Efficient vs. Effective Teaching

“Some inner clock is ticking in every life, warning us we have appointments to keep with reality: real work to do, real skills to learn, real battles to fight, real risks to take, real ideas to wrestle with.” (Weapons of Mass Instruction, John T. Gatto, p.96)


A dilemma many people face in their personal and professional lives is the basic question:

  • Should I be efficient or effective?

Effective: to do something that accomplishes a specific purpose. Meaningful = check.

Efficient: to get something done in the quickest manner possible. Meaningful = maybe or maybe not.

So, to repeat that question: should I be efficient or effective?

This dilemma is particularly the nightmare of well-meaning and good-intentioned teachers, who constantly battle the crisis of should I spend more time on this material and make sure we all get this (effective) or I must move on or else they’re going to flunk the final exam (efficient).

Efficient, effective. Why can’t it be easy to be both?

Busy man

As a new teacher, I struggle to make learning ends meet. See, there are several teachers perhaps teaching the same subject in the same grade yet ultimately there are the same tests, and the same finals for all students at the same time; this makes it difficult to spend a larger chunk of time on the more difficult concepts because quickly the efficient voice in your head reminds you the material won’t all be covered in time (and then is it effective to later be tested on material you did not have time to cover?)

I am a big rebel when it comes to labeling students’ intelligence on mere marks. I have seen firsthand what simple stress can do to marks. Time and time again I give my students exit/entrance cards… mini assessments that count for no marks, whose purpose is simply to see how well the students understand the concepts. With the stress removed, on the whole, students always do fairly well! They appreciate this strategy and actually thank me for it.

These informal assessments do take up precious class time, however. And that is besides the random but brief life topics we bring up. And those are besides the regular short TED-Talks or other thought-provoking mini videos we watch at the end every few classes… and occasional logic puzzles… and playing them some classical music during work periods…

Yeah OK, this isn’t looking very much like a science class, is it? (Trust me, we do science. But I try to bring simply “life stuff” in, too.)

Time consuming, yes, but I think it’s worth it and more effective for their lives. With their reality.

For some teachers, however, it’s only efficiency that matters. Student brains are our experiments to see how much new data we can squeeze in their heads in a certain period of time and then test how well they absorbed it all. The hypothesis is technically “If I teach this-and-that in this period of time, then so-and-so should be able to do well.”

Well, the hypothesis often fails. Some students need more time to absorb things like a sponge. Some students know this stuff already. Some students can do well, but they need extra support like longer testing periods or someone to read over the questions with them.

In clear terms, most students are simply not machines.

Efficiency is good in general, but when it comes to human beings, it simply cannot be enough to go on. We are dealing with lives here; I know a mere percentage on a paper should not matter too much, but the sad fact is that for a teenager, this is the center of their universe, the reason they exist, and the worth they measure themselves by. In my second week of teaching, it frustrated me to see students despair on a 90% when they were expecting a 100%.  I had to make a bold statement:

“Ask yourselves why you are in school… Yes, it is against the law not to be. And yes, you need the marks for college. And yes, your parents have very high expectations. But don’t let this limit your purpose of why you are here. If you don’t have a purpose, it’s good to start thinking of one! You are here to be prepared for the real world; and I’m going to be very blunt with you. In the real world, past university graduation, you will never again be asked to memorize a bunch of text and then spew it out on paper. In the real world, they are looking for skills like creativity, think-outside-the-box thinking, teamwork, dedication, perseverance… remember, the number you get is JUST a number. Does that mean it’s OK to flunk? I’m not saying that. All I’m saying is, the process is more important than the result. I don’t care about the final answer, I’m looking for the effort throughout.”

(And to emphasize the point, we watched The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us)

Grand words aside, practically speaking, I want to be an effective teacher and give every student his or her time and resources… but I am only one person with as limited time to teach the curriculum to 85 different learners as they have time to study it. I want to be effective in as short a time as possible… but this is a fantasy of effectiveness being equivalent to efficiency, and this rarely ever happens.

For example, we’ve seen what “efficient” relationships have turned out to. With the rise of social media and technology, one can constantly be in touch with everyone at the same time… but is our community becoming stronger, or are we weakening? Are we getting closer together or becoming more lonely (yeah, we watched that, too) than ever? Is the reliance on communication behind keyboards and screens ultimately the same as traditional modes of communication?

Technology is wonderful, and organization is fabulous,

but only when they are means, and not an end.

Which brings me back to schools.

Textbooks and exam papers should be means to knowledge, and not the ends. Effectiveness should be the ends, and perhaps efficient methods may be looked into as the means.

But with human beings, I believe effectiveness comes before all else. In the wise words of Stephen Covey:

“You simply can’t think efficiency with people. You think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things.”

I believe in those words. Unfortunately, as a teacher, until I have learned how to fully teach others to teach themselves, I will need to continue trying to juggle being efficient and effective at the same time.

And Allah [God] knows Best.


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