Opportunity knocks: the hidden cost of bad ideas

Remember that Time is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho’ he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or Idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides.

Benjamin Franklin

There are those that would have it that opportunity cost is a concept so complex as to be impenetrable to anyone other than highly trained economists. Opportunity cost, the idea that making a choice precludes another option being chosen, is a threshold concept. It’s hard to get your head around all the implications but once you do, it changes you. You can never think about choice in quite the same way ever again.

Here it is in a nutshell: The opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the best alternative foregone, where a choice needs to be made between several mutually exclusive alternatives given limited resources. What this means is that if you have two choices – go out for a drink (A) or stay home and mark students’ books (B) –  the opportunity cost of going for a drink, is the time and money you spent on going out plus the value of having stayed home and marked. A traditional cost/benefit analysis doesn’t give you the true picture. The true cost (C) of a decision is A-B=C.

When calculating the desirability of a course of action, how often do we take into account the value of the value of the best alternative? For every decision, there is an explicit and an implicit cost. The explicit costs are obvious ones: the money, time, staffing expended in making the project a success. The implicit costs are the hidden costs represented by the failure to allocate precious resources elsewhere.

So our simple equation, A-B=C can be better expressed as True cost = Explicit value – Cost of chosen option – Implicit value of foregone alternative. But how is this calculated? To return to our example, going out for a drink on a Tuesday night might result in accruing units of enjoyment. From this, we have to subtract the cash we’ve spent on drinks and the enjoyment of ploughing through a pile of marking. Maybe some of you enjoy a few hours of marking, but for most of us, the night out is a winner in terms of raw enjoyment units. But, hang on, what happens on Wednesday? You’re hung over and you’ve not even looked at those increasingly dog-eared exercise books! Tuesday evening might have been fun, but Wednesday is a bummer!

The most precious of our resources is time. Time is always finite. You can only spend it once and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Now you might very want to argue that going out for a drink is time well spent, but opportunity cost really comes into its own when considering the time we spend working. The cost of every decision we make in school is Explicit value – Implicit value.

That’s the value of marking books? On the plus side we add the sense of virtue felt on clearing the backlog, the gold stars we might earn from management and the positive impact on our students. To the deficit column, we must add the potential benefits of doing something, anything, else. You could have been planning, phoning parents, doing admin, playing tennis, seeing your own children, or having that night out with friends. The point is, time spent doing x is time you cannot also spend doing y. Unlike money, time can never be earned back. Once time is gone, it’s gone forever. Let’s say that marking a set of Year 8 books, which you find soul destroying, has the arbitrary value 50 in terms of student achievement (whatever that might mean). Then let’s say that planning a really fascinating lesson has a value of 40 and getting an early night has a value of 10. That would mean that the opportunity cost of marking minus the foregone advantage of planning and sleeping long was neutral. Worth it?

Another example where we would do well to consider opportunity cost is curriculum planning. Because time is finite we can’t study everything. This means you have to make a choice. You might have a stock cupboard full of Robert Swindells’ novel Stone Cold, but the opportunity cost here is the value of studying Stone Cold minus the value of studying all the other novels you could possibly choose. Now, you might really like Swindells, but is he a better writer than Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen or Chesterton? And even more important, whatever the value in terms of enjoyment of reading Stone Cold (I’d say it was nugatory, but I’m biased) what’s is the cultural capital of Swindells’ teen page turner? To what extent is it going to help build students’ vocabulary? What will it teach them about history, society and human nature? Is it really the best choice? Or just the easiest? Maybe you can justify Stone Cold. Maybe you’d be happy for your own children to spend precious curriculum time reading something of little intrinsic worth. The cost here seems to be engagement (Although again, I’d want to argue that while teen fiction might be more accessible, it isn’t as much fun as getting to grips with something of depth and richness like Armitage’s rip-roaring version of The Odyssey or Heaney’s majestic ranslation of Beowulf.) minus cultural capital. Whilst every book maybe worth reading, curriculum time is too scarce to waste studying works of little depth or relevance beyond their own shallow milieu.

The cost of Learning Styles is not just the sunk cost of time and resources spent on VAK questionnaires, it’s all the time and thought you could have invested in something better. And, maybe most crucially, the cost of doing a ‘bit of both‘ with regards to enriching students’ knowledge of the world or trying to teach them transferable skills is that you will do neither as well as you might if you expended all you time and energy on the one which actually made the most difference to students’ life chances.

And to return to marking – maybe you’re convinced it’s a great way to get students to achieve and you feel great for doing it. But here’s the kicker: who’s to say marking is worth more than planning? The real cost in terms of students’ achievement might be impossible to accurately calculate. As I point out here, giving students feedback might, in some cases, be detrimental. And even worse, as Jo Facer has argued, the cost of drudgery might be teacher burn out. What is the opportunity cost of teachers leaving the profession?

23 Responses to Opportunity knocks: the hidden cost of bad ideas

  1. Fantastic
    At some point I will have the courage to direct my managers to this site.
    Even within marking there is an opportunity cost. Time spent checking for presentation issues eg has the student written the date correctly ( oh yes there is only one correct format according to some) is time that could have been spent looking at the actual maths. Time spent looking up previous grades in order to fill in a sheet that will look good if ofsted ever happen to see it in books is time that could have been spent looking at the actual maths. Time spent using the right coloured pen is time … Well anyway you get the idea.

  2. Matthew Evans says:

    Utility is the concept you need to tie this together. Economists use this to describe any benefits received. Enjoyment is indeed a unit of benefit when going to the pub, but the benefit of staying in and marking may be the pride in doing one’s job well.

    However, it is not the utility for the teacher that concerns me. It is the utility for the learner as a result of how the teacher uses their time. Once a teacher determines how much time to spend working, we need them to make an informed and reasoned decision on how best to use this time. Most school policies on marking seem to ignore the concept of opportunity cost, as you suggest.

    Opportunity cost is indeed a threshold concept. We need to take more senior leaders, Ofsted and government over this threshold. As an economics teacher and headteacher I struggle to reconcile the ‘prevailing wisdom’ of my peers with what I instinctively understand to be a sensible policy. Threshold concepts are ‘troubling’ and challenge our world view.

    I’d like to extend the application of this, and other, economic concepts to the process of teaching and learning if you are ever interested in joining me. Another concept I believe has some mileage is ‘incentives’ which should form the basis of our methods for holding teachers to account. What do our current accountability methods incentivise teachers to do?

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks Matthew: I would be interested in joining you. Re incentives, I think we are perversely incentivised to do silly things in order to look good.

    • Tim K says:

      Agreed. Along with opportunity costs you are right to highlight utility.
      The theory of diminishing marginal utility is one I think is important. On a personal level that might be “is the 5th pint on a night out as satifying as the 2nd”
      In education is may be “is it better for children to be spend another hour on mastering a complex mathematical concept or learn some basic history and geography”

  3. The opportunity costs of implementing Learning styles. Brilliant.

    They have no basis in science, no meaningful history of positive outcomes, and no reason at all to think they are worth designing with/for.

    And, in my own day to day conversations about them, so often individuals tend to argue, or feel, that there is no damage, danger or cost in designing for them. It;s hard to generate the momentum in some individuals to get them over that hump. There’s no positive effect. But there’s no negative effect. There’s no harm. So I’ll keep on trucking.

    I’d had an awareness of this aspect of Learning Styles, of the wasted effort, creativity, time and resources, but no idea really on how to pithily encapsulate that. And this is it.


  4. […] When considering our expectations of ourselves, what is the cost of being outstanding versus the cost of being good enough? The price in education is calculated primarily in time and effort. Yes, of course, money is hugely important – especially if you haven’t much – but our time is strictly finite; we can only spend it once. This is the opportunity cost. […]

  5. […] With relatively few hours and with 30+ in a class, we must also be realistic. We can’t do everything we would like and love to do for developing reading in the very precious time that we have. [This is the essence of my opportunity cost argument.] […]

  6. Abena Bailey says:

    Hi David,

    Just so I can understand your message clearly, would you mind defining (or point me toward a previous post with explanations of) ‘life chances’ and ‘cultural capital’, if you have the time?

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  7. […] for asking pupils to read electronic texts and to publish their work online, there is always an opportunity cost; time spent on these kinds of stuff is time that cannot be spent on higher impact activities. As […]

  8. […] better use of resources than spend that time and money on something else. This is the principle of opportunity cost. What is the likely impact of the best foregone choice and how does that compare against the costs […]

  9. […] we make a choice, we preclude other options, which results in opportunity cost. Our natural tendency is to make the choices which feel easiest and which provoke the minimum of […]

  10. […] saddled with juggling the staple gun, acres of sugar paper and a roll of crinkly cardboard edging. Time spent gluing things to walls is time which cannot be spent on any other activity. There may be some teachers with nothing else to do, but most of us are expected to plan lessons, […]

  11. […] considering whether or not it is – whatever it is – actually broken, and we ignore opportunity costs because they’re hard to think about. Think about how hard it is to get teachers to mark less. […]

  12. […] Now, while you could do any of these things, the consequence will be that you have less time to  spend on actually teaching students content. It’s not that these sorts of plenary activities are bad, just that they come at a cost. […]

  13. […] there’s the opportunity cost. The time we have available to teach children is strictly finite. If you’re going to invest […]

  14. […] Where some children appear to struggle to be creative or solve problems the issue is in fact caused by a lack of biologically secondary knowledge. Contrary to Luckin’s assertions, regurgitating knowledge is not something that you can automate very easily. In order to ‘regurgitate’ knowledge you’ve first got to know it, and knowing abstractions is not nearly as effortless as many otherwise very smart people seem to believe. It takes a lot of time to teach children all the cultural knowledge they need to make sense of the modern world. So much time in fact that there’s precious little of it to spare for fripperies like contentless creativity or hollow collaboration. After all, curriculum time is strictly finite and there is always an opportunity cost to every decision we make about what to teach. […]

  15. […] there are some who dislike the use of the term opportunity cost being applied to education, there’s no getting away from the fact that whilst we may be able to […]

  16. […] Think carefully about what you choose to do; you can only do one thing at a time, and there is always an opportunity cost. […]

  17. […] Think carefully about what you choose to do; you can only do one thing at a time, and there is always an opportunity cost. […]

  18. […] on the transient and the trivial. What makes all of this so pressing is the economic concept of opportunity cost. Yes, if the time we had to lavish on children’s education was infinite then we could […]

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