Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?


In our efforts to be the best, are we eroding our ability to be good? Everyone tends to agree that high expectations are best and, of course, no one rises to a low expectation, but sometimes our expectations are unrealistically high. Sometimes we take the self-flagellating view that only the best is good enough. There are some who might argue that ‘good enough’ eliminates better and best and others still who counter that our understanding of ‘good enough’ is always subject to a raising of our collective aspiration and what was once seen as satisfactory comes to require improvement. Faced with this kind of cliff edge, good is in danger of becoming the new shit.

Who knows? The point is that everything comes at a cost.

When considering our expectations of ourselves, what is the cost of being outstanding versus the cost of being good enough? The price in education is calculated primarily in time and effort. Yes, of course, money is hugely important – especially if you haven’t much – but our time is strictly finite; we can only spend it once. This is the opportunity cost.

Aristotle saw any form of extremism as unhealthy and held up the golden mean – the desirable middle between excess and deficiency – as chief amongst virtues. You can have two much of a good thing. Too much of courage results in recklessness, an excess of accountability erodes trust. How many schools have fallen foul of the desire to be judged outstanding and lost sight of the great good contained in simply turning up and teaching?

Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian engineer and sociologists noted that 80% of most tasks can be completed in 20% of the available time. Conversely, completing the last 20% of a task takes 80% of the effort. Achieving absolute perfection might be possible but more often increasing our effort results merely in diminishing returns. Increasing frantic urgings to work ever harder become increasingly inefficient. Pareto’s ‘Law of the Valuable Few’, suggests that in most fields of endeavour, we spend most of our time on those activities that produce the least impact. This sounds like a counsel of despair until we reverse the formulation: what takes the least time probably accounts for most of the impact you achieve.

Good enough might best be represented by a ‘Pareto improvement’: “a change that can make at least one person (e.g., a student) better off without making anyone else (e.g., a teacher) worse off.”  There’s little point asking a teacher to enact change which will have a significantly negative effect on their well-being.

When Voltaire wrote that “the best is the enemy of the good” he meant that by striving for unrealistic goals we often miss doing the next good thing. These principles might be a useful guide:

  1. Do it if it makes a difference.
  2. Do enough, not more: 20% of effort = 80% of results.
  3. Focus on the areas of greatest uncertainty which need the earliest answers.
  4. Iterate, iterate, iterate.
  5. Make assumptions, but treat them as hypotheses to test.

These economic principles – opportunity cost and the Pareto improvement – deserve more consideration in education. Joe Kirby’s thoughts on Renewable Resources are an example of what can be achieved when we free ourselves from the tyranny of outstanding in order to focus on being good enough all the time.