Teaching is a series of decisions we make to help students learn. Some decisions are made by the syllabus or school, but the majority are made by us, the teachers.
We make a huge number of decisions every day, with some researchers reporting that teachers make 0.7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching (Borko et al, 1990). Another study showed that elementary school teachers had 200-300 exchanges with students every hour, most of them unplanned and requiring decision-making (Jackson,1990).
We make decisions when we plan, teach and mark work after class.
No wonder we’re tired at the end of the day!
Newer vs. Experienced Teachers
Decision fatigue happens even more for newer teachers, as many decisions involve situations they haven’t encountered before. Before they can respond, they need to assess what’s happening, consider their options and the pros and cons of each.
Compared to more experienced teachers, who can respond immediately, it’s exhausting.
Experienced teachers don’t need to think. It sounds odd, but high performers use their memory rather than thinking, as the brain isn’t designed for complex thinking (Willingham, 2010). They receive an input, recognise a behaviour pattern, and remember which decisions lead to which outcomes.
Remembering is faster than thinking, and they’ve turned basic decisions into rote habits. This is less tiring, less stressful. and frees up mental space to focus on students’ learning.
Thinking in the classroom should be about supporting, guiding and helping learners, not classroom management.
The good news is that we can get to this point faster if we reduce the amount of decisions we make in the classroom.
We can start by using systems to manage simple decisions for you. A good example is a behaviour management system, which dictates when and how to respond to unwanted behaviour.
Let's look at when we make decisions, and we’ll see the types of system we can use.
Making Decisions Before Class (Planning)
Decisions start when we plan our lesson, as we decide what to teach and how to teach it.
Before we decide on the lesson content (the ‘what’), we should talk about the ‘how’ we're going to teach. The 'how' involves student, and our own behaviour. Things like:
Classroom management - how we’re going to set up the classroom, run activities, group students and so on.
Behaviour management - how will we address unwanted behaviour and reinforce positive behaviour?
Self-management (how will we present ourselves, project our voice, grade our language?)
Concept checking (making sure that students understand the idea/lexis/grammar we're presenting)
(Links are to articles that discuss each topic in more depth).
You probably have a routine for these already, from your training and experience. We find something that works well enough, and stick with it. That's fine, but the great thing about systems is that we can examine and upgrade them one at a time, (more on that later).
Once those 'how' decisions are made, we can think about ‘what’ to teach.
We need to decide the content [the topic, context, function and form [link]], how we’re going to present it, materials to use, and the lesson structure (PPP, TBL, etc [link]).
Side note: if you want to read more about lesson planning, you can check out my lesson planning book.
If you’ve done all of the above, congratulations! You’ve pre-made dozens of decisions and saved yourself lots of mental energy.
Now it’s time to teach!
Making Decisions in the Classroom (Implementation)
Something to think about: if you delivered your lesson plan to an empty room, you wouldn’t need to make any decisions.
Why? Human behaviour is unpredictable.
Students have questions, flashes of inspiration, misbehave, finish fast, make mistakes, find it too easy, argue passionately, fall asleep, forget their books, and have an irrational interest in discussing celebrity life choices.
That’s why teachers are needed - to handle the glorious messiness of human interaction.
So don’t expect your pre-made decisions to work 100% of the time. You’ll encounter unexpected situations, and you should follow the principles underlying your system.
Also, common sense works wonders :-).
Now we can start to really focus on the learners.
What are students struggling with? How many?
Are they still on task?
Are they still engaged?
Do you need to give more support, or make it more challenging [link: differentiation]?
Decisions now should be based on the learning process.
If previous decisions on how to teacher are the ‘science’ of teaching, then here we’re talking about the ‘art’ of teaching. Use your soft skills to empathise, understand, and support the learners. Put yourselves in their shoes.
Of course, this will all fall apart as little Jimmy puts chewing gum in Sarah's hair... but it was good while it lasted.
Making Decisions After Class (Student Assessment & Self-Development)
The lesson is over, but the hard work isn't. Marking students’ work is more straightforward, but still necessary. Although there are fewer decisions to be made, assessing can still use up a lot of mental energy.
To save time and energy, make sure you have a clear rubric for marking. Be clear what gives credit or loses marks.
Also, for items like writing, use a marking system where possible. If your school doesn't have one as standard, I suggest something like this [link].
Developing Your Decision-Making Skills (Other Suggestion / Learning)
After all of that decision-making before, during and after class, you're now free to make decisions about how you can improve at teaching.
Or you can decide to go to the pub.
As you become more experienced, so you can move more decisions over to memory and your ‘systems’.
It's worth pulling each set of decisions out and examining them in light of what you've learned since you started using them.
Sure, it's time-consuming, but you have the choice of when and how you do this.
I'd normally recommend a 'triage' approach, where you try and improve the decisions that seem to be causing you the most pain. And if everything seems to be working well, congratulations! Perhaps get an experienced colleague to observe you and suggest something. Or video yourself and have a watch.
Another way to get new ideas is to observe a colleague - you'll see another teacher’s decisions. Usually you can see why they made a decision, but if you can’t, it’s a perfect learning opportunity - ask them after the class and find out why.
A final word on pre-making decisions vs. making them in the moment.
There can be a danger of relying too much on your plan. This can lead to implementing without responding to students. We need to remain flexible, and expect that things will change from the plan.
"Everyone has a plan until they get hit" - Mike Tyson, 1987
This is also true for teaching. Everyone can follow their plan until something not on the plan happens. So be prepared and learn to enjoy the unexpected. It's when students learn, and we learn to be better teachers.
Borko, H., Livingston, C. and Shavelson, R. J. (1990) ‘Teachers’ Thinking About Instruction’, Remedial and Special Education, 11(6), pp. 40–49. doi: 10.1177/074193259001100609.
Jackson, P. W. (1990) Life in classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.
Willingham, D. T. (2009) Why don’t students like school? a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.