The any-benefit approach to decision-making says that if anything good can possibly come of a new strategy or lesson or unit or initiative, then it's worth using (Newport, Deep Work, p. 186). Unfortunately, this is often the approach we take to deciding whether The New Thing We Learned is worth giving a go — in our schools, in our classrooms, in our lives. It makes saying “yes” very easy — to the latest grading scheme, the most recent We'll Help You Collect and Analyze Data! vendor, or even the incessant checking of email/Twitter/news sites — and it makes time- and resource-scarcity inevitable.
Instead of the any-benefit approach, which leads us to smilingly sign-up for decisions we really can't afford, the cost-benefit approach helps us ask the right questions.
- There could be many benefits in switching to standards-based grading (or no grades at all), but the costs — in confusion, in PD, in labor hours — are steep. Is the switch really the best way to spend those costs toward the long-term flourishing of your kids and community? Is a new grading system really your next step? (Not long ago, I shared my beliefs on grading systems.)
- There could be many benefits to purchasing that new data collection/warehousing/disaggregating system, and I understand that the different charts it makes are interesting. But is the cost — in dollars, in labor hours, in maintenance, in glaciating your ability to improve or replace tests as needed — worth those benefits? Are there simpler ways we could be using data to inform our practices? Is it possible that a tool that requires twenty hours of training to learn how to use it is too complicated to be practical at the all-staff level it needs to be?
- When we check Twitter or email or the news, it's true that we might learn or receive something useful or important. But is it possible that, by checking it twenty times a day, we're training our brains to avoid focusing? Are we inhibiting our ability to do the kind of deep, focused work that is most likely to produce the literacy- and knowledge-rich curricula our students need across the school day?
The first step to making wiser decisions is to see the paths we take to unwise ones. Many times, those paths are marked with any-benefit judgments. Where any-benefit decision-making reigns, balance and focus cannot be maintained.