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The Financial System Isn’t the Only Broken System

October 11, 2011

This morning Elmer Rich III, a Public Relations Expert in the Greater Chicago area, sparked a LinkedIn conversation about our intrinsic irrational behavior and the ways in which it manifests in society. The following quote is from “Delusions of Peace”, John Gray’s latest critique on Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes.

“As the related discipline of behavioural finance has shown in some detail with regard to decision-making under conditions of risk and uncertainty, human thought and perception are riddled with bias, inconsistency and self-deception. Since our minds are animal minds things could hardly be otherwise. Shaped by imperatives of survival, the human mind will not normally function as an organ for seeking out the truth.

If science is the pursuit of truth it doesn’t follow that anything similar is possible in other areas of human life. The idea that humans can shape their lives by the use of reason is an inheritance from rationalist philosophy that does not fit easily with what we know of the evolution of our mammalian brain. The end result of scientific inquiry may well be that irrational beliefs are humanly indispensable.”

– John Gray, Ph.D.

After reading this quote, I immediately thought of a recent conversation I had with a close friend who happens to be a teacher. After college, she entered into a two-year teaching fellowship in Chicago. Except she happened to live in Chicago and teach in Gary, Indiana.

In her weekly cohort meetings, which took place in Chicago, she realized that in Illinois, the state government allowed supplementary materials (posters, notes on the blackboard, etc…) on the classroom walls during the State Achievement Tests – tests which identify the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) of the teacher’s classroom and subsequently, the entire school. In Indiana, it is mandated that the walls have to be bare; no supplementary information is available.

This story was undoubtedly told with a tone that screamed look-at-how-screwed-up-our-system-is. Then, I asked her, “If you were teaching in Chicago, would you have kept that information up around the classroom?”

She replied, “Of course, I would be putting my students at a disadvantage if I didn’t.”

We constantly try to rationalize solutions, behaviors and processes through metrics and quantitative performance indicators. But it’s our raw animalistic “imperatives of survival” that dictate our behavior and the process that lands at that end point. In this specific instance, this teacher was acting rationally because she wanted to enable her children to succeed from an institutional perceptive. Success on state tests means more instantaneous, widespread recognition of success and “educational gain”.  Additionally, the success of her students reflects her competency as a teacher. On the other hand, “teaching to the test” – training students where to look in a classroom to answer specific types of questions – fundamentally inhibits and restricts learning. Our understanding of rationality and irrationality manifest within a pre-established framework that we have created; the real question is, how do we create a system that incentivizes people to act both “rationally” and towards “Truth”?

Our world isn’t perfect and it’s true that we will probably never arrive at an institutional system that enables continuous rational decision-making towards “Truth.” But, the fact is that rationality does exist, and in this case, teachers do the have the capacity to remove supplementary materials from the classroom during the State Achievement Tests. Even if there are three teachers within the entire state of Illinois who make this decision, it proves that as humans, we have the capacity to act this way – towards “Truth” even though it “does not fit easily with what we know of the evolution of our mammalian brain.”

We often reference our financial system to highlight irrational/rational behavior within society, but these behaviors are amplified simply because the cost and risk associated are more directly connected and exorbitantly higher compared to other professions. Is one teacher in one classroom going to dismantle our economy? No. Are the 99% of teachers in Illinois who adhere to the State Achievement Test standards going to affect the children of Illinois, and perhaps the future economic outcome of the state? Yes.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 11, 2011 11:00 am

    It is a broken system, but I think the fault line is the tests themselves, and not the methods used to pass them. It is rational, if not moral behavior for a teacher to establish a system that will get the most kids to pass a test, and most, if not all kids can look at supplemental materials on a blackboard. And once you have precedent, teachers who refrain from this method run the risk of garnering a lower passing rate.
    I don’t have an answer to the standardized testing dilemma, other than to say they should be abolished.

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