Water is absolutely essential for life, but a glass of water costs practically nothing. Diamonds are not essential, but are expensive. Economists call this the diamond-water paradox, and use it to illustrate the idea of marginality. The solution to the paradox is that we don't pay attention to the total value of something, just the cost of obtaining one more unit. It costs (almost) nothing to pour a glass of water, so we pay (almost) nothing.
Marginality is surprisingly practical. We all understand that exercising is valuable. But when you come home and are tired, what is the cost to you of skipping just one session at the gym? Practically nothing, and so you skip it. What is the way around that? You apply a cost to each session. (In economese: a marginal cost) You can tell yourself, "No dinner until I work out." You can join a team, who would call you and be angry if you missed a session. (Or you could find a way to enjoy exercise, but that is off topic.)
Addicts understand that their addiction is killing them. But what is the cost of just one more drink? It can't hurt, right?
Software is valuable. But what is the cost of ("illegally") downloading software? Practically zero. Bill Gates famously spent more money encrypting copies of Microsoft products than on developing the products themselves. Why? To apply a marginal (per unit) cost.
We all understand, for example, that high school English is valuable. In it you learn to think critically and write clearly and build the foundation for a good, productive life. But what is the cost to a student of missing one day of class? Or even one week of class? While the value of high school English is very high, the marginal value seems to be pretty low.
How can that change?
(picture credit: ayswaryak)
Thomas Edison was a world-famous power napper. Even when being visited by important people, like the president of the United States, he would take short naps in front of them. He would accumulate about 4 hours of sleep every 24 hours.
He believed that the electric light would eventually erase the need for sleep. He claimed that people slept mainly because it got dark and that his invention obviated that excuse.
He also believed that his phonograph would become a major part of the school system. Schools would eventually record the lectures of the best teachers and simply play back the lectures. The phonograph and the recorded lectures would be able to replace, in part, mediocre teachers. Sound familiar?
There are dozens of education companies today that have recorded lectures with varying degrees of sophistication: some are simple recordings, some involve video, some are "adaptive" to the student's needs. Many are introduced with great fanfare: "the old model" of education is ending! A brave new world is emerging!
But a more sober look at the history of education technology will reveal that good teachers are just as important as ever. No technology, so far, has altered the need for excellent teachers one iota. Why will that change?
"Stress" is a frequent topic of conversation and of much concern in psychology. Hans Selye, an Austrian endocrinologist who coined the term, originally discussed two terms: distress and eustress. Distress causes harm, disease, and depression. Eustress, which literally means "good stress," is stress that causes growth, a feeling of fulfillment, and happiness.
What is interesting, and misleading, is that there is no external difference between "eustress" and "distress". The difference lies in the attitude a person takes towards "environmental stressors."
Most of our conversations about stress revolve around how to cope with it.
Shouldn't we be talking about how to turn it into eustress? And what is this magical attitude that turns distress into eustress? Here the science is a bit unclear; many of the recommendations seemed to be ripped from self-help bestsellers. "Viewing problems as fun challenges rather than threats." Or, "Being proactive."
The theme of many of these self-help bestsellers is leadership. Is an attitude of leadership the "secret sauce" to making stress an enriching, happiness-inducing part of your life?
David Ogilvy, considered to be the "Father of Modern Advertising," one of the original "mad men," and author of fascinating books on the art, science and business of creating advertisements (all of which are amazingly fresh and relevant decades after they were written), starts off Ogilvy on Advertising in an unexpected way:
He describes a few examples of advertising that were found to lower sales. Ford put advertisements in every other copy of Reader's Digest. People who had not seen the advertisements bought more Fords than people who did. Advertisers, he asserted, seemed to buy into a myth that "all advertising increases sales to some degree."
The advertising industry has a lot to offer education. Advertisers are talented at getting people to remember information and act on that information; similar techniques can surely be used in education.
But a similar myth exists: any education is better than none. Any intervention is better than none. But is it true? Is there teaching that lowers knowledge, decreases skills, or hurts character?
Many times in his writings, Gandhi talks about the profound effect that reading the works of Leo Tolstoy had on him as a young law student in London.
Tarak Nath Das, a leader of the early Indian independence movement and an advocate of violent revolution, wrote Count Tolstoy asking him for his support. Tolstoy responded with his famous "Letter to a Hindoo," in which he advocated nonviolent resistance based on principles of universal love.
The letter intrigued Gandhi, who by this time was a lawyer in South Africa, and it inspired him to write the world famous author. He asked for permission to translate the letter.
The two started a friendly correspondence in which they discussed religion, poverty, suicide, war, the practicalities of nonviolent resistance, and philosophy. It is interesting to hear a young Gandhi trying to make sense of the world. Tolstoy's final letter before his death was to Gandhi.
Before moving back to India to join the "Home Rule" independence movement, Gandhi set up "Tolstoy Farm" in South Africa, a cooperative colony based on simple living.
It is amazing that this mentoring relationship, which altered, for the better, the course of 20th century history, is rarely discussed in history class.
It is instantly recognizable. Anyone who has graduated the 8th grade will look at the image to the left and say that it is an atom. They will identify the three orbiting objects as "electrons" and perhaps even identify the nucleus. It is used in textbooks everywhere in the world. Generations of brilliant physicists and chemists were introduced to their disciplines with this image. It is so beautiful that Apple uses a version of it as the symbol for the "Genius Bar."
There is a problem: it is wildly inaccurate. Electrons do not fly in definite orbits; this fact has been known for a very long time. The first three electrons would not be at the same energy level; this fact has also been known for a very long time.
But it is an enormously effective teaching tool, despite all of the falsehoods, and so has spread to every school on the planet.
Great teachers know how to recognize, use, and create these useful simplifications. It is a rare and valuable artistic skill. What other useful simplifications do you know?
P.S. To the nerds out there, here is a slightly less simple representation of the lithium atom. Imagine teaching 7th graders the basics with this image. (photo credit: Clive Freeman, The Royal Institute/Science Photo Library)
P.P.S. It is still a simplification, as is everything you know.
In the book Reality is Broken, author Jane McGonigal explores the video game industry and the discoveries it has made about human emotions.
Researchers have found that people get a feeling of euphoria when watching another person play a game and win - but only if they have coached that person in the game itself.
McGonigal uses the Yiddish word naches, which means "vicarious pride," to describe this phenomenon. It appears to be hardwired into our brains.
We derive pleasure from teaching and watching our students succeed. How does that jibe with our current debates on education? What would a system look like that maximizes this fundamental human emotion?
Near the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, Pope Benedict IX planned to have several paintings done in St. Peter's and sent a courtier out to examine the best artists.
The courtier asked each artist to create a sketch to send to the pope to be evaluated. When the courtier visited Giotto, now considered to be the first great master of that era, Giotto "took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red ... and with a turn of the hand made a circle so even in shape and outline that it was a marvel to behold."
The courtier thought he was being ridiculed; Giotto insisted on sending only that drawing to the Pope.
He won the commission.
Giotto's O is a fantastic symbol of virtuosity. What would be the equivalent of Giotto's O in other domains? What would be a simple demonstration of mastery?
It is easy to imagine equivalents in athletics: Pele juggling a soccer ball, for example. But what about academic skills? What would math virtuosity look like?
Frederick Herzberg, a psychologist and veteran of World War II, created a fantastically interesting theory of job satisfaction in 1959. It deserves another look.
He found that people are dissatisfied by a bad environment, but are rarely satisfied by a good environment.
In other words, what makes you satisfied is not what makes you dissatisfied. What makes you dissatisfied are what he termed "hygienic" factors: salary, working conditions, hours. What makes you satisfied are what he called "motivator" factors: the challenge of the work, the importance of the work, your impact on the organization, and whether or not the work is helping you grow.
There are some paradoxes: you can be both satisfied and dissatisfied by your job. Many nurses and teachers will understand this idea. You can be not dissatisfied but not satisfied by your job; it is not challenging and you don't find it important. Many back office workers will understand this idea. They earn a good salary and like the people they work with, but there may be a sense of emptiness.
The advice to students: choose the challenge. Start with extracurricular activities: join clubs and groups that scare you. Follow your fear: don't think you can act in a school play? Try. Might be fast enough for football, even though you aren't that big? Try.
A shorthand version of "root cause analysis," popularized by Toyota, is the 5 whys process. Simply: ask why five times in a row. (Yes, also popularized by little kids and Louis C.K.)
Lets apply this to education:
Hmmm ... let's try that again:
People can and will blame "poor schools" until they are blue in the face, but the solution to many of our students' academic issues lies in the realm of leadership: motivation and personal responsibility. How should we teach leadership?
Ironically, avoiding something pointless is an excellent leadership skill. Adolescent rebellion, properly understood, is leadership misdirected. So how do we make our students see the point?
I'm an entrepreneur and I teach math, history, economics, and fitness. I'm looking for arguments.