What Was the Question? (A response)

The Harvard Business Review has an essay “What Was the Question?” in which Dan Ariely (Prof. of Behavioral Economics at Duke University) says, “The bottom line is that we need to spend more time helping people understand and deal with complexity and less time concocting dumbing-down mechanisms.”


But where do we (or Ariely) imagine our citizens might learn how to deal with “complexity”? Especially in arenas in which they have no direct experience or which require abstract reasoning/logic. In schools? It might work if complexity could be reduced to 5 multiple choice answers. Of course this is not the case–at least for most citizens. However, was it ever better?

As a whole, probably not. But, within classrooms there were always those “great” teachers who closed their doors and gave their students amazing experiences. I used to say, regarding my own kids, all I need is no more than one bad teacher from K-6 and at least one “great” teacher and the rest “good enough.” The great ones not only challenge kids with complexity, but do so while also providing a joy for learning. Our new test-driven system however is reducing the possibilities of students having a great teacher.

It’s also a narrow idea of what complexity might look like when we assume it can be measured by multiple choice questions, while ignoring precisely the qualities that make for those “great” teachers: broad and eclectic interests and passions of their own, the capacity to find almost anything interesting, an ability to keep many balls in the air at once, and to share their enthusiasms and generosity of spirit with others. The last suffered in some old traditional schools since many of those “great” teachers were also loners. Colleagues could be threats, so I can think of several who avoided teacher lounges and workshops whenever they could. But they did have a generous spirit toward their students–and could imagine possibilities in virtually all.

The current agenda doesn’t value any of these qualities. While encouraging if not mandating more “openness,” the new reforms simultaneously increase the risks for being noncompliant.

5 Responses

  1. I am retired, in my 41st year of working with learners and subbed in 5th grade today. We spent 90 straight minutes on math and 90 more straight minutes on reading and reading testing. I have heard about these kinds of lessons but this is the first time I actually experienced it. It was deprsessing. Thanks.

  2. Back in the 1990s, when everyone was thinking a lot about what the education of the future would be like in the new millennium, there was a revival of thinking about critical thinking, inquiry-based learning, reflective practice, the scholarship of integration, and there was a movement to get businesses and corporations and even universities behaving like intelligent organisms under the heading of “organizational learning”. Dealing with complexity was a big part of the science and systems thinking that went into those endeavors.

    The came the Great Regression, the great recession in the intelligence of the national conversation, that always comes with a certain brand of administration, to the point where most folks today don’t even recall the questions and the visions of that bygone age.

    But maybe it’s time for another revival …

    It could happen …

  3. So what are you saying? Do you agree or disagree with Ariely’s research?

    Dan Ariely is one of the most brilliant researchers I know. His talks on TED are some of the most widely seen talks in the TED archive. His research is fundamentally sound, provocative, and spot on. I think Dan is 100% correct in his conclusions laid out in the HBR post.

    Al Meyers
    ReinventED Solutions

    • I thought this was mltsoy a good talk. Lakoff has some interesting ideas about the way parties are using their understanding of the mind. I felt he got off track though about foreign policy. For the record, I’m a habitually 3rd party voter who is disillusioned enough with the war that I may vote for Obama.Anyway, here is why Lakoff lost me. He gave a great explanation of the real definition of empathy. But his progressive view of foreign policy is that we become a moral force in the world again. Every country believes it knows how the world should work. Drastic action, either fascist or not, is always under the guise of what is best for the people. In other words, anyone who claims to be the one moral force in the world is showing that they do not understand empathy.He further showed this lack of understanding when he discussed the tactical nuclear options with Iran. He wasn’t advocating that method. But to even discuss it without raising the irony of eliminating nuclear ambition with nuclear weapons again shows a US-centric view of the world. It was as if he thought it was a good idea if the contaminates did not go into the air.Finally, his petty shots at conservatives destroyed any credibility he had with me. I don’t like them either, but claiming that they have think-tanks that the democrats don’t have is just plain naive.His parting shot that it’s easy to think conservatives have no brains is a demonstration of why the US is where it is (politically). Obama is talking about uniting. And Lakoff can only come up with elitist insults. It’s as petty as if Hannity was on calling liberals hippies.

  4. Ed. I agree with Ariely; but decidedly we’re more likely to learn how to engge in complexity out of school than in it!

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