Tag Archives: education

Education and Development Don’t Need Great Ideas, They Need Great People

Here’s a crackerjack story about how a school in New Jersey improved student performance by teaching the basics of grammar, vocabulary and composition:

One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”


By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.


By sophomore year, Monica’s class was learning how to map out an introductory paragraph, then how to form body paragraphs. “There are phrases—specificallyfor instancefor example—that help you add detail to a paragraph,” Monica explains. She reflects for a moment. “Who could have known that, unless someone taught them?”

Homework got a lot harder. Teachers stopped giving fluffy assignments such as “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I” and instead demanded that students fashion an expository essay describing three major causes of the conflict.

There’s a tendency to read specific stories and try to wring generics out of them. Maybe all of America’s students are deficient in basic grammar! Maybe a nationwide curriculum on prepositions, argumentation and sentence structure would make up our education gap!

I don’t know anything about education, but after spending most of my career working in NGOs, I’ve realized that in development, the hard part isn’t coming up with a great idea, or even implementing that idea in a specific place. The hard part, every single time, is making that idea work in more than one place at a time.

Whenever we face this problem at work, I can’t help thinking about the Hawthorne effect:

This effect was first discovered and named by researchers at Harvard University who were studying the relationship between productivity and work environment. Researchers conducted these experiments at the Hawthorne Works plant of Western Electric. The study was originally commissioned to determine if increasing or decreasing the amount of light workers received increased or decreased worker productivity. The researchers found that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes to the experimental variable.

In other words, people don’t work harder because the bosses change the environment, they work harder because the bosses are watching them, and care what they’re doing. It’s like a group placebo.

This has societal implications. As William Baumol’s new book points out, the story of the last 50 years is steadily increasing productivity in farms, factories, computers, all the hard stuff. Efficiency gains in the soft stuff—healthcare, education, hair salons—haven’t kept up because in the service sector, someone fundamentally has to pay attention to someone else.

Some sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, have rising productivity—they regularly produce more with less, which leads to higher wages and rising living standards. But other sectors, like education, have a harder time increasing productivity. Ford, after all, can make more cars with fewer workers and in less time than it did in 1980. But the average student-teacher ratio in college is sixteen to one, just about what it was thirty years ago. In other words, teachers today aren’t any more productive than they were in 1980.

Growing 10 acres of corn doesn’t take 10 times as much effort as growing one acre. The more land you have, the more you benefit from irrigation, tractors, etc. But giving two haircuts takes exactly twice the effort of giving one haircut. There’s no way (now, anyway) for a doctor to examine 100 patients, or a teacher to pay attention to 100 students, the same way a factory makes 100 iPods.

And this is the hard part. Every time we come up with a new paradigm for education (Sentence structure! Standardized testing! STEM programs!) or development (Microcredit! Millennium goals! Mosquito nets!), we’re trying to get around the fundamental nature of the activity: Someone has to be there. They need to watch. They have to care.

I don’t want to take anything away from this school, its students or its achievement. What this principal has done is remarkable, and teachers and administrators everywhere should be given the freedom to try approaches that respond to the specific challenges of their students.

But every time an anecdote becomes a paradigm, and a paradigm becomes a rule, we risk forgetting that education and development aren’t always driven by great ideas or great methodologies. Sometimes they’re just great individuals. Standing there, turning the lights up and down, and paying attention to what happens.

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Filed under America, Work

Small Talk Is Horrible. And Everyone Should Know How To Do It.

Small talk is one of the rare social activities we perform where both people involved a) aren’t enjoying themselves and b) know the other person isn’t either. I know you hate talking about the weather, you know I hate listening to you talk about the weather, I know you know, you know I know, yet on and on we go, la la la.

Like a chess game, we play out the initial, routine moves like a sort of ritual (‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘How was your weekend?’) until we get somewhere neither of us has been before. Then we start paying attention.

Yet small talk is weirdly important. Most of your best friends began as people with whom you made inane, obligatory chitchat (‘So, how do you know Steve?’) in a bar, a classroom or a workplace somewhere. It’s like our entire species has decided, hivelike, that before we ask about things we like hearing, or talk about things we like saying, we want to make sure you’re capable of engaging in content-free pleasantries for at least 2 minutes.

I’m fascinated by how this differs across cultures. As anyone who has ever traveled, lived abroad or hosted an exchange student knows, chit-chat is as culturally loaded as manners, dating, sex or food. Some cultures talk to each other everywhere. Riding the bus, waiting in line, sitting in a cafe—everything’s an opportunity to engage with the people around you.

In other countries, starting a conversation with someone you don’t know is an event that provokes stunned silence and stricken glares. The fuck, their tone of voice says as they answer monosyllabically, is this dude talking to me for?

I grew up in America, which is somewhere between these extremes, and I’ve now experienced small talk in London (chatty but aloof), Berlin (chatty when drunk or homosexual) and Copenhagen (excuse me, do I know you?).

It’s not like these countries are genetically distinct from each other. Sometime growing up, someone taught you when to engage with people around you and, if necessary, how to continue upward into actually knowing them.

It’s interesting that, with all of the talk (OK maybe just TED talks) about ‘gross national happiness‘ and how countries should contribute to the overall well-being of their citizens, how little attention small talk receives as a public policy issue.

A population that is systematically equipped to engage new people and form sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships will be happier, healthier and more productive than one without. Social support reduces stress, increases lifespan and seems to prevent everything from nervous breakdowns to cancer. Not having friends is as bad for you as smoking.

And it all comes down to small talk. The better you are at performing these introductory catechisms (‘what neighborhood do you live in?’), the more efficient you are at identifying potential friends and, ultimately, obtaining social support.

Small talk isn’t any more complicated than touch-typing, or long division, or anything else you learned in middle school. You take turns, you listen closely, you stay on topic. Like most forms of human interaction, once you look at it closely, it’s formulaic enough that it can be learned—and taught.

So why don’t countries deliberately promote conversation skills? I’m legitimately curious about this. If schools teach financial literacy and cultural literacy, why don’t they teach social literacy? Making conversation, like sending a resume or acing a job interview, is something everyone should know how to do.

Happy populations don’t just happen. Our countries taught us to add and subtract, collect and analyze, read and think. Maybe it’s time they taught us to meet each other.


Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Germany, Personal, Serious