Column #14, posted 2/21/02

It is those Terrible Fig Newtons that are the Problem

I was selected to be "wanded" after going through the metal detector at the airport the other day. The uniformed man did the usual "put your arms out" routine and then noticed a bulge in my pocket. "What's that?" he said. "A Fig Newton," said I. He made me take it out and put it on the table. I must say I am very impressed with security at the airports these days. No one will be hijacking any planes using a Fig Newton, that's for sure.

"What does this have to do with education?" you wonder.

Funny you should ask.

Those of you who have read my book Coloring Outside the Lines: Raising a Smarter Kid by Breaking All the Rules will recall that I tried to encourage my children to follow their hearts in deciding how to deal with their schooling. Since my son was a subway nut I encouraged him to study transportation, and he did. In that book I had him working for the New York subway system, but that was a while back, and now he works for the US Dept of Transportation. Lately he has been smuggling guns, knives, and bombs through metal detectors and human wanders, and onto airplanes. He has been doing this because the Department of Transportation has some worries about the vulnerability of the system, as do we all. I am sorry to say that the results of what he has been doing won't make you worry any less. He has gotten more stuff through than he cares to say. When I told him about the Fig Newton he had a pretty good explanation for what was going on.

He said that the guys who do the wanding never find much besides keys and spare change, so in a sense, that is what they look for. They examine what is in your pockets because it is a kind of success. "Oh boy, I found something." They feel a kind of superiority when they find some metal because they feel like have been doing their jobs and you have been found out. (OK, maybe the Fig Newton didn't give the guy very much satisfaction, but those nail clippers are probably pretty exciting.)

What does this have to do with education, you ask?


How is it possible to teach somebody to do something if that something never happens? What might training for baggage screeners and human wanders look like? If they were taught to look for stuff that was in unusual places in their training they might become very proficient at knowing where to look and what to do. But, and this is the real issue: that training would be undone by reality. Training continues throughout real life. It does not occur solely in school. You can teach anyone anything you like, drum it into their heads by repeated testing, and it will go right out again if it isn't used. More importantly, the training will actually be undone, reversed in effect, by a trainee discovering that what he has learned brings no rewards and that the real rewards are elsewhere.

This is, of course, exactly what goes on in school all the time. Train people to do do geometry all you want, and it really doesn't matter because they will never do it again, and it will be forgotten. Train them on the subjunctive case in French all you want, but the reality of speaking in simple sentences when they get to France will untrain them from proper grammar into everyday speech.

The same is true with airport security. How then should we train people when we know that reality will untrain them? There are two answers to this. The first relates to school:

Stop training people for things they will never do

For example, in real life almost no one does logarithms, writes essays about their summer vacation, needs to recount important events in US History, compares the work of Dickens with the works of Tolstoy, or balances a chemical equation. These things never come up, so they are forgotten. Moreover, they should be forgotten, because they don't matter. Excuses like learning things like this helps you learn to learn, or learn to reason, or introduces you to things you might want to do in the future, are simply unproven and most likely untrue. Our whole school system rests on assumptions like these, and they are very likely very wrong assumptions. Let's try teaching what people are going to need when they go out into the real world. What will they need? Why not look around and see what people do in the real world? I am not the first to suggest this. No one paid much attention when Ben Franklin said the same things in 1754.

Now for the second training-relevant answer. What if what we train people to do doesn't correspond to what they actually do are going to do, because we can't really teach them something that will be undone by the actual practice of what they do daily?

To answer this one let me tell you a story. I was once asked by the Dutch government to help them teach teenagers not to smoke. I suggested that they create a biology curriculum for high schools that involved having students work in a simulated lung cancer laboratory for a year dealing with diseased tissues and real (on video) patients who were dying from lung cancer. I figure that most lung cancer doctors don't smoke, and that after a year in this simulated lab neither would the teenagers (and they might learn a little real biology on the way). This was too radical for the government, as you might imagine.

Why would this work? Because people are emotional beings and they remember emotional experiences. School and training are eminently forgettable because they are usually unemotional (except of course for the fear of failing.) But seeing sickening stuff day in and day out for a year can cause a heavy resolve to be created that enables people to resist the realities of the outside world (like that all their friends smoke). In other words, the reward system (peer approval, or finding a nail clipper) is replaced by a deeper emotional bias that is not easily undone because it has been placed inside one's psyche. So, that having been said: how do we train airport security people? By scaring the hell out of them, that's how. By having them go onto their wanding act so frightened of what they might fail to find that they actually look where their emotions take them not where the reward system takes them.

Train people for things that they will never encounter by kindling deep emotional reactions

And how do we do that? That is the subject of another column.

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