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Satificing....When Good Enough isn't Enough

I’m obsessed with searching for explanations of the natural world.  The explanations (by the way I’m also obsessed with explanations), that really help me make sense of the world are the ones that bring together evolutionary biology, archaeology, neuroscience, and psychology to better articulate why and how we, as individuals, behave the way we do. So my working theory is that if we can better understand the workings of our mind and behaviors, teaching and learning could be transformed to more accurately reflect how our entire being evolved to function.

In that effort, I’ve written about stereotype threat and precrastination, and I’m about to add a third big idea to my budding understanding of how we behave; it’s satisficing.

In Daniel Levitin’s new book, The Organized Mind, portrays a pretend-world where each of us stressed and contemplated every minute decision each of us make throughout the course of a day. Which sock to go on which feet? Which tooth to brush first? When I wake up, should I sit up or just roll out of bed? You get the point. What Levitin reveals to us is that most of us DON’T stress about each of these small decisions. Our minds are happy with “good enough”, or satisficing.

The term was coined by Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, and he used it to describe the phenomena of “not getting the very best option but one that was good enough”.   Again, this is something that each of us are constantly doing. We are satisficing all the time. Simon believes that:
      “for things that don’t matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient”.

It’s that last little bit that made me connect satisficing to how we teach and learn in the classroom. It made me think of the following question:

          How often do we ask students to do things that they deem not critical? How often does their mind allow them to just be sufficient?

Thinking back, I have a feeling that I have forced students to apply satisficing frequently. And while it’s a natural response to a decision when the outcome is based upon “good enough”, often times for real learning, we want our students to do more than “good enough”.

But see, this is all a sticky-wicket, because our brains do not have an infinite capacity for decision making. In fact our brains have evolved to strive for equilibrium in order to make sense of the chaos that surrounds us. It strives for a balance “between effort and benefit”.  Our minds are constantly doing a “cost-benefits analysis” and “THAT is at the heart of satisficing

Our minds strive for “good enough”. To me, these words reverberated inside my own thinking. Each of us are constantly being pulled back to “good enough”.  So, how we do move our teaching and student learning beyond “good enough”?  

I believe that the key is in Simon’s belief about satisficing.  Remember, Simon said we make a choice that is just sufficient, when, “Things don’t matter critically”.   To me and my work in classroom, that means that we must only be doing work and learning that’s critical. If we don’t view the decision that we are about to make as such, then we will settle for just “good enough”.

Does “good enough” get our profession to a better place?

Does satisficing allow students to learn at more meaningful levels?

How should we work to ensure that teaching and learning is more critical?


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