Search This Blog

Jun 28, 2012

The theory of the other

Research is not about helping us to develop theories. To the contrary, research is a way of preventing our minds from generating too many theories too quickly. Our brains are just pattern-seeking machines, and they will find patterns where there are none. For example, billions of people on this planet believe that you can catch cold by being cold, which it is simply untrue. But everyone has the experience of catching a draft, and then coming down with a sore throat – we remember it, because our culture reinforces this opinion. However we completely forget hundreds of times when it was just as cold, but no influenza followed. It is the same with premonitions – we all forget those that did not materialize, but remember the one in the life-time that did, by chance. Scientists learn to check their hunches and hypotheses against evidence; in other words, they learned to rain in their own minds, rather than release them.

This works in relationships, too. We develop theories about each other. Each person we know eventually becomes represented in our mind as a set of assumptions about him or her. She is helpless, he is careless, that one is funny, and this one is clever. Once those mental images are formed, they self-reinforce. We tend to forget and suppress facts that undermine the theory, and notice what supports it. Once we have developed a theory of someone, the natural flow of facts will support it.

Sometimes the theory of the other is formed on the basis of one event. For example, someone was late for your first meeting, and it was so memorable that you’re unable to shake the negative impression even if the same person was early 100 other times. The human mind is not designed to deal with statistics; it is incapable of treating different events as identical in some respect.

When the evidence becomes overwhelming, we cannot ignore it any longer, and the mind will revise the theory with what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” However, when we become angry and frustrated about something else, those safety mechanisms stop working. The negative theories tend to become self-sustaining and unmoving. In a group situation, people tend to appoint someone to be the problem, and then reinforce their theories each other. Just like with the flu – repeating the same thing tends to make the observer’s bias stronger. This simple mechanism feeds most of organizational conflicts.

How do we avoid turning each other into theories? It appears to be important to not over-interpret, or to keep our theory-making capacities in check. In qualitative research, one of the first rules is to avoid over-interpreting. We learn to suspend judgment and let more unfiltered evidence to come in. It is very important to recognize that every person is an unfinished story, not reducible to whatever little we know about him or her. Let us celebrate our ignorance, limit our imagination, and forget what we have learned.

Jun 21, 2012

Reinventing email

Email is like oxygen – it is essential to sustain life on this planet, and yet too much of it makes one dizzy. Many people are trying to “reinvent email.” Here is my little contribution.

The problem with email is that senders do not have a way of organizing their thoughts in a systematic and predictable fashion. We process information better and quicker when it follows a pattern. However, in half emails I struggle to determine what exactly the sender wants me to do, if anything. It is not because they are poorly written; not at all. After all, most emails I get are from faculty and other administrators. Those are all highly educated people with great writing skills. I do not miss struggling through undergrads’ messages! Still, in longer e-mails, it is especially difficult to grasp the genre of every message, because there are several. It would be so cool to know in advance, which is that – an artful epistolary piece, or a rambling manifesto, or a dry request for funding.

We all practice speed reading, which does not work so well. I miss important nuances because they were buried in the middle of the third paragraph. As every reading professor knows, you can only fake comprehension so far. As many others, I am also guilty of not identifying the genre of my messages clearly.

To make more time for reading emails, we recruited our smart phones. As a result, millions of emails are now read over urinals. I am thinking it is time to install phone holders on the walls just above every urinal, to keep hands free and the whole affair a little more hygienic. I don’t know what women do, but I am sure there is a business opportunity there, too. This is not good, of course. You cannot cheat time by slicing it into smaller pieces. Other people just do not read and respond. This is a symptom of a serious condition, an admission of defeat. It is also very disruptive to the organization to have people who habitually ignore correspondence. (Of course, sometimes a non-answer is the intended answer, but how would you know?). The real solution is to do less reading, more thinking. We all want those who send emails to do the work of editing, and organizing information for us. But we do not want to do the same when we’re the senders. Email onto others as you would like emailed onto you.

The real solution it is about nudging senders to organize their information. Companies figured it out a long time ago, and on most websites, you cannot just send an e-mail without answering some screening questions first. They will at least force you to choose among several pre-defined subjects: do you have login issues? Do you have a technical problem? Do you want a refund? At the extreme, corporate monsters like Facebook, Google, or Microsoft do not want any emails from you at all. It is too expensive to read. If you want help, you will be sent to forums, in search for people who already had the same problem, and it was resolved. You are forced to meander across the corpses of dead conversations in search for a morsel of useful information. I think Microsoft had invented this many years ago – there was the Microsoft/kb – knowledge base…

I don’t want that. I don’t want people to stop writing to me. Most of things I know are from faculty and staff, and the generous information flow is essential for me. I don’t want to appear to be less approachable. I don’t mind reading e-mails; just want to do it a little more efficiently. So, I am inviting everyone to pilot this new little tool at Let me know if this is annoying, or useful. If it helps to clarify the intent of a message, or makes it more obscure. Do you see a good way of improving it? How do you make the options fit the message better, without creating a huge list? This is strictly voluntary; feel free to use the regular email!

If this works, we can perhaps think of ways of dealing with student email intended for faculty. They often strike us as both impolite and poorly written. Perhaps a little training tool could make them both easier to digest and more valuable (in the educational sense) to write?

Jun 13, 2012

Alice and Wonderland

Alice, our first granddaughter, was born in the early morning of 6/8/12. Babies cannot tell stories, but they certainly know some. What else would explain their dreams? Alice smiles in her dream, remembering something. It seems like there is nothing to remember yet, but she does. We try to figure out whose genes are responsible for this particular mouth, nose, and for that interesting expression. Of course, the real conversation is: what is she going to be like? Who are we getting to know? Who is this person coming into our families?

Looking at your grandchild is a separate experience altogether. There is nothing quite like it. Many grandparent friends tried to explain it to me before, but it is sort of hard to explain. I now understand why. The distance in one generation puts the whole affair of human life in a different light. You’re not really afraid to drop her every second, and you’re not sleep-deprived, and you’re not afraid to be a horrible parent. This time around, you see what you’re supposed to see, because your senses are not as excited. You see how little effect parenting actually has on children, and how much is already inside. You see their growth as unfolding of what’s already in them, as well as exercising their own choices. As long as parents stay in the good-enough zone, provide, protect, and love, they are all OK, and all are fairly inconsequential. Parents are often trying to make something out of their children; grandparents are mostly curious to know how the kid is going to turn out. It’s discovery rather than creation.

I suppose this is because we are a species of makers. Anything that is complex,- we expect to spend a lot of effort working on it. Nothing comes easy. Yet the most complex thing – another human being – is a different story. It is certainly easier to make a baby than to write a book, but a baby is so much more interesting, more complex, more unexpected, and smells better than a book. This is what people used to call Grace – a gift that we neither deserve nor understand.

Now I get Lewis Carroll; he meant to say that Alice IS the Wonderland; she carries all of this inside her, the Rabbit with white gloves, and the Caterpillar, the March Hare and the Hatter. How interesting. Curiouser and curiouser.

Jun 1, 2012

The other education

Yesterday, I saw the Providence AFTERZONE end-of-the-year celebration. There was an Aikido club, a soccer club, a few art and crafts groups, a noisy group of kids wearing monster masks, a guitar studio, a dance group, the Save the Bay, the natural history museum, and so many others – I cannot list them all. And of course, a few hundred kids were bussed in to showcase their work, and to play in the inflatable obstacle course. In education, I am more impressed by things that appear normal, by the phenomena that feels “as things should be.” Let me call this the sense of elated normality. We all have a sense of good life in us, a certain instinct to recognize when things go right. But there is a narrower subset of the same sense as applied to the world of childhood and learning; you know a good educational experience when you see it.

Coincidentally, I am trying to work on a paper for a new journal called Other Education that is going to cover forms of education outside traditional schooling. This made me think about a profound damage to American education that was done and is continued to be done by the Back-to-basics thinking. In business, if you want to improve the quality and efficiency, you concentrate on your core production process, and let go of all extraneous things. Well, this is not exactly true even for business, but alas education was influenced not by real business people, but by business gurus. So the thinking went – if you want kids to learn more math, then spend more time and money on learning math, and less time on fluff like dance groups and a bead jewelry clubs. And while we are at it, let’s also cut recess to only a few minutes, and oh, let the junior high band go, too, for it is very expensive and we have another round of cuts.

But this is not how education works. If you are after the core skills such as literacy and numeracy, the road to them is indirect. For certain developmental reasons, it is especially so in the middle school. The road goes through relationships. You need first to latch on children’s interests, then build a relationship with students, and only then can you ask – oh, why don’t we also learn some algebra. One of the core problem affecting education is, unfortunately, the democracy itself. Most educational professionals will recognize the need for afterschool and summer programming immediately. If you want to be a hard-nosed pragmatic, you need to see the “fluff” as the educational infrastructure and the hard skills as a product. Unfortunately, the lay boards and politicians that run education in this country find that reasoning hard to understand. I have to admit that even within our profession, some people with experiences limited to just schools and classrooms do not understand it either. Hence the generation of partially blind educational reformers hammering away at accountability solutions.

An economic analogy would be this: you can invest all you want in food production, but if you don’t have any roads to get food from growers to consumers, you cause both food shortages and waste. In education, the path through children’s interests to relations IS the only road to deliver learning to them. We neglect, defund, and actively destroy the road, and pump all resources we can muster into the production. But if children or their minds are not in the classroom, they won’t learn no matter how hard the teacher tries and how skillful she or he is.

This is why I experienced the sense of elated normality yesterday. Our state has one of the most innovative and organized afterschool communities in the country, and this is one achievement we can be proud of. PASA wants to sign every middle-schooler in the city who wants it to a Summer day camp, for free. This is how things should be. This society absolutely can afford it, even if school budgets must be cut to do that.