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Testing: A Lousy Leadership Model

November 27, 2012

In his column today, David Brooks shares the story of a viral email written by Nick Crews, an Englishman who was in despair over the lives of his adult children and the effect it was having on his grandchildren. The vitriolic missive, dubbed “The Crews Missile” excoriates his children for their serial failures and concluded with the following:

“I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a REALISTIC plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about.”

He signed the e-mail, “I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed. Dad.”

Brooks’ concluding paragraphs discuss how this approach is doomed to failure.

The problem, of course, is that no matter how emotionally satisfying these tirades may be, they don’t really work. You can tell people that they are fat and that they shouldn’t eat more French fries, but that doesn’t mean they will stop. You can make all sorts of New Year’s resolutions, earnestly deciding to behave better, but that doesn’t mean you will.

People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.

Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones….

It’s a lousy leadership model. Don’t try to bludgeon bad behavior. Change the underlying context. Change the behavior triggers. Displace bad behavior with different good behavior. Be oblique. Redirect.

As one who thinks the endless testing of children in schools is bludgeoning, I offered the following comment:

As an educator, I can attest to the fact that the Crews Missile Approach fails… and it fails because it “bludgeons bad behavior” (i.e. low test scores) without making any effort to change or even acknowledge the underlying context— which is poverty. No matter how many tests we administer— and we’ve tried a lot of tests in education— the results invariably show a high correlation between poverty and low test scores… yet instead of acknowledging this context and trying to change it we bludgeon the schools and teachers trying hard to work with these children… and it’s a lousy leadership model. 

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