Why “It’s better than doing nothing” probably isn’t

Dennis Sparks

“It’s certainly better than doing nothing,” I recently heard someone say about what seemed to me to be a poorly-conceived professional development event.

“Maybe it is, maybe it’s not,” I responded. “Let’s think about it some more.”

Leaders often justify such “better than nothing” activities by claiming that they are the only available options.

In my experience, however, there are almost always better options. I have also observed that there are usually significant unintended consequences when activity is confused with accomplishment.

Here are two of them:

1. Solving complex problems of the kinds associated with the continuous improvement of teaching and learning almost always requires multiple, well-implemented interventions over many months and years. Doing “something” releases leaders from the cognitively-demanding responsibility of determining what those things are and the interpersonally-challenging task of skillfully implementing them.

2. Engaging in activity for activity’s sake can squander teachers’ goodwill because the activity is accurately perceived as a time filler rather than producing a meaningful result.

An all-too-common example: A school or school system spends a large share of its professional development budget to bring a “big name” consultant to the district for a few hours, an event that may well be teachers’ “inservice” for the year. Compare that  approach with the sustained cognitive and interpersonal effort required to create high-functioning professional learning communities that affect teaching and learning in all classrooms.

So, the next time you hear someone say “it’s better than nothing,” ask them to think again.


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