Efficient vs. Effective Teaching

For years now, I’ve sought to understand the difference between two words often mentioned in the same breath: efficient and effective. Though I’m still working toward clarifying distinctions for practical application, I’ve at least come to conclude that the terms are hardly synonymous, and in an educational context, their differences can significantly alter not only the short-term experience of our students, but also their long-term personal development.

In a fast-paced, over-scheduled world, efficiency is key to getting the never-ending “to do” list a few tasks shorter by day’s end. I’m certain I don’t have to remind readers of this blog that a teacher’s life is busy! Apart from lesson prep and the actual teaching that happens in the classroom, there is so much more to do, only to end more often than not with long nights of grading. Thus, out of necessity, I have occasionally opted for efficiency in my teaching and assessment over effectiveness, but I regret it every time. Each semester I get to a point I lovingly call “the grind.” It is the equivalent of the third lap of a mile race. You have been running for a long time, and your legs are burning, but there is still a long way to go before the finish line. My students feel it too, and I watch this same phenomenon repeat each semester. We all begin fresh and eager, but ultimately start cutting corners to fit everything in. In short, we seek efficiency over effectiveness, success (or perhaps just sanity) in the moment over long-term growth. And so, the personal development of both students and instructors gets placed on the altar of each “I’m just trying to get by” day. Teaching and learning can easily become a mere checklist instead of the more noble pursuit we initially intend. And it doesn’t just happen in isolated, overwhelming moments either. The subtle preference for efficiency over effectiveness can creep into our patterns gradually over the years, leaving us repeating old ideas because “we already made lessons and don’t want to reinvent the wheel” or opting for assessments that are quickly scored instead of spending the extra time on focused feedback. Efficiency also creeps into larger educational systems, turning toward “one-size-fits-all” models that require students with beautifully diverse backgrounds, talents, and worldviews to be measured in the same way and produce the same things. Some will excel, especially if they happen to fit the prescribed mold or choose to forfeit their uniqueness in exchange for acceptance. Others will fail, not because they aren’t talented, but rather due to an inability or unwillingness to conform to generalized expectations within efficient programs. Indeed, efficiency can take many forms: standardized exams, globalized standards, streamlined curriculums, and the like. Don’t get me wrong, these approaches aren’t always bad, and a level of efficiency obviously has its place in our field. If you can find ways to organize your day to get more done, that’s fantastic! And joint standards can potentially lead to collaboration, unity, and motivation. I just hope that the grind—whatever that might look like at any given moment in the life of a teacher—doesn’t prompt us to cut the wrong corners to the detriment of student learning and their personal development as individuals.

Effective teaching is hard. Period. And it is often inefficient. In addition to expert planning, it also involves individualization, flexibility, and the very best of a teacher’s heart and mind. To me, it means seeing the infinite worth of each student, and allowing them to become who they are in their own way. And that’s not easy. Apart from knowing your subject matter expertly, you also have to truly know them, their personalities, their interests, their strengths and weaknesses, their fear and dreams, and most certainly their names. And then, there is that balancing act between the scaffolding that provides necessary structure and adaptability to best meet the needs of each student. Effective teaching rejects yellowed notes and recognizes that each school year is a new adventure because you are teaching humans and not just lessons. It can be scary to constantly reinvent yourself—as standing outside of your comfort zone becomes the norm—but that’s where the growth happens. Effective teaching in any one class session might even look awkward. Some of my colleagues, for example, have observed a single class period of one of my courses only to leave scratching their heads because it didn’t exactly look like established best practices. Sometimes effective teaching means throwing the traditional educational playbook (or set lesson plan) out the window for a time to explore new possibilities. It’s more about the entire journey, with a thousand twists and turns, than any one moment. Sometimes effective teaching even looks like a total failure from the snapshot view because it regularly involves taking risks, trying new things, finding out what doesn’t work, and learning together not just about the course curriculum, but about each other within a learning community, to best meet everyone’s needs. And sometimes, it doesn’t all come together until the latter stages of a course, but when it does, it’s magic!

So... Do I always engage in effective teaching? Nope. Many days I really am just trying to get by. But at the beginning of each semester, my students and I commit ourselves to the wonder of true education over busywork. We seek to blaze our own trails instead of jumping through preset hoops, and hold each other accountable, as cutting corners at the busiest times in the semester can prove tempting for all of us. I personally have to fight against my default “efficiency-first” mindset, but as I do, something interesting happens. I find my thoughts shifting from “I would rather do anything than grade another fifty essays” or “How can I get this done as quickly as possible?” to “Isn’t it amazing that I get to learn from the insights of fifty brilliant minds and hopefully add something to their worldviews through my own observations?” and “How can I help ’Jake’ or ’Ana’ with his or her personal goals in class tomorrow?” My students start to do the same as they focus less on grades and more on learning. Even though the whirlwind of each semester makes “keeping it all together” a real challenge, I’m trying not to experience education as a rat race, or even a race at all. Each student and teacher, regardless of the starting point on their personal paths, just needs to take the next step forward, and we can cheer each other on with each new milestone.

In the end, both efficiency and effectiveness are needed in our profession. But I am grateful to each new group of rockstar students who help me see them as people rather than numbers in an educational system that often rewards efficiency over effectiveness. I hope we can challenge each other as educators to continue doing the often exhausting, but deeply rewarding, work of inspiring minds and hearts. How have you worked toward an effective learning environment in your classroom? I invite you to share your comments below to open up the conversation. Keep being awesome! It’s all worth it. Mil gracias, David Wiseman

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