Tag: education

More Practice, Less Theory

“What do we need to know this for?” I asked as my K5 teacher tried to tell me how to write more clearly.

My penmanship was pretty bad and the teacher realized that I was writing my letters backward.  Instead of writing some of my letters from bottom to top, I wrote from bottom to top.  I remember being annoyed and asking “what do we need to know this for?”  I could read my writing and so could the teacher, but I wasn’t following the rules.  In 3rd grade, I pretty much refused to learn cursive because I could print really fast and hated the new rules, again asking “what do we need to know this for?”  I continued this (probably incredibly annoying) refrain all the way through middle school: manually calculating slope instead of using a graphic calculator, diagramming sentences, specific types of bibliographies.  Even gym class wasn’t safe from my middle school ire.

Somewhere along the line, probably around freshman year of high school, I kept the questions to myself, but decided to tune out anything that I thought wasn’t going to help me later in life.  I loved reading about interesting things that had happened in real life and writing about current events, but hated theoretical or outdated lessons.  My favorite class in high school was consumer economics, an entire class devoted to balancing your checkbook, investing in stocks and personal economics.  It was real and I still use many of those skills I learned sophomore year.

I hated geometry because of the rigidity of proofs, hated calculus because I couldn’t understand why we had to do it by hand when we had graphing calculators to do it for us.  I hated memorizing the parts of a cell in freshman biology and reading about the Greek Gods.  It was boring and I couldn’t see the benefit later in life.  I haven’t used any of those “skills” since. This choice was the main reason why I got waitlisted at UW and almost didn’t get in, but I don’t regret it one bit.

When I got to college, I was expecting a change.  I thought we would learn how to succeed in the real world, but I quickly realized it was going to be more of the same inside the classroom.  I realized that if I was going to learn, I would have to do it myself.  After I bought ExchangeHut, I thought I’d try the business school.

After about half of a semester, I realized it wasn’t right for me.  Accounting 100 was rule driven and required you to do problems by hand.  After managing ExchangeHut’s accounting in Quickbooks for a few months, I couldn’t understand why we would figure out any of that stuff by hand.  Why not just use Quickbooks and save all of the trouble?  After the first four weeks, we started to learn about how Wal-Mart manages its inventory and how other large corporations prepare financial statements.  While I understand accountants need to know this stuff, I realized it was worthless to me.  I could use quickbooks for my accounting and if I ever got really successful, I’d hire an accountant.  Why bother?  I found the over reliance on theory to be extremely prevalent in business school classes.

I had a simple accounting question for ExchangeHut and asked four different friends who were Accounting majors with good GPAs.  None of them knew the answer, but they could sure solve the question on the exam about WalMart’s inventory system.  It happened again this year with an intern for Entrustet.  We have a finance major who earned a 4.0 from UW and is graduating in the spring.  He is clearly smart and learns quickly.  We have him doing some balance sheet work and other finance related tasks and he’s good at it.  He was working on our balance sheet and ran into a somewhat complex issue, so he went to his finance professor and asked for help.  The professor said “just use quickbooks, it’ll know where to put everything in the right place.”

At first I just laughed, but then I realized this was a microcosm of why students are having trouble adjusting the the real world.  I don’t think its our intern’s fault.  He just was never taught how to use quickbooks and as soon as he got to the real world, his professor says “use quickbooks.”  That’s what happens to graduates all over the country.  Rebecca Thorman’s post addresses how colleges are failing students, but I really think the over reliance on theory in the place of practice is what is hurting students.  Ellen Nordahl looks at the problem from the other side in her post about how students are unengaged.  Universities need to teach students more skills they will use in the workplace or they will not be prepared.  I bet if students weren’t asking themselves “what do we need to know this for” in their heads, they would be more engaged in their school work.

I am not saying that we should throw out all theory.  It is clear that you need to understand the basic theory in order to implement them in practice, but universities have swung way to far to toward the theory end of the continuum.

Schools are not the only place where the balance is out of whack. I ref a bunch of soccer each year and see the same basic problem.  I ref everything from U-11 to high school to semi-pro adults and I really enjoy it.  Each year, all refs have to take a recertification course that is supposed to refresh refs on the laws of the game and let us know about any rule changes.  It also gives instructors a chance to stress certain aspects of the game and teach better game management.  At the end of the class, everyone has to take a 100 question test and get at least a 75% in order to retain their badge. All USSF refs have to take this class each year, so attendees range from 12 year old first year refs to 70 year old guys who have been reffing for 35 years.  Sounds like a good system, right?

Wrong.  The test focuses on incredibly abstract game situations that would never happen, even to a World Cup level referee.  Here’s some actual questions from the test:

Q: An offensive player is dribbling toward goal, standing outside the penalty area.  A defender who is standing in the penalty area takes off his shoe and throws it at the ball, knocking it away.

Q: A player takes his shin guard off and slaps the ball with the shin guard in his hand.

There are a ton more, but you get the idea.  You have to know the rules to get these questions right, but they cause everyone’s eyes to glaze over.  It would be a test that would be great to do as trivia, but doesn’t really help a 12 year old new referee manage a game.

Because the test is so skewed toward situations that will never happen to you, the instructors have to teach to the test, just like teachers in middle and high schools do for state tests.  To make matter worse, the instructors use jargon heavy language instead of using concrete examples.  For example, at my most recent clinic, a kid of about 13 was confused about offside.  The instructor had said “as the assistant referee, make sure you stay with the second to last defender.”  The kid raised his hand and said “I thought it was the last defender.”  It was clear that the kid forgot that the goalkeeper counts as a defender, but instead of explaining it with an example, the instructor just repeated his sentence again, but more slowly and with more emphasis.  The kid didn’t understand until another ref at my table explained it to him with a diagram and an example.  There were so many other examples like this during the 8 hour course, my head started to hurt.

A huge percentage of kids quit refereeing each year because they get screamed at by coaches and parents.  The recertification classes should teach foul recognition (ie, when to blow the whistle and when not to), how to kick a coach out, how to deal with parents and the basic rules of the game, not what to do if someone throws a shoe at the ball or whether the correct restart after a chicken walks onto the field and knocks the ball over the end-line is a drop ball or a goal kick.  They should be showing videos of fouls from youth and adult games to keep people engaged.  A quick search of YouTube for “soccer violence” or “youth soccer red cards” brings up tons of teaching moments.  Additionally, FIFA makes rule changes each year, usually as a result of something that happened in an important game.  We could have watched videos of each situation to explain why FIFA decided to make the change, but instead we just read it from the book. Just like you learn how to succeed in the real world by doing things and learning practical things like Quickbooks, soccer referees learn from watching other successful referees work and learning from real life situations.

It is harder to come up with engaging, real life lesson plans than it is to teach theory.  Its also riskier.  I think educators are less likely to try to teach real life situations because it takes time to come up with more in depth lesson plans and it’s not the safe choice.  In The Wire (my favorite tv show ever), a teacher realizes that he can teach probability to his inner city students via dice.  The kids love it and learn because they can see how they will use this skill in real life.  I think everyone agrees that the US has to do a better job of preparing students for the future.  The first step is to stop teaching so much theory and start teaching things that students will use in real life.

Business School Way of Life…Revisited

My previous post from Saturday generated the most feedback of any of my posts so far.  I received tons of emails from some people who agreed and others who thought I was full of it.  I’ll try to clarify and expand further with this post.

I don’t think its wrong to be rich or wrong to want to get rich.  Where it becomes a problem is when the main or only goal is to get rich.  In situations like this, people cut corners and look the other way to make a quick buck.  They do not do the right thing or build for the long term.  As my friend Joe, an Indiana business school grad said, “its becomes poker to them.”  As in all get rich quick schemes, at some point, someone ends up holding the bag.
My problem with the Business School Way of Life is that, for many, the main and only goal is to get rich.  Getting rich should be the byproduct of doing something that is useful and that you like to do.  If you create something worthwhile that people want, odds are, society will compensate you for your efforts.  
Business school is not the only area of the American economy that is prone to this disease.  During the tech boom, people started companies with the express goal of getting rich, rather than building a useful product.  In the end, the bubble burst and the people who were in it solely for the money ended up failing.  Athletes who are in it only for the money don’t seem to do as well as those who love the game.  Construction workers who cut corners to make a quick buck fall victim to the same disease. 
At least in previous bubbles, the people who tried to “get rich quick” left behind lasting infrastructure.  The railroad tycoons connected America.  Oil barons found new resources to lead the world into the automobile age.  The fiber optics companies paved the way for the Internet.  What has the finance industries’ boom and bust left us with?
My previous post was more a critique of American culture as a whole, using the business school way of life as a lens to focus on the problem.  It seems to me that many people my age now expect to love their jobs AND get rich without putting in full effort.  It seems to me that people in previous generations expected to have to grind away in jobs that they did not necessarily love in order to succeed.  I am not suggesting that everyone should go to work in a big company and grind away in corporate America.  On the contrary, I think it would be great if more people took the risk of joining smaller companies out of college or even started their own.  This way, they would be more focused on building something lasting, rather than “playing poker” with other people’s money.
I may have been too harsh on business schools and the people who attend them, but I truly believe that the world would be a better place if more people decided to go into other, more productive careers.  If more people would stop trying to get rich quick and instead tried to build something new and interesting, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess that we are in now.  I think that if current college students and recent grads got back to the basics of trying to solve problems and build interesting and worthwhile things, they, along with us, would be better off.

The Business School Way of Life

John Talton’s recent article on britannica.com called “Business Schools & Financial Services: Oh The Harm They’ve Caused” is a great article on a subject that I have been meaning to write about for awhile now.  Talton’s main premise is that:

…for a generation or more…so many of our brightest college graduates have gone to Wall Street to get rich, rather than creating something useful or beautiful, rather than helping to strengthen and reinvent industries that actually produce something. Those with less talent, connections or family money have mimicked them, choosing to work in “financial services.”

Tellingly, they are enrolled in highly publicized “ethics” courses. And year after year, the top graduates go into finance. Most graduates move into settings where they continue their socialization into being an unquestioning cog in the matrix. The motivation is at once banal and uniform: I’ve talked to many classes where students say their main goal in life is to “get rich.”

As a Poli Sci major who started and ran businesses while in college, I became disillusioned with many of the students who took their classes in Grainger Hall and the courses that they were enrolled in.  By Sophomore year, it was clear to me that many, if not most, of these students were on the “get rich quick” plan and had no interest in building anything interesting or worthwhile.  They wanted to become cogs in investment banks or work in financial services.
Their goals were so completely different from mine, as were their values.  They valued name over actions and flair over substance.  They viewed business school as the next step to bonus millions, rather than a place to learn how to actually do something.  To be clear, not everyone who I met in the business school fits into this category.  I can think of many counter examples of smart people who were genuinely interested in the inner workings of finance, real estate or accounting but in my experience, the vast majority fit into the “get rich quick” group.
Michael Lewis’ great article from the December edition of Portfolio called “The End of Wall Street” visits many of the same themes.  He is hopeful that with the recent downturn, many of these smart people will be dispersed into other, more productive industries.
I wholeheartedly agree.  The best thing that could happen during this recession would be for the extremely smart people currently working in finance to move into other industries.  Imagine if these smart people were unleashed to tackle other problems like the future of the auto industry, green technology, education or any other huge problem.  I know many will take those last few sentence as sarcasm since these same people had their hands in the financial meltdown, but I am hopeful that they might be more successful in other industries.
It would be great if the best and the brightest college students just entering college now eschewed not only the business school, but what I’ll call “the business school way of life” and learned common sense life lessons.  Instead of doing “finance” they learned history and politics and how the world actually works.  These smart people would be poised to lead America’s next generation of companies that actually create, invent and innovate, rather than just move money around.  I believe that America, not to mention the world as a whole, would be much better off if these changes occur.