a LOT of what we do. Not everything needs full, careful attention (probably not MOST things). Good enough is good enough for so many things. I’m a teacher with 32 years experience, and I have learned to prioritize, but I really like thinking about it this way. There is no need to fret over deeming a lot of things satisficeable. We teachers tend to want to give every aspect of what we do our all. We want it to all be done very well. But in reality, it doesn’t need to all be done very well. Filtering everything through the top level goals is key! Nice word to add to our teacher vocabulary.
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Sherri, I’m so glad it clicked this way. My experience w/ the word was the same — it took a few exposures before I was like, “Oh…. Wow, that’s really helpful word.”