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Being ready

It’s crazy that teachers are criticized for training students specifically for the test. Standardized testing is a mainstay of the US education system and teachers are highly incentivized to produce good test scores. This has nothing to do with developing critical thinking skills, writing skills, or any of the myriad attributes we’d like to teach kids. Our current public policy and priority in the US is to deliver high test scores on standardized tests. We can debate the merits or pitfalls of this educational priority, but if teachers are mandated and incentivized to raise test scores, teachers will teach the test.

I recently entered an “adventure event”. The Tough Mudder is a 10 – 12 mile adventure foot race with 20+ obstacles laid out over the course. This event is billed as “Probably the toughest event on the planet” and the obstacles are designed to induce maximum psychological and physical discomfort. They include fire, electricity, confined spaces, cold, heat, barbed wire, immersions, heights, and above all, mud. Lots of mud. Pretty much from the outset the participant is wet and dirty. You’ll stay that way for the entire race; a period of 3-5 hours. It makes sense to train wet and muddy, since this is the condition of the event. To that end I’ve tried to simulate race conditions during my workouts in the hopes that come race day I’ll be impervious to “wet and muddy”.  My neighbors, colleagues, and family must think I’m crazy when I dash into the woods in a pouring rain or come back soaked, filthy and bloodied, but to me this is the sanest approach to preparing for the “toughest event on the planet”. It would be crazy not to train soaking wet and muddy.

Consider Gene Hackman’s character in the movie Crimson Tide. A roaring grease fire erupts in the galley and begins to spread. In the middle of that high-stress high-risk moment  the captain decides to stage a missile launch drill. When his unbelieving executive officer (Denzel Washington) questions the wisdom of the drill Hackman replies this is the very best time for a missile drill. You train to perform successfully under the most adverse conditions. Consider the Navy Seals; whose mission is conducted under the most demanding physical and psychological conditions. Seal training simulates real-life conditions.

We should always stack the deck in our favor, especially when we know what the expectations are and what outcomes are incentivized. This is “life-hacking”. If the expectation is higher test scores, then teach the test. If the goal is to lift more weight, stop running and start lifting. If your business is FDA regulated, turn every conversation towards your successful defense in an inspection.

It is so important for leaders to both set and understand the expectations. The world incentivizes specific behaviors and outcomes, and punishes those who ignore it. Teach the test, train for the most demanding and realistic conditions that you can imagine. When the test comes you’ll be ready.

Do you have a task, event, or life-test coming up?

Do you know what the expectations are?

Are you preparing for “life” the right way, no matter how crazy it may look to others?

  1. Zeeshan
    July 5, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Alex, you did it again what can I say you are one of the most brilliant minds i have ever gotten a change to know. You are absolutely right about our current educational system since it is mostly focused on high test scores even the SAT scores; this lacks a major component in our educational system which is “concepts”. If our concepts are not cleared it does not matter what score an individual got on a test. We are making our kids better at test taking, however students in foreign countries can solve problems faster, and without a calculator than our students in US. I believe the reason behind that is lack of “discipline” in our society, and especially in our schools. I believe the possible solution is to discipline our children by all means (in no situation I recommend hitting our children, or brutalize them) there are far better, and effective ways to discipline our children. We should not just let college recruiters come to schools and tell our children how great the surroundings of their school are. But we should also introduce them to people such as you (Alex) who are contributing to the cause. This would not just teach them how important it is to get education (not just a degree), it will also inspire them.

    • July 5, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      Strong medicine Z, thanks for your kind words. Debate of our educational priorities is a different discussion, but the premise stands: whatever behavior is incentivized is the behavior (most) people will show. The alternative is to get out, which is a fine and noble endeavor in its own right.

  2. July 6, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Coach Lamonica would CONCUR!!

    • July 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

      Thanks Larry. You’re right, Lamonica was the real deal. I didn’t understand then that game day was secondary; Coach was getting us ready for life. I frequently draw on that experience and am sustained by it still, 35 years later.

  3. Martha
    July 6, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I also think that this creative pursuit is helping you train as much as the physical preparation that you’ve endured. Perhaps that is the subject of a future blog. You could tie in Daniel Goleman. Great writing. Very tight with all the points connecting to the theme. I really like the use of an older reference, Crimson Tide, with a more contempary comparison to the tough mudder. Well done sir.

    • July 6, 2012 at 9:51 am

      Thanks for the feedback Martha. I don’t know Goleman…yet. I’m off to do my homework and find out. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Paul
    July 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Spot on Alex. It should come as no surprise that if you link teachers’ merit pay to higher test scores…they will teach to the test. Will this decrease emphasis on critical thinking? Of course it will. Most politicians I know, and many of my colleagues in business, do not seem to grasp the fact that education cannot be run like a business. If you truly ran an educational institution like a business, you would eliminate all lab science courses. Why? The cost per student is much greater than in any other academic discilpline. If you make money by putting bodies in seats, then teaching science is your least cost effective subject. Want execellent teachers in public schools? Raise the starting salaries to market levels then institute a Peer-Review system for merit pay that isn’t linked to test scores. But that might require actually investing in public education…

    • July 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      Dr. Paul, I love your take on healing the woes of our education process. Higher test scores are probably not predictive of increased GDP, increased lifespan, innovation indexes or any of the other things we’d like to education to be a proxy for. Socrates tried to run a free critical thinking center a few years ago and look where it got him. Seriously though, we suggest

        Deschooling Society

      by Ivan Illych as required reading on public education.

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