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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Why You Should Pick a School that Doesn't Look Like a School

Too many people running the world, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, don't have skin in the game.

In his latest book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, the author of The Black Swan and Antifragile invites us now to consider the basic idea that if you have no skin in the game, you simply shouldn't be in the game.

Throughout this dense, but ultimately rewarding, book, shots are fired against academics, politicians, bankers and anyone else who happens to take risks without ever having to face the consequences for their actions.

By contrast, Taleb argues, Artisans have their soul in the game and Entrepreneurs are heroes in our society. Why? Because they roll up their sleeves, jump right in, risk everything and, more often than not, fail for the rest of us.

In other words, life is transactional and you simply cannot expect to gain without some degree of pain.

A photograph of a man standing by water and a wonderful sunset
Taleb offers a commentary on both modern society and the kind of schools we need to aspire to become.

So what has any of this to do with education?

For those of us who are at all interested in the future of the learning business, there are perhaps three interconnected life-lessons here - extrapolations of the tale that Taleb is weaving.

  1. Pick a school that doesn't look like a school. If you don't have your skin in the learning game, says Taleb, you can all too easily start to offer a multitude of cosmetic add-ons that miss the essential nature of true learning. It's like joining a gym, he explains, impressed by the many hi-tech machines - machines that will have no long term benefit apart from training your body to skilfully use the same machines. Taleb concludes that we'd be better off choosing a gym that doesn't look like a gym. Or maybe just buying a decent pair of shoes and going for a run. And although he doesn't say it explicitly, it makes me wonder whether one of the most fundamental problems in our schools today is the fact that they are filled with learning "machines" that only train students to be better students, rather than "fit" for life beyond school.

  2. Beware educational scientism. The second lesson is all about simplicity. Taleb couldn't put it more clearly: Things designed by people without skin in the game tend to grow in complication (before their final collapse). He calls this scientism fluff, ideas-free verbose circularity and the endless need to show sophistication. Scientism in reaction to a person with a headache offers brain surgery (again, at no cost to the surgeon who only wishes to demonstrate how good a surgeon he or she might be) when all that is required is an aspirin. Non-skin-in-the-game people, Taleb concludes, don't get simplicity. So again, it makes me wonder whether it isn't our moral responsibility in schools to start asking one, and only one, question each time we consider a new idea or initiative in our schools: Is this the simplest solution that we have available to us right now? We should also be aware of listening too much to those around us who are compensated to find complicated solutions and therefore have no incentive to implement simplified ones.

  3. Crown the risk takers, not the risk transferors. Finally, we might do well to consider Taleb's observation that historically, all warlords and warmongers were warriors themselves and that societies were run by risk takers, not risk transferors. Which, of course, begs the question to those of us who are educational leaders: what have we got to lose? How much are we really investing of ourselves, our reputation, our career into the schools in which we work? Furthermore, if things don't go as planned, will we have the courage to stick around and rebuild, or is the system designed simply to help us move along to the next post?

In the end, Taleb concludes, scars signal skin in the game. So if we don't have any, it might be that it's time to jump right in and get involved. And teach our children to do the same.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash.

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