Monday, October 1, 2012

Hard Line on Soft Stuff

            This weekend I read Nilofer Merchant’s 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era. It’s part of my years-long quest to capture what makes an independent school, particularly one school such as St. John’s, truly valuable. Even hoping to show—and I tread carefully when using this term—that the cost is a worthwhile investment in a child’s education. I began reading the book on a search for strategies, tactics, models. Instead, I found affirmation about points I’ve made previously in pieces such as “Less I, More R.” It came in a delightful new way.
            Almost halfway through the book, Merchant points out:
Social has never been a technology trend, as it is often depicted by the experts. Humans have always wanted to connect, organize, and create value. Back when there were tribes, people had community and naturally had relationships in the marketplace. But our current organizational constructs have been focused on scale at the cost of connections. In truth, if we let it, marketing in the Social Era will look like any other relationship, perhaps like falling in love, following an arc of romance, struggle, commitment, and sometimes, co-creation… (loc 549)
I find the metaphor fascinating, and she explains a bit about how it plays out in each stage. She then concludes this section:
No wonder social marketing is so hard to get right. It is as complex as any relationship. And let’s remember this: love isn’t rational, but a combination of logic and emotional needs. In this construct, relationships certainly aren’t predictable. (Try applying any predictive metrics to your love life and see how it goes.) And, as anyone who’s ever been in love can attest, it’s not a linear path. (loc 578)
Aha! What a great way of thinking about school! It is as “complex as any relationship,” that “combination of logic and emotional needs.” In a way, the logical part is relatively easy. Independent schools should be preparing their students academically so that they can thrive at the next level and beyond. But how that happens is neither linear nor predictable. It is highly individual and even idiosyncratic. Plus we know that cognitive functioning is greatly affected by emotional state; someone can’t, for example, think as clearly when upset. In simpler terms, ask a child about a teacher’s quality, and you usually will receive a response centered on some personal trait, usually how nice the teacher is. Even as students grow older, the student-teacher relationship often determines the learning.
Even if we could make education nice, clean, logical process, we shouldn’t, particularly not nowadays. Independent school consultant Marc Frankel recently led a seminar on 21st century skills with the board and administration at a large day school. On his blog he wrote:
Again and again, it is the so-called soft stuff that emerges from such conversations with academic and business leaders. High-level traditional academics are table stakes these days; the differentiators (for schools and students) are increasingly among the soft stuff.
It’s that soft stuff that is so hard to capture, and our logical side keeps pushing us to seek ways to do so. But as Tom Peters pointed out in Of Search of Excellence, what’s hard is often soft, and what’s soft is often hard.
            Indeed. Great schools acknowledge this, and they willingly embrace the challenge. I’d say it’s even where we do our best, most meaningful work; it’s how we influence lives. To some degree, we—educators, trustees, families—almost all believe this, particularly when we focus on mission, core values, ideal graduate profiles, educating for the future, etc. The irony is that often it’s when we become emotional, when we begin to lose faith, that we cry out for the logical, for the signs the investment in education somehow will scale.
            At those times we must heed this passage from another part of my weekend reading, a work one would anticipate to stress the logical over all else: Howard Rheingold’s Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter?:
That was the fundamental lesson I took away from artificial-intelligence pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum’s 1968 cautionary polemic Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. Simply being able to reason more effectively is not only unlikely to improve the human condition in the absence of other, more humane capacities, Weizenbaum warned: it can do harm. (loc 543)

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