Why is opportunity cost so important? Bo knows.

Ask me about my favourite album at your peril. You might think of such a question as a throwaway conversation starter, but it is a question that will send me through The Seven Stages of Indecisiveness: excitement, confusion, shortlisting, redrafting, frustration, decision, and – ultimately – regret. The last one usually comes a couple of days after the decision, probably in the middle of the night: “I should have said ‘Pet Sounds’! Why didn’t I say ‘Pet Sounds’? WHAT WILL THEY THINK OF ME NOW?”

But ask me about the main thing that drives my thoughts on curriculum and what happens in my classroom, and I am pretty decisive: opportunity cost.

It is only since I have grasped this as a concept that it has begun to really inform my teaching. I mentioned it briefly in this post on sunk costs, but I haven’t really discussed the importance of it in any detail.

In my classroom, I previously judged things as to whether they succeeded or failed. Indeed, that is the way we have largely been primed to see things. We are encouraged to evaluate this way during initial teacher training. Probably more influentially, it has been the culture of Ofsted for many years (although, like a spurned philanderer, they claim to have changed“Honest, I’m not like that anymore. I’ve changed. Trust me, babez.”) And by dint of Ofsted’s mesmeric sway, it has percolated into the very bloodstream of many schools. Of course, there are gradations within this measurement, but it is still a measurement of success and failure nonetheless.

But of course, as Hattie tells us: “Almost everything works.” According to his observations, 95% of our teacher interventions have a positive effect on achievement. As such, Hattie suggests that claims to success are rather arbitrary. Whilst I often make such claims (and claims to failure too), I do agree, and so I have switched my decision-making from ‘what works?’ to ‘what is the opportunity cost?’ I ask myself: if I choose to use this intervention/approach (which, remember, will probably work), does it mean I miss out on doing something else which is richer in what it offers pupils?

If you are a regular reader, you’ll know that I like to use stories to illustrate the theories I discuss in this blog. And a story that I think exemplifies opportunity cost well is that of American sports star Bo Jackson. You might remember him from the Nike ‘Bo Knows…’ advertising campaign from the early 90s:

The premise of this campaign rested on Jackson’s phenomenal athletic success, which led him to professional careers in both Major League Baseball and American Football in the NFL: he ‘knew’ sports. And not content with merely playing both baseball and football professionally, he was actually named in All-Star teams in both of them too. He still holds the distinction of being the only person to do so in two major American sports.

Like most sports stars in the U.S., his professional career began with the college draft system. This is the main recruitment system for major American sports teams, in which each team takes turns to pick eligible players from the colleges and offer them professional contracts. In a surprising act of fairness for big-money sports, the system is set up so that the poorest performing teams from the previous season get the first picks.

So, when Jackson reached his senior year at Auburn University as a star of the baseball team and the holder of the Heisman Trophy for most outstanding player in college football, he was highly sought after by major teams in both sports.

The NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided that they wanted him as their first pick. They saw that he was having a great season in baseball and didn’t want to lose him to that sport, so they set up a visit to Tampa Bay. For this trip, owner Hugh Culverhouse laid on his own private jet for Jackson.

It turned out that, whilst visiting prospective teams was okay, travelling in the owner’s private jet was against NCAA rules. When Jackson returned to Auburn to continue his senior baseball season, he found that he had been banned from playing for the remainder of the season. He was distraught.

Jackson felt that Tampa Bay had deliberately set him up so he couldn’t continue playing college baseball. So when Culverhouse told Jackson that the Buccaneers would make him their first pick in the upcoming draft, Jackson felt aggrieved:

“the officials at Tampa Bay told me personally, ‘yes, we checked it, [the NCAA] said that it was OK,’ — I think it was all a plot to get me ineligible from baseball because they saw the season that I was having, and they thought that they were going lose me to baseball. (They thought) ‘If we get him declared ineligible, then we got him.'”

Signing for Tampa Bay would have been very lucrative for Jackson, but he felt betrayed:

“I told Hugh Culverhouse, ‘You draft me if you want, you’re going to waste a draft pick.’ I said, ‘I promise you that.’”

But Tampa Bay did still pick Jackson as their first draft. And Jackson was true to his word and didn’t sign the $7.6m dollar contract offered. He ended up signing for the Kansas City Royals to play Major League Baseball instead for a mere $1m. He went on to start his football career with the Los Angeles Raiders a year later.

The loss of signing Bo Jackson for the Bucs was huge, given the impact he went on to have in the NFL. And the majority of people would see that loss as the most significant impact of the whole affair: not signing Bo Jackson was the failure here. But actually, the biggest loss was not in not signing Jackson, but in Tampa Bay using their first round draft on him instead of using it on one of any number of other players that could have had significant positive impact on the team. In short, they wasted the opportunity to do something else. In the words of Dave O’Connor, the producer of the documentary, ‘You Don’t Know Bo’:

“The opportunity cost of losing a first round draft pick isn’t just that Bo Jackson isn’t playing on my team. It’s that every other player I could have selected with that pick is not playing on my team either.”

And this kind of thinking is so important to decisions on curriculum. I recently saw this article on “using [Star Wars] to teach the Hero’s Journey and mythology”. Now I really love Star Wars, and I’m not in a position to judge the teacher in the article as I don’t know the curriculum they are working with, but I can’t help but think about this in terms of opportunity cost. If I were to think about teaching either the hero’s journey and mythology in my classroom, I’d have to consider the opportunity cost of teaching it using Star Wars when there is a clear opportunity to use the classic mythology and introduce pupils to an important branch of literature, a branch that is alluded to in the literature that followed it: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Romantic poetry, Gothic literature, etc. The opportunity cost of teaching mythology through Star Wars seems huge to me.

So that’s it. The single main thing that drives my thoughts on curriculum and the classroom? Opportunity cost. Well, opportunity cost and building a body of knowledge. My two main drivers are opportunity cost and building a body of knowledge. And memory. Three – my three main drivers are opportunity cost, building a body of knowledge, and… I’ll come in again.


Further reading: ‘What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common?’

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3 thoughts on “Why is opportunity cost so important? Bo knows.”

  1. Reblogged this on Mr Brown says and commented:
    This is what every teacher needs to be thinking about. The value lost from the next best alternative. It is easy to do something helpful but a teacher’s skill lies in choosing the best thing to do.

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