A Model All Educators Should Know


One quick thought before the main post: I’m getting comments on this blog from people I never imagined would ever know I existed, much less would ever correspond with me. Now, that is incredibly humbling for one thing. For another thing, it is the best argument I can ever put forward for blogging in the classroom as teachers and as students.

Now, to work. As I’ve said before, I learned almost all I know about computers from my F-I-L who basically co-opted me as an indentured servant after I started dating his daughter. He and I spent many hours and miles riding around between jobs in an old ’88 red Ranger mini-pickup and in those times, he imparted wisdom to me. Some I managed to forget but some has stuck with me. This post is about one that has stuck. It is not original with Dad so it’s certainly not original with me. If anyone knows the “owner” of this model, let me know and I’ll gladly acknowledge them. He called it the Triangle Theory of Production.

Basically the model says this: “For any job, three possible areas of production exist. They are Quality, Cost, and Speed. Whoever commissions the job must pick two, and only two, of the three areas at the total exclusion of the third. No matter how hard one tries, one cannot have all three.”

It shakes out like this. You can have something Fast and of Quality, but it won’t be Cheap. You can have something Cheap and of Quality, but it won’t be Fast. You can have something Fast and Cheap, but it will have dubious Quality. So y’all see how it works. Unfortunately, in lots of the jobs Dad and I did, the owners of the businesses would want all three. It doesn’t work that way. It just can’t, and one day on my home from the library I was chewing over memories like cud and that conversation with Dad popped up. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how appropriate it was to education AND how little people followed it in attempt to have ALL three legs of the triangle.

Here’s one easy example from the library . . . searching. When you teach students to search on the ‘Net, they get to pick two legs. Let’s say they pick a straight Google search. That’ll be Fast and it’ll be Cheap (free, as a matter of fact), but the Quality in most cases will be lacking. If you teach them how to obtain good Quality from Google, it will usually come at the sacrifice of Speed. So you’ll get a Quality search that is still Cheap, but now isn’t Fast.

However, if you teach the students about subscription online databases that you’ve purchased for your library or that maybe your state has purchased for you (we have DISCUS here in SC and I think Georgia next door has Galileo, but that may be wrong), they get two different triangle legs. In this case, they get a Speedy search for information of good Quality, but it isn’t Cheap. It may not cost the student anything and it may not cost the library anything, but since these statewide database purchases are paid for with tax money, we all pay in the end. Not that I’m saying that’s bad. I just think it’s important for us to remember another universal model all educators should know, namely “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.” (post for another time)

This model also applies in Spades to any equipment purchases we make. In my own library, we were contemplating buying a “letter folder” for the school. This is a wonderful machine that does the ungodly mindnumbing work of folding flyers and such. Looking through the catalog, I saw the same old story. We could get Cheap and decent Quality, but it was SLOOOOOWWWW. One page at a time. Now, if we wanted to maintain the Quality, maybe even improve it slightly, Speed would go up, but Cost would skyrocket. We’re talking a jump from low 3 digits to middle 4 digits in price. The model holds up pretty well.

Now for the esoteric and since I’m not really good at esoteric, hopefully this’ll make sense. I feel in education that the powers that be have too often made the mistake of grabbing for all three triangle legs. Politicians want an educational solution that is Fast, Good, and Cheap. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The area I see it most in is assessment.

Multiple choice test, for example, are loved by politicians. Some examples include our state’s late and very unlamented Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test, universally called the PACT test, which is redundant, but hey. Now PACT was mostly a MC test. Sure, it had a writing component and some short answers, but at the heart it was a MC bubble test. Those tests are Fast (of course, speed is relative since we never get the scores before October) and they are comparatively Cheap (again, relatively speaking). What they are NOT, as much as people want to cling to the hope that they are, is excellent Quality. A one size fits all MC test doesn’t give as much information about a student as most teachers would like to have. At best, we get a snapshot when what we want is time lapse video.

BUT, if we developed one of those time lapse video tests or, even better, ditched tests all together in favor of more authentic assessments, we’d get better Quality, but we’ll either give up Speed of grading altogether or the Cost will be astronomical. So, we muddle along in the status quo.

So, what’s the answer? I’d be a fool to say I knew when all I am is a librarian in a podunk school in the middle of BFE, but I do have a bit of an idea. We need to urge our policy makers to take this Triangle model to heart. The one non-negotiable needs to be Quality. If politicians are going to insist on a single test to define what goes on in the classroom (which I DISPISE the THOUGHT OF, but I’m bending to a reality here) then we need to do pick the other Triangle leg to stand on. If Cheap becomes a must, then people at the policy making and the policy implementing levels will HAVE to discover that precious and long dead treasure called PATIENCE. It’ll take time to develop a good program that comes in relatively Cheaply. On the other hand, if we leave Patience to Guns and Roses and pursue the Speed that so defines our culture today, then taxpayers will have to be prepared to come off the hip, because developing a really good test in a short time frame WON’T be Cheap.

Now, do I know what’s going to happen? Heck yeah, NOTHING. Inertia is a deadly force, especially in education. Still, it is nice to think about what could be, now isn’t it?

Don’t wash your feet, y’all 🙂

One response »

  1. Pingback: Assessment and Evaluation (Chapter 5) « A Hopeful Historian

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