Category Archives: Evolution

I Think High Schools Should Teach More of These Two Things

Trying to answer of what, on the margin, high schools should teach more of gets at the heart of numerous subquestions, including:

  • What is the role of schooling?
  • Where is the economy heading?
  • What level of content can high schoolers handle?
  • What is already being covered well?

I will steal from a bunch of bloggers, academics, and practitioners in a way that will be a little hard to cite, but it’s fair to say that little that follows below is that original.

A Primary Goal of Schooling is to Normalize that which is Not Normal

In hunter and gather societies, Algebra is not normal. Nor is conscientiousness. Nor is abstract logic.

You get the idea. As societies advance, there’s a bunch of things that may need to be taught because physical and cultural evolution do not provide enough guiding instruction.

Of course, school is isn’t the only way to learn things that aren’t normal, but we’ve chose to make it a major source of normalization.

So one way to answer the question – what should high schools teach more of – is to consider what is not normal now but that we would wish to be normal in the future.

Closely related: what is close enough to normal now that schooling could provide a meaningful nudge to normalization?

What Would Make the World Better if It Were Normal? 

A lot of recent books and blog posts have influenced me on this, perhaps most notably Superforecasters,  Scott Alexander’s post on how hard things are for a lot of people, and Triggers.

The thesis of each of these sources are as follows:

  1. Superforecasters = always start with baseline research and data before making any decision.
  2. Scott Alexander = even in America, a lot of people are suffering with major issues such as chronic pain, drug abuse, and unemployment.
  3. Triggers = adult behavior change is very hard but possible.

Over the past few years, recent events in my own life have driven home the importance and relevance of these theses.

What would make the world better if it were more normal?

I think these two things:

  1. An increased internalization that opinions should be formed based on baseline data and research. I mean this both in the policy sense (should we raise taxes?), the business sense (which website design should we use?), and personal life (which nursing home should I use?).
  2. Adult behavior change is possible and specific techniques can increase the chance of success. I mean this in the professional sense (I need to ask more questions in meetings), the interpersonal sense (I need to talk less about myself in groups), and the spiritual sense (I need to meditate more frequently).

Can High Schoolers Handle This?

I don’t know, but my guess is yes. Research trials could tell us. But none of the above are intellectually taxing in terms of complexity.

Rather, these two learnings are more just specific applications of conscientiousness, humility, and growth mindset.

It’s my strong guess that strong marginal improvement could be made in these areas without students ever entering a college campus. It feels like high school material, but I might be wrong.

Providing the Cultural Pressure and Intellectual Tools to Achieve Normalization 

With a few exceptions, high school curriculum covers a lot of important material. My guess is that, on the margin, more traditional content is not what is needed (i.e., more advanced math).

Rather, at the margin, I think there may be a lot of gains to be made in providing cultural pressure – and giving student the intellectual tools – to normalize the tools of data usage and adult behavior change.

But all this is surely speculative, and I don’t have strong confidence that I’m right.

Perhaps some high schools might push in this direction and see if it makes a difference in students’ lives.

Book Review(s): 6 Books on Our Mental Limits

I’ve had some good reading time over the past two months and have been able to get through six books (as well as the new Dragon Tattoo book, which will not be reviewed here):

  1. Triggers: Creating Behaviors that Last (adult behavior change)
  2. Superforecasting (predictions)
  3. Work Rules! (Google’s HR systems)
  4. Simple Rules (utilizing simple rules to guide decisions)
  5. The Evolution of Everything (evolution as a principle for all change)
  6. Hive Mind (how national IQ is more important than individual IQ)

All are worth reading.

Here are some major themes that ran through them all:

We Have Weak Minds

Triggers pushes hard on how much environment impacts us.

Super forecasting details how badly pundits do at prediction because they rely on situational judgment rather than baseline data.

Simple Rules makes a convincing case that the world is too complex to navigate by fully analyzing every situation.

The Evolution of Everything rightly argues that even our geniuses are most often well situated for breakthroughs due to past intellectual evolution, not because they along were capable of achieving such breakthroughs.

Collectively, We Have Better Minds

Hive Mind demonstrates how individual minds are made more effective by having other good minds around.

Triggers lays out an accountability regime whereby other people hold you accountable for your behavior commitments.

Superforecasting talks about how even the best forecasters improve when working together.

The Evolution of Everything narrates how it is our collective knowledge, built over the ages, that allows to enjoy the fruits of modernity.

Those Who Use Data Effectively Will Win 

Work Rules! vividly portrayed how heavily Google relies on data analysis to make any decision, be it about people or anything else.

One memorable quote went something like a manager saying this: “If you don’t give me data, I will give you my opinions, and you don’t want that.”

Super forecasting is all about how baseline data is needed to anchor any situational judgment.

Triggers recommends systematic daily tracking of any desired behavioral change.

How I’ve Changed Because of these Books

  1. After reading Triggers, I created an end of the day 10 question checklist to hold myself accountable for the behaviors I’m trying to implement (I use an app to record them every night).
  2. After reading Superforecasting, I’ve tried to ensure that we conduct a  research review of any issue before even beginning to make judgments, to ensure we understand baseline data.
  3. After reading Work Rules! I reflected on how much I over relied on my own judgment when I led NSNO. I should have done a better job of always asking for the data before making any managerial decisions.
  4. After reading Simple Rules, I revised a decision checklist I had made for grant making to include a priority rule (most of them were boundary rules and stop rules).
  5. After reading Hive Mind, I reflected on my strong preference for very open immigration. While I still hold this belief, the book helped me understand where and why I might draw limits.

I don’t know if I will be successful in sustaining any of these behavior changes. But I hope I can.

If you have a chance, I recommend picking any of the books up for holiday reading.

Humans Don’t Take Orders from Chimpanzees


Note: I enjoy writing and discussing things other than education and policy. But I know people mostly read this blog for this type of content. So, going forward, I’m going to post non-education pieces on Saturdays. I hope some people will enjoy (and respond) to the posts; and for those who do not, simply skip this blog on Saturdays.


David Brook’s recent column “Our Machine Masters” has the right headline but the wrong content. Usually, with a columnist as talented as Brooks, the opposite is true.

Brook’s argument is as follows:

1. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is exploding.

2. This will lead to smart machines, which won’t be humanlike geniuses, but will be more modest machines that will drive your car, translate foreign languages, organize your photos, recommend entertainment options and maybe diagnose your illnesses.

3. This could lead to either a humanistic or utilitarian society.

4. In the humanistic world, “machines liberate us from mental drudgery so we can focus on higher and happier things.”

5. In the utilitarian world, “the machine prompts us to consume what is popular, the things that are easy and mentally undemanding.”

Siri is a Tree, Not a Forest 

The first mistake Brooks makes is that he’s not zooming out far enough. There have been a couple of game changing events in human history (some call them singularities). The first was the formation of language; the second was farming; the third was the industrial revolution. All of these moments fundamentally changed what it meant to be human.

Currently, we’re in the midst of computer revolution. To date, how we store, acquire, and communicate information has been transformed. Other changes, such as how we use data to make choices (which is what Brooks is writing about), will likely occur.

My instinct is all of this is a foreplay. The next singularity is coming, but this is not it. Consider Siri akin to the grunts made before language eventually formed.

Whether this all leads us to be a little more “humane” or “utilitarian” is a minor consideration.

The Singularity is Near

I won’t spend much time here. People much more knowledgeable than myself have written on what a technological singularity might look like and when it might occur. Perhaps most important is that we’re talking about machines with extremely advanced computational power, which will likely render them “conscious” in some sense of the word.

What Technology Wants

An irony of Brook’s column is that is based on an article by Kevin Kelly, who wrote a book called What Technology Wants. In this book, which is well worth reading, Kelly argues that we should view technology in evolutionary terms; that it is a kingdom unto itself (like animals, plants) – that will develop as other “living systems” do.

Viewing technology in an evolutionary frame is useful in that it rightfully takes humans out of the driving seat. Yes, we will impact how technology evolves, just as other species affected how we evolved. But unless we take extremely draconian measures, such as driving it into extinction or putting it in zoos – we will struggle to control how it develops.

The Thing about Evolution: It’s Hard to Manage Up 

Brook ends his piece with this sentence: “I think we all want to master these machines, not have them master us.” Again, the title of his piece is better than the content.

Here’s a question: when’s the last time you took orders from a chimpanzee?

You get the point. Our machine masters will be likely be our masters. They, not us, will largely control how we are impacted by their existence.

It will be their culture; their values; their wars; their mistakes; their emotions that will determine our future.

The Point is This

I’m not an expert in this field. And I used a bunch of analogies and metaphors that are imperfect. But in sum I guess I’m trying to make one point: if you attempt to understand the past, present, and future with humans as your dominant frame of reference, you will misunderstand much.