TITLE: Good and Bad Use AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 20, 2007 3:14 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Recently I wrote about persuasion and teaching, in light of what we know about how humans perceive and react to risk and new information. But isn't marketing inherently evil, in being motivated by the seller's self-interest and not the buyer's, and thus incompatible with a teacher/student relationship? No. First of all, we can use an idea associated with a "bad" use to achieve something good. Brian Marick points out that the motivating forces of XP are built in large part on peer pressure:
Some of XP's practices help with discipline. Pair programming turns what could be a solitary vice into a social act: you and your pair have to look at each other and acknowledge that you're about to cheat. Peer pressure comes into play, as it does because of collective code ownership. Someone will notice the missing tests someday, and they might know it was your fault.
This isn't unusual. A lot of social organizations provide a former of positive peer pressure to help individuals become better, and to create a group that adds value to the world. Alcoholics Anonymous is an example for people tempted to do something they know will hurt them; groups of runners training for a marathon rely on one another for the push they need to train on days they feel like not and to exert the extra effort they need to improve. Peer pressure isn't a bad thing; it's just depends on who you choose for your peers. Returning to the marketing world, reader Kevin Greer sent me a short story on something he learned from an IBM sales trainee:
The best sales guy that I ever worked with once told me that when he received sales training from IBM, he was told to make sure that he always repeated the key points six times. I always thought that six times was overkill but I guess IBM must know what they're talking about. A salesman is someone whose income is directly tied to their ability to effectively "educate" their audience.
What we learn here is not anything to do with the salesman's motive, but with the technique. It is grounded in experience. Teachers have heard this advice in a different adage about how to structure a talk: "Tell them what you are about to tell them. Then tell them. Then tell them what you have just told them." Like Kevin, I felt this was overkill when I first heard it, and I still rarely follow the advice. But I do know from experience how valuable it can be me, and in the meantime I've learned that how the brain works makes it almost necessary. While I'm still not a salesman at heart, I've come to see how "selling" an idea in class isn't a bad idea. Steve Pavlina describes what he calls marketing from your conscience. His point ought not seem radical: "marketing can be done much more effectively when it's fully aligned (i.e., congruent) with one's conscience." Good teaching is not about delusion but about conscience. It is sad that we are all supposed to believe the cynical interpretation of selling, advertising, and marketing. Even in the tech world we certainly have plenty of salient reasons to be cynical. We've all observed near-religious zealotry in promoting a particular programming language, or a programming style, or a development methodology. When we see folks shamelessly shilling the latest silver bullet as a way to boost their consulting income, they stand out in our minds and give us a bad taste for promotion. (Do you recognize this as a form of the availability heuristic?) But. I have to overcome my confirmation bias, other heuristic biases that limit my thinking, and my own self-interest in order to get students and customers to gain the knowledge that will help them; to try new languages, programming styles, and development practices that can improve their lives. What they do with these is up to them, but I have a responsibility to expose them to these ideas, to help them appreciate them, to empower them to make informed choices in their professional (and personal!) lives. I can't control how people will use the new ideas they learn with me, or if they will use them at all, but if help them also to learn how to make informed choices later, then I've done about the best I can do. And not teaching them anything isn't a better alternative. I became a researcher and scholar because I love knowledge and what it means for people and the world. How could I not want to use my understanding of how people learn and think to help them learn and think better, more satisfyingly? -----