TITLE: Would I Lie to You? AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 14, 2007 7:54 PM DESC: ----- BODY: On the plane back from beautiful southern California, I read Seth Godin's 2005 book All Marketers Are Liars. A few months ago, I wrote a short essay in which I considered the role of persuasion in teaching, and using what we know about how the brain works to reach students. Viewed cynically, this becomes more marketing than substance. Godin confronts this sort of cynicism about the business of marketing head on and refuses to shrink from connotation. To him, marketing is not hype and spam and telemarketers reading from scripts; those are mere bastardizations of a universal truth about buying and selling and stories. This book presents Godin's theory and practice of effective and responsible marketing. He accepts the verb "to lie", with a twist from how we usually apply it to marketing. As I wrote in that earlier essay, and in several more since on stories, I believe something that Bruce Schneier and Kathy Sierra have said, that it's okay -- even wise -- to use what we know about how people think to help us change what people think. Sierra boldly suggests that this applies to what teachers do -- even teachers of computer science. So Godin's book left me wondering... If some of teaching is marketing, and some of marketing is lying, is some of teaching lying? Yes, I think it is, in the sense that Godin uses the term. A teacher is telling a story. For this story to be effective, it must be one that the listener already believes, or at least almost believes. A good teacher meets her students where they are, working within their existing world view, starting with what they already know and believe. She works to help them to "buy into" the story, to actively participate in the story, to be complicit in telling the story to themselves. Godin goes farther. We all hope that teachers rise above the stereotypical used car salesman by speaking truth. Godin tells us that, while the best marketers may not speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth all of the time, even they must be authentic. They must live lives congruent with the story they tell; they must believe it; they must be consistent in their message. We sometimes call this "practicing what you preach". I think that a teacher must tell an authentic story, which includes practicing what we teach. There is, of course, another sense in which teachers are liars. Computer science is a wide and deep discipline. At the beginning of their studies, most students are not ready to hear or understand the full breadth and depth of computing. So we simplify the story, telling just the part of the truth that students are ready to understand, laying the groundwork that prepares them to go wider and deeper. Sometimes, we have to oversimplify, telling a story that is not strictly true, so that students will learn what they need to know now, preparing them for a more accurate story later. Anyone who has taught any real programming language to CS1 students -- C++ and Java have been the most popular over the last 10-12 years -- knows what I mean. If I try to tell a 100% accurate story about Java constructors or access modifiers to my CS1 students, most will learn nothing at all. The story is too complex for their world view of programs. So I tell a circumscribed, simplified, and technically inaccurate story, as a means to help them learn. We call these stories "simplifications", maybe even "oversimplifications", or more grandiosely "abstractions" -- but rarely do we call them lies. Yet they are incomplete stories that often fail when they are examined closely or stretched beyond their limits. They serve a purpose, and soon the student is ready for a more complete story, which we then tell. The student's world view grows. What she knows and believes comes a bit more into line with what I (and perhaps the textbook author) know and believe about the world, which usually reflects what the community of computer science scholars believes to be the most accurate story we can tell. Of course, I don't want to leave students only with my view of the world; I want to help them develop the faculties they need to create their own viewpoint, to analyze new data and new ideas critically. But that is a long-term project, not something that is likely to happen in their earliest courses. Note that this way of thinking makes the teacher's own authenticity even more important. Students soon realize that they are learning simplifications and abstractions. When we are authentic and consistent, when we practice what we teach, students can trust us and believe that our simplifications are worthwhile stepping stones. Then our stream of simplifications looks like unfolding truth, not just convenient falsehoods meant to fill class time. Godin doesn't directly address instructors, but many of his lessons sound as if he knows our plight. Consider:
Some marketers focus so hard on the facts of their offering that they forget to tell a story at all, and then wonder why the fail.
... there's a lot of teaching for marketers to do. Alas, there is no time to do it. [There are too many facts to communicate, and too many competitors for your audience's attention.] As a result, people pick and choose. Everyone will not listen to everything.
All Marketers Are Liars is another short and sweet book, under 180 pages. It is better written than Let's Kill Dick and Jane. Godin practices what he teaches, and that makes for a good story. Or is that just the lie I tell myself after Godin tells me his story? -----