Paradoxes of Efficiency (Part 1)

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

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I have been reading Edward Tenner’s The Efficiency Paradox. He got me thinking about paradoxical thinking that is rife throughout education and medicine. But before getting to either of these, I need to make clear what efficiency is–Tenner’s definition–and what the paradox of efficiency is. Here goes.

According to Tenner, efficiency is: “…producing goods, providing services or information, or processing transactions with a minimum of waste (xii).” To listen to Tenner describe his book, see here.

In education, “efficiency” came to mean teachers teaching more, faster, and better than they had before. Large class sizes in the early 20th century (e.g., 50-plus elementary school students in a class) were reduced in the name of efficiency to achieve more productive teaching, that is, faster, and better teaching.

Definitions and examples aside, what are paradoxes of efficiency?

Consider the introduction of coal as fuel to replace the more expensive oils…

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