Coaching Letter #95

This Coaching Letter, like so many others, is about change.

Nicholas Taleb is one of my favorite writers.  I don’t imagine I would find him easy to like–I can’t think of anyone else so unabashedly arrogant– but the ideas he writes about are always intriguing and sometimes a little overwhelming.  I think everyone should read Black Swan, but Antifragile is hard going and I read it like I read the Bible, a few sentences at a time, and then I have stop and figure out what it means.  (I would love to be able to link to a Taleb TED talk, but I don’t think he’s very TED-like. If you can bear it, watch him talking about Antifragility).

One of my favorite ideas Taleb writes about in Antifragile is the Lindy Effect: the idea here is that a thing (and definitely not a person) has a life expectancy proportionate to its lifespan to date.  From Antifragile:

If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!

We think of technology as being fancy electronic gizmos, but a technology does not have to be complicated–and it doesn’t have to have an external power source, electric or otherwise.  Technology comes from the Greek Tekne–the Greeks had multiple words for knowledge–I know all this because I wrote a paper about wisdom in grad school–and Tekne is knowing how to get things done.  Technology, therefore, is any combination of knowledge, tools and techniques that enables a product to be created or an objective to be achieved.  Pen and paper is a technology, as is a book.  And the Lindy effect says that they will be around a lot longer than your iPad because they’ve already been around a lot longer than your iPad.  Hundreds of years longer.  (Not as long as walls or wheels, although just to be clear, walls have been around longer than wheels–sorry, couldn’t resist that one.)

I like the Lindy Effect because it gives me another way to think about change.  Our lives are supported by systems of interlocking technologies, and it is not a simple thing for one to replace another.  In our constant quest for change, we forget that there are really good reasons why some ideas, behaviors, and things are so persistent. Those reasons vary, of course, but they include: cheap, effective, efficient, memorable, portable, durable, and simple. And, possibly most importantly, already known.

As Annie Duke comments in Thinking in Bets, there are plenty of myths that persist because they provide a simple, easy to remember explanation, even when they are very easily disproved.

So when people complain about the rate of change, or how American education hasn’t changed much since the school calendar was built around the agricultural calendar, I think: what were you expecting? Every year that schools exist in their current iteration makes it that much more likely that they will endure. This leads me to one of my favorite quotations in the education literature, which I always think of as the socks quotation:

It costs state legislators and bureaucrats relatively little to fashion a new instructional policy that calls for novel sorts of classroom work. These officials can easily ignore the pedagogical past, for they do not work in classrooms, and they bear little direct responsibility for what is done in localities—even if it is done partly at their insistence. However teachers and students cannot ignore the pedagogical past, because it is their past. If instructional changes are to be made, they must make them. And changing one’s teaching is not like changing one’s socks. Teachers construct their practices gradually, out of their experience as students, their professional education, and their previous encounters with policies designed to change their practice. Teaching is less a set of garments that can be changed at will than a way of knowing, of seeing, and of being. (Cohen and Ball, 1999).

The Lindy Effect should give us cause for pause. It should introduce some humility into our thinking—we suffer from an optimism bias that makes change seem simpler and more straightforward than it really is, and we should learn to recognize that. And it should shift our thinking away from lamenting why people don’t change to considering why technologies persist.

As always, please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Yours, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
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