The IKEA Effect of Lesson Creation

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Leave School At School: Work Less, Live More, Teach Better. It’s available in both Kindle and print forms on Amazon.

I eat in the teachers’ lounge, and almost every day someone brings in one of those Lean Cuisine frozen lunches and pops it in the microwave.  You can trace the origins of such convenience foods to the years following World War II. The military had developed MREs and other foods meant to withstand long periods of storage and allow for easy preparation on the battlefield. After the war, several commercial food companies had leftover manufacturing facilities, so some of them created new freeze-dried and canned food products for domestic use. They pumped out boxes of fish sticks, canned peaches, and even ill-fated cheeseburgers-in-a-can. Jell-o introduced new dessert flavors throughout the 1950s. Sales soared.

With so many new products to sell, advertisements swept across the amber waves and purple mountains, reminding Americans again and again how busy they were, how hectic their days had become, and how desperately they needed quick meals. “If you’re a typical modern housewife, you want to do your cooking as fast as possible,” wrote a columnist at Household magazine who was promoting instant coffee and canned onion soup. Kellogg’s even created cereal that could be served faster. Their ads claimed that busy moms loved their presweetened Corn Pops. Because who had time for the laborious task of sprinkling on a spoonful of sugar?

TV dinners. Minute rice. Instant potatoes. “Hot breads—in a jiffy!” All were peddled to harried housewives who just didn’t have enough hours in the day to cook like their mothers had. “It’s just 1-2-3, and dinner’s on the table,” exclaimed an article in Better Homes & Gardens. “That’s how speedy the fixing can be when the hub of your meal is delicious canned meat.” [1]

But the faster the cooking, the less it felt like real cooking and the greater the potential for guilt on the part of the homemaker. That was the problem with instant cake mix. Intended to save busy housewives time by simply adding water to a mix, stirring, and popping in the oven, instant cake mix seemed like a fantastic idea. But sales fizzled after a few years. It turned out that TV dinners or the kids’ cereal were one thing, but a cake — well, that was another matter. Any homemaker worth her salt wouldn’t make a generic cake from a box that couldn’t be distinguished from a cake baked by the guests she was serving it to.

When marketers dove in to uncover what went wrong with cake mix, they discovered that it was too easy. The solution was simple: Have the baker add an egg. Once the powdered egg was removed from the mix, sales recovered and instant cake mixes became a mainstay in nearly every home in America. By adding one step to the mixing process, homemakers felt they were really baking again.

The cake mix lesson has since been repeated many times over. Build-a-Bear sends you the raw materials and the directions, but it’s up to you to actually build the bear. Cooks at “patron-prepared” restaurants like Mongolian Barbecue will cook the food for you, but only after you select the ingredients. City-dwellers take “Haycations,” where they pay farmers to do their work for them. And of course, there’s IKEA, which sells furniture at a discount because buyers have to build their own bookcases, cabinets, and tables. In each of these instances, people seem to place more value on items to which they have contributed some labor.

With this in mind, three psychologists, Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely, conducted a series of studies to find out whether consumers would, in fact, pay more money for products they themselves assembled. The research consisted of three different experiments.

In the first experiment, researchers found that participants were willing to pay 63% more for furniture they had built over furniture that came pre-assembled.

In the second experiment, Norton, Mochon, and Ariely asked subjects to make origami frogs or cranes. They then asked the subjects how much they were willing to pay for their own work. Following this, researchers gathered another group of volunteers who had not created any origami. These new subjects were asked how much they were willing to pay for origami built by the participants. Then the researchers asked how much they were willing to pay for origami built by an expert. These people, who had no personal connection to the creations, were willing to pay more for the expert’s products, which is exactly what one would expect. The participants who had made the origami frogs and cranes were then shown a display of origami that consisted of one set they had built themselves and one set that had been built by the experts. They were asked to bid on the different origami. The builders perceived the origami they had created as being of equal quality to those created by the pros.

The results of these studies suggest that when people construct a particular product, even if they do a cruddy job of it, they will value it more than if they had not put any effort into its creation.

Participants, wrote Norton and colleagues, “saw their amateurish creations as similar in value to experts’ creations, and expected others to share their opinions.”

The psychologists dubbed this the IKEA effect.

Two Problems For Teachers

There are two problems the IKEA effect creates for teachers. The first is that what you make is likely not nearly as good as you think it is. Your rubric is not better than another teacher’s. You just think it is because you made it. Same goes for everything else you’ve created. You would almost assuredly be better off using a product made by someone else. And as much as you don’t want to hear it, you’d be best off using products created by people whose job is to create those products. So while it may offend your sensibilities, stick with the program your district spent thousands of dollars on because it’s probably better than anything you’re going to design.

The second lesson is that there is a cost to spending time creating stuff. If you spend an hour making a magnetism unit because you tell yourself it will be better than anything you currently have in your filing cabinet or that you can find online, then you’ve lost the opportunity to spend that hour doing other things. You could have used the time on something that will make a difference for your students. You could have spent it doing an activity you enjoy. You could have even taken a nap during that hour and gone to work the next day better rested. The science is harsh but clear: If you’re a teacher who creates his own materials, you’re wasting your most precious resource making stuff that isn’t very good, in spite of the fact that you can find better resources with a few clicks of your mouse, or even more simply, by opening your teacher’s guide.

For the teacher looking to improve his effectiveness while spending less time working, the IKEA effect gives you permission to stop making stuff and steal (or purchase) from others.


[1] Shapiro, Laura. Something from the oven: reinventing dinner in 1950s America. Penguin Books, 2005.

Proof Your Teacher Evaluation is Meaningless

It’s bad enough that part of teachers’ evaluations are based on student growth. This growth, usually based on just a few poorly designed assessments and for which students are not personally held accountable, can be affected by a number of factors completely outside the control of the teacher, such as student attendance, motivation, technical issues, and whether or not a kid remembered his glasses or whether or not mom remembered his medication on the critical day.

But even more egregious is that a large percentage of a teacher’s evaluation comes from administrator observations.

A principal is given a huge checklist of “best practices,” and is supposed to assess the teacher in real-time on each of them. They might do this a couple of times each year. Of the more than 1,000 hours that teachers do their jobs in a year, their evaluation may rest on just 80 minutes of observed teaching. In other words, a teacher’s entire year is judged on about one-tenth of one percent of her efforts.

That’s not the worst of it. Because in the case of observations, it’s not what districts are doing that proves teacher evaluations are meaningless. It’s what districts are not doing.

What Districts Won’t and Never Will Do

See if you can imagine your district doing the following:

On a day in May, say a week or two before you are to receive your end-of-year evaluation, the entire staff is invited to a one-hour professional development session. The topic is “Why Your Teacher Evaluation is Credible.” You all gather inside the high school auditorium. A huge screen is hung over the stage. In the front row sits every administrator the district employs.

The Superintendent walks to the microphone and says, “Valued educators, we know that many teachers feel stress over their evaluations. Today, we are going to alleviate some of that stress. We want you to know that the tool we use to evaluate you produces consistent results, no matter who uses it.

To prove it to you, we are all going to watch a 40-minute video of a lesson. In this case, you’ll be seeing a sixth grade social studies class. Each administrator will complete an observation–just like they do for all of you–while they watch the video. When the lesson ends, I will collect each principal’s observation and I will show them to you. That way, you will see that no matter who uses the tool it produces very similar results. You’ll know that your teacher evaluation is a true reflection of your abilities as an educator, and not the subjective result of an unproven process that encourages you to employ different strategies based solely on the whims and preferences of the person who happens to be your supervisor this year.”

At which point the video starts and the principals start tapping things on their iPads.

The fact that none of the above happens in any district I know of (and never will) tells teachers everything they need to know about the objectivity of the observations they’re forced to endure and are asked to believe in.

If you have a system that relies on the opinions and values of the individuals doing the scoring then you have a system that can’t be trusted.

Treat Teachers Like Gymnasts

Gymnastics recognizes this. Gymnastics, like teaching, is more art than science. Two people watching the same routine can honestly disagree about which was better. That’s why gymnasts are scored by multiple judges who have deep knowledge of the sport and receive rigorous training on how to evaluate routines. They’re given strict guidelines and add points for required elements and difficulty, while deducting for execution and artistry.*

And still they don’t agree. That’s why the high and low scores are thrown out and the rest are averaged. FIG recognizes that relying on the judgment of one person ruins the credibility of their sport. No viewer would trust the results of a gymnastics competition that was judged by a single person. The gymnasts wouldn’t trust those results, either.

Neither should teachers. It says something that we care more about getting it right for gymnasts than for teachers. It says something that school districts will never allow its teachers to see how subjective their administrators’ observations truly are. It says something that American teachers’ jobs are in the hands of one judge, who bases his or her evaluation on one-tenth of one percent of a teachers’ working hours.

One judge.

Better hope you don’t get the Russian.**


* I simplified Olympic gymnastics’ scoring for ease of reading.

** I’ve got nothing against Russians, except that they cheat in the Olympics.


I wrote more about teacher evaluations here:

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

How Teachers Can Give Themselves a Raise

Work fewer hours.

That’s it, really. I probably don’t need to explain it, but you did click over here and you likely expect more than three words, so…

Here is how working for others… uh, works. You agree to do a job. Your employer agrees to pay you. You come to an arrangement whereby you will work for a certain amount of hours, and in return, they will give you a certain amount of money.  For teachers, the amount of work and the amount of money is almost always spelled out in black and white in a contract. For instance, mine says,

“The teacher’s normal day shall be seven (7) hours and six (6) minutes, unless permission is granted by the principal to leave earlier. Professional development half-days shall be three (3) hours and thirty (30) minutes with the start time to be determined by the building administrator.”

“Teachers shall be entitled to a duty-free uninterrupted lunch period of not less than thirty-five (35) minutes.”

And farther down the document, there’s a salary schedule that states exactly how much I will be paid for my labor.

So it’s pretty cut and dry. There’s an exchange. Work for money. Tale as old as time.

Now, when it comes down to it, we’re all hourly employees. Your investment banker friend might pull down 100K but he’s also working 60-hour weeks. So while he drives a nicer car, wears fancier clothes, and takes cooler vacations than you, he also mostly drives that car to work and back, is only seen in his fancy clothes by other bankers, and doesn’t take many vacations because he works all the damn time. He’s trading additional time for more money, and as a result, his hourly rate would be something like:

$100,000 divided by (60 hours/week x 50 weeks/year) = $30/hr + no personal life.

You, on the other hand, made a different choice. You chose time over money (or at least, that’s what I did and what you should be doing). You make a much more modest income, but you also work fewer hours (and if you don’t, you should).

If you feel like you’re underpaid as a teacher, it’s probably because of one of these reasons:

1. You’re young and pay for new teachers hasn’t moved in eons.
2. You work in Oklahoma West Virginia Arizona.
3. You work too many hours.

Let’s say you’re a mid-career teacher making $60,000. You work 10-hour days, plus you put in 10 more hours on weekends. Your hourly rate is:

$60,000 / (60 hours/week x 38 weeks) = $26.31

(And this assumes you don’t work over the summer. But if you’re working 60-hour weeks during the school year, I have a sneaking suspicion you’re not one to spend your summers on a beach, so your hourly rate will be even lower.)

If you want a raise, there are only three ways to go about getting one (short of leaving for a higher-paying job, and good luck with that).

You might work more, although you have to be careful. The math doesn’t always work in your favor. If your district is offering less than your hourly rate (which is likely), then it’s not really a raise. It’s just more work for more money, but not enough money to make it worth your while (unless you have no life and nothing better to do with your time, in which case, I’m sorry).

You can stick around for another year and get a small raise (unless they freeze steps, which is certainly a possibility, isn’t it?).

Or you can work fewer hours, which:

–boosts your hourly rate of pay.

–gives you more time to do the things you really want to do in life.

–is something you can start doing tomorrow.

So here’s how to feel richer than an investment banker:

Let’s say you’re not crazy and you don’t work 60 hours a week. You work fifty because you tell yourself it makes you a better teacher. So:

$60,000 / (50 hours/week x 38 weeks) = $31.58/hour

That’s investment banker money and you still get the summers, Spring Break, and Christmas off. Look at you, high roller!

But if you’re working 50 hours a week, then you’re donating more than 10 hours every week, or more than 380 hours over the course of a school year. If you don’t believe me, check your contract.

If instead, you work a reasonable workweek of 40 hours — which for many of you is actually more than what you’ve agreed to work when you signed a legally-binding document that governs employee-employer relationships the world over — then:

$60,000 / (40 hours/week x 38 weeks) = $39.00/ hour

And you’ll also have a personal life (although you’ll still be tired and useless on Friday nights, no matter how quickly you get out of the building).

So if you want a raise, stop working so many hours.

It sounds simple because it is, and yet so many teachers have a hard time doing it. If only there were a book that could help them…

(Disclosure: I wrote it):

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