Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wisdom is knowing when to break the rules

Barry Schwartz's TED lecture "The real crisis? We stopped being wise " to libraryland for a couple reasons. The first reason is actually minor: Schwarz deftly illustrates how ill-framed incentives can backfire and actually demotivate individuals (library administrators, please take note).

The second and real reason why I think lecture is worth viewing is to listen to Schwartz tell two compelling stories why we have to give individuals the leeway to break from rules, scripts, and standardized operating procedures of their work when one sees an opportunity to act, shall we say, humanely.

The talk reminded me of a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell called Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job? While it begins with football, the core of the article is about what makes a good teacher and why its so important:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material. That difference amounts to a year's worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You'd have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you'd get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

I won't spoil the piece's ending by giving away the quality that has been identified as what separates good teachers from bad, but I will say that this quality can only be exercised in an environment when teachers are able to deviate from the curriculum in order to better teach their students. (This This American Life episode also comes to the same conclusion.)

Schwarz, if memory serves, ends his talk with a very small story teaching and how, in the pursuit of consistency we have lost the opportunity to excel and, more tragically, to act with kindness and wisdom.

No comments: