Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Third Choice

Faith's post, Much Ado About Nothing, really got me thinking about choices and how we make them.

Recently, Faith encountered an educational dilemma when confronted by the NYC Board of Ed's requirement that children being home-schooled routinely take and pass standardized tests. Faith's concern was that her method of teaching her kids is not optimized to whatever the Board of Education considers to be age-appropriate proficiency, but instead to providing her kids the richest educational experience possible. As such, while her kids are doing well, that might not be evident on a standardized test. The question before her was: Do I teach to the test, or do I continue teaching in the manner I have thus far?

My first response was complete agreement with Faith's concerns and perspective. I believe that both age-appropriate curricula and standardized tests are, well, the technical term would be "stupid".

While often of great concern to parents, the fact that a child learns to read sentences at three or five or seven is largely irrelevant to the child's longterm academic success. What is more important is the sequence in which a child acquires new skills (a.k.a, crawl, walk, run) and how others respond and support her in the acquisition of those skills.

Age-appropriate curricula mitigate against this. Parents will actually brag: Johnny never crawled; he just got up one day and started walking. They don't know that by skipping crawling, Johnny missed out on important developmental steps that will later on undermine his ability to learn.

Standardized tests are fine in-and-of-themselves, yet they're rarely used effectively. When written well a standardized test can be a great diagnostic tool. It can help you identify the building blocks that are solid and well-positioned and the ones that are missing or not strong enough to support others that depend on them. The problem is that many use standardized tests as a rating system, not a diagnostic tool. This is pure folly. A child who scores poorly on a standardized test may be missing just one key building block on which many depend, or she may be missing many building blocks. Age-appropriate standardized tests offer no way of discerning this.

Given my beliefs about standardized tests, I found myself resonating with Faith's dilemma. Yet, something inside me was saying, "Hey, wait a minute! You don't buy into the the notion of dilemma. There is no such thing!"

I responded, "Oh, yeah. I forgot."

Teflon's Axiom of Choice
For every set of choices A consisting of N elements (possible choices), there exists at least 1 additional choice that has not yet been considered:

except in the case of the empty set (zero choices) in which case there exist at least 2 additional choices.

Teflon's Axiom of Choice is essential to ensuring that you never paint yourself into a corner, even after having painted yourself into a corner. Basically it says that you always have at least one more option than the ones you've considered. It's application is quite straight forward; whenever you find yourself saying, it's either A or B, you stop and say, "Hey, remember Teflon's Axiom of Choice? It can never be either A or B! There must be a C around here somewhere."

That's it!

The exception is when you believe you have no choice. Then you can be assured that there are at least two.

Faith's Pseudo-Dilemma
As I reconsidered Faith's pseudo-dilemma (for those of you paying attention, that was redundant), I applied Harwood's First Rule of Doing ("How hard could it be?") and came up with a third choice: Teach beyond the test.

To apply Harwood Rule #1, I asked myself, "How hard could it be to run circles around a public school system?"

The answer was, "Can't be hard at all."

Then it occurred to me, "Why wouldn't Faith simply teach her kids to ace the standardized tests AND continue learning the things that she found most important? Shoot, why wouldn't Faith just get her kids to ace the tests for students three-years ahead so that the Board of Ed would leave her alone to do as she would?"

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Faith's really smart. Her kids are really smart. With about twenty minutes a day of focus over the next six months, they'd probably be scoring in the high 90's percentiles on tests designed for kids three or four years older.

The more I thought about Faith, Simonne and Zachary beating the crap out of the standardized tests, the more excited I got. I started thinking of ways to reduce arithmetic to the smallest set of things that you need to know to do everything, about ways to develop language skills that are fun and more productive than anything else.

My Pseudo-Dilemma
All this brought back to me an experience going to night school while first working at Bell Labs. I needed one more course to get my degree, a course in Operating Systems. I'd left it for last because I knew it would be easy. I'd been part of small team developing the next version of the UNIX operating system and I knew it inside and out. The course was based on the UNIX operating system so how hard could it be?

I failed the first exam. During the next session, the professor returned the exams to us and walked through the questions to explain the answers. The problem was that he didn't know the system very well, had no direct experience programming it, and relied on a dated textbook for his information. The "correct" answers were wrong.

By the fourth time I'd raised my hand to explain why he'd misunderstood how the system actually worked, he stopped calling on me altogether. It appeared that I wasn't going to educate him any time soon. I had a dilemma: Answer the questions wrong and pass or answer them right and fail?

And then it came to me: Answer them both ways!

Through the rest of the semester, I learned everything as he taught it. On the exams, I would answer questions in a manner that said, "The answer you're looking for is... However, the way the system actually works is..."

We never became good friends, but I did ace the course.

What pseudo dilemmas have you concocted for yourself? How would Teflon's Axiom of Choice change things? Have you ever tried applying Harwood's First Rule of Doing?

Happy Tuesday,


  1. Isaiah and I really enjoyed this! Thank you so much! A choice I didn't consider. I was too busy saying "but they are wrong!". I could write a post about this... By the way, that could have been my UNIX class. Would I have had the grace to listen and learn? I hope so, but I'm not sure!

  2. Faith, isn't it amazing how easily we shift into "either/or". Perhaps it's time to develop an either/or alerting system that can sense when the wearer has lapsed from possibility to dichotomy.


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