Search This Blog

Nov 2, 2013

The world is simpler than you think

Some complex problems can be explained by very trivial conditions. For example, I was struggling to understand why would a federal research institute create a monster of a professional standard with 16 pages, single-spaced, including 54 competencies. The last one is the ability “to plan and conduct negotiations with Russian and foreign counterparts.” And this is for a master’s degree in education. Why would anyone do this? There is absolutely no way to check for all of these competencies. The fairly important task of building a coherent program is impossible to do with the numerous competencies in mind. The standard reminded me of the first generation of NCATE standards, just as clumsy and worthless. Why would the Russian government wish to make the same mistake as Americans made some quarter century ago?

The answer is simple – the institute that writes those standards is paid good money for the job. President Putin has decreed to create 800 new standards by 2015 – what a silly idea in the world of constantly changing jobs and shifting competencies! Regardless, writing the standards has become an industry. And people who write them want to make sure the documents are long and dense enough to justify the money.

By the way, the clumsiness of American standards probably was rooted in a different simple explanation. They were all written by committees of volunteers, and anyone who tried the game knows how it usually ends. People are exhausted by negotiations, and they begin including each other’s points not because they agree, but simply to preserve some semblance of peace within the writing committee. So the points keep being added.

Yes, these simple conditions that everyone knows and yet no one notices, are usually at the very root of ugly bureaucratic things we suffer from. We accuse each other of evil intent or stupidity, both of which may sometimes be true. However, more often than not an invisible small mistake at the origin of an idea creates a very complicated and sometimes very harmful consequence.

I am not sure what to do about this. Perhaps we must learn these lessons one by one: do not write standards by committee. Do not pay people by length of the document if you want simplicity. The most important lesson is to look for simple explanation; it is usually true.

No comments:

Post a Comment