Effort:Impact Ratio – 1 – Mental Models for Education

6 years ago Joe Kirby decided to leave a lucrative career working for a social venture capital fund, take a massive pay cut, and join Teach First.

As we talked about how we were going spend the year nervously preparing for what was to come, Joe talked about the use of ratios in finance to build a rough picture of what is happening with an investment, good enough to make reasonable decisions from.

He proposed three possible ratios that might serve a similar function for us in teaching.  One, I can no longer recall.  Another, was equally the brain child of Doug Lemov, and found its way into Teach Like a Champion literally called ‘Ratio.’  This was the teacher:pupil work ratio, which is reasonably common in education.

For me, though, the most enduring and powerful of the three ratios Joe proposed was effort:impact.

The idea is simple: teachers should invest time in things that are low effort, but high impact.  The lower the effort, and higher the impact, the better.  The greater the effort, and lower the impact, the worse.

Although these things are difficult to quantify in the education world, you can develop a feel for ‘acceptable effort:impact ratio.’  If the effort just feels too high for the associated impact, don’t do it!

Would I have spent time fine-tuning the position of images in a PowerPoint so that they were all precisely placed, had I considered the actual impact of all that effort?  I felt that pupils in school deserved access to the kind of quality that we’re all used to receiving from commercial companies, like Google, Apple and Microsoft.  But just because I felt that something was important, did that make my decision a good one?

This is an important question, because while our feelings can, and most certainly should, inform our decisions, we often allow ourselves to be slaves to them.

Are comments in marking really worth it?  How about double or triple marking?!  Some people will say that it’s worth it because it has an impact; yes, but for how much effort?  Are there ways you can achieve the same impact for less effort?  If so, do that instead.


Illustrative only

Joe has since helped to establish a Free School, and, as for me, effort:impact has been the one ratio that truly endured above all others, now taking a central place in the school’s strategy.

The result is extraordinary.  The number of traditional school activities that Joe and his team have shown the confidence to reconsider would shatter the nervous system of most senior leaders.michaela-tweet


Initiativeitis – Scourge of School Leadership

Everyone wants to be seen to be making their mark on a school, whether driven by vanity alone, or a real sense of purpose.

A few years ago a friend, recently appointed to head of department, expressed her frustration that her team showed no enthusiasm for the changes she wanted to make.  From her perspective it was all about the kids, and would make a difference to their lives.  The first thing I asked her was if any of her new initiatives would result in her team having to spend more time working.  “…yes,” was the response I got.  My next question was whether any of their other work would be removed or reduced by the initiatives.  “…no.”  There’s the problem.  What at first might look like an assemblance of lazy no-gooders of Goveian nightmare were perhaps instead just a team of mortal humans already worked to their limit.

The unconscious desire to leave our mark can leave us pray to Action Bias, and what we don’t realise is that at the back of our minds it’s justifiable because the action is also good for us.  As the leader initiating the initiative, if it works, we take the credit, so there’s a bit of extra incentive there for us which doesn’t carry through to the whole team.  Whether we realise this consciously or not, it’s always there, it’s unavoidable, and if we don’t realise it consciously, we still know it subconsciously.

One lens, one filter, one mental model to rule them all, Effort:Impact ratio.

That one simple idea has meant not only that the Michaela leadership say no to any new initiative that won’t return enough impact for the effort of its team of teachers, but it led them to jettison what was, until recently, a cornucopia of received wisdom and sacred cows.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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2 Responses to Effort:Impact Ratio – 1 – Mental Models for Education

  1. Pingback: Overview – 0 – Mental Models for Education | …to the real.

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