Obliquity

As a sixth-former and undergraduate, I took courses in Economics. Even then, the world-view propagated by that discipline struck me as bizarre. I gradually came to realise that the notion of a society ordered through narrow economic self-interest simply didn’t reflect reality.

However it’s only recently, with the advent of behavioural economics that I began to understand those intuitive misgivings. One of the positive side-effects of the 2008 financial crisis has been a flurry of books questioning existing organisational assumptions, and I am happy to say that by teaming up with psychologists and the like, some economists are finally seeing the flaws in homo economicus. One such book is Obliquity by John Kay.

Obliquity is the idea that goals are sometimes best achieved by coming at them sideways. In other words, the immediately-obvious approach may not be the best, and may result in unintended consequences. This is particularly true in the field of human behaviour, where no model can accurately anticipate the responses of ‘the other’. Kay uses the analogy of Sudoku versus chess. Sudoku is an algorithmic activity, where the following of a simple set of rules will lead to completion; chess on the other hand is heuristic, for while it equally follows a set of rules, the presence of an adversary making unexpected decisions means that the only way to win is constantly to adapt to the changing situation. The big game plan will fail because it cannot anticipate the millions of possible counter-actions; what distinguishes a Grand Master from a novice is not an ability to follow the rules.

Kay examines numerous other examples where direct plans of action lead to the opposite outcome to that desired, ranging from business strategy to the management of forest fires. He maintains that a more sophisticated insight is required in order to understand – let alone direct – any piece of behaviour. In fact, it may be impossible to predict how any given situation will develop, and the best one can actually do is become adept at ‘surfing the present’ (my phrase), learning which fires to let burn and which to extinguish.

Ironically, just as such understanding is developing, the education system is heading in completely the opposite direction. It is removing intuitive notions of teaching, and replacing them with a kind of teach-by-numbers, modelling itself on classic notions of carrot-and-stick production behaviour, of homo economicus, whereby we establish strong protocols and the desired outcomes plop gently into our laps. Except they don’t. Any practising teacher will know that the connection between the intended lesson plan and what actually happens is often loose; that some of the best lessons were not always those that stuck closest to plan, that great learning can occur simply by seizing the moment, and that direct commands to children do not always achieve the greatest compliance.

Obliquity seems to me to reflect reality much more closely than command-and-control. From it I have learned the risks of too-closely specifying that which will happen in a given situation, the virtues of the flexible plan, and the need to develop a repertoire of soft skills that are more likely to work than direct ones – of wisely steering the storm-bound boat, not being Canute trying in vain to command the waves. At the extreme, obliquity says that so long as you have a clear view of your intended destination, how you get there will be a matter of finding a course through the storm rather than sticking rigidly to a preconceived plan, from which reality may only increasingly diverge.

At a time when teachers are expected to demonstrate their supposed total command of the outcomes of rigid classroom practices, behavioural economics is actually pointing in a completely different direction.

The real skill in teaching is not the ability to ape industrial production techniques, but to steer subtle, sometimes-oblique routes to goals by deploying the altogether different repertoire of heuristics.

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