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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Old Mistakes in New Machines

I am reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning economist. The book is a hot read in that it gets you to think about how you think, Early on he says, “the best we can do is a compromise: learn to recognize situations in which mistakes are likely and try harder to avoid significant mistakes when the stakes are high.” In one way that seems like the kind of nostrum you might find in a fortune cookie, or the ever-quoted “Serenity Prayer.” And yet, we get articles such as this headliner from the New York Times: The state of Idaho is rushing in making significant high stakes mistakes by handing out tablets to students and cutting back on teachers.

Reforming education is a situation in which mistakes are likely — that is not to say education is perfect, does not need improvement, or cannot be significantly reformed. If Common Core fulfills its promise, that is exactly what it will do. But Education is the graveyard of ill-considered, politically muscled grand schemes — witness NCLB. Not only is education this minefield of lost schemes and dreams, using technological fixes is its own Mad Max junk yard of discarded (expensive) equipment. I really think someone could make a fortune creating a company that would approach school districts a year or two after their last big tech purchase and offer to buy whatever they have in their closets, sight unseen — the school would get some cash and be freed of the burden of having to hide its unopened boxes and its under-used smart boards, while the company would be gaining an ever larger haul of highly discounted perfectly usable machines it could sell to companies which actually need them.

So Idaho and others like it fail to heed the first part of Kahneman’s warning — they rush in where angels fear to tread. Then, as if to coverup or obliterate their lack of caution in the first sense, they dive into the second — making huge, expensive, high stakes demands on teachers and students. It is almost like Hitler’s Big Lie, or Stalin’s line that a single death is a tragedy, while a million deaths are a statistic. Waste a few bucks on books and folks like the Idaho governor might well yell and scream about the need for fiscal responsibility; spend endless dollars on technology and you become too big to question. I even wonder if there is something gendered in this — elected male officials who are sure they know better than the largely female world of teachers and education. What ever the deep, or immediate, causes — we all need to speak up. Technology well considered, used by willing and well-trained staff, with carefully selected programs can be great — but it is the approach not the tech that matters.

I posted this a day early because, tomorrow, I set off for EBMA — the conference of nonfiction book publishers — where Myra, Mary Ann and I will be presenting on the Common Core, books, and strategies for publishers. I’ll write next from the conference.


  1. Shirley Budhos says:

    Yes, Daniel Kahneman’s work is so interesting; it has altered our perspectives if we pay attention. I’ve watched several video lectures, and I’m always fascinated how he views and interprets events, characteristics, behavior, economics in an original way.You mentioned “heroes” in an earlier message; well, his thinking is heroic, for he seems courageous in the face of such conformity among the social scientists. His “techniques” could be applied to most disciplines–and especially education where mediocre minds make decisions adversely affecting large populations, and budgets are squandered on a regular basis..

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    “Education where mediocre minds make decisions adversely affecting large populations, and budgets are squandered on a regular basis.. ” — nice line and seems so apt for Idaho.

  3. Sue Bartle says:

    I just recommended his book for the next SLS Directors professional read after seeing it on many best of lists for 2011. We vote tomorrow on our next book so I will lobby with your post to the group. Thanks!

    I like the quote from the review – “Alas, the second system is a bit lazy—we must make a special effort to pay attention, and such effort consumes time and energy.”

    This made me think of my open palms exercise at meetings. When you find it hard to pay attention at a meeting try turning toward the speaker and opening your palms to take in the information. It does require effort to do this. I just used that in a meeting today to stay focused on the speaker and it does work but it really takes a great deal of effort to do this.