Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Greetings from the annual convention of the American Accounting Association.   One of the plenary speakers was Jimmy Wales who founded Wikipedia.  He is truly one of the most impressive people I have ever seen.  Very inspiring person.   Hope you get to hear him one day.

The following blog entry is, to some extent, an extension of my previous essay on this blog.

Below is a note that I wrote yesterday morning to my intermediate accounting students.   Even before the semester begins, I am trying to stack the odds of success in my favor.   Based on my 43 years as a classroom teacher, I have found that most C students make C’s, most B students make B’s, and most A students make A’s.   Okay, there is always some movement in the ranks but I often get frustrated with the rigidity of this alignment.   Students bring to class a self-image that seems to create an upper barrier that limits how good they can be.   In other words, they live up (or down) to their own expectations.

I want to break that cycle by convincing them that they can be better if they simply take different actions from the very beginning of the semester.   It doesn’t do me (or them) nearly as much good to make these suggestions at midterm.   By that time, they are already into their routines.   I very much want to get the C students and the B students to stop thinking like C students and B students and start reinventing themselves as A students.   I think that is a worthy goal for a college professor (or any other teacher). 

Now, if you are a teacher, you might very well be sitting at your computer screen nodding your head in agreement.   When we talk about students, it is easy to see how they come up short and how they should do better.   “They” (the students) should do better is a constant refrain of teachers.

But let’s turn the tables.   I have always found that most average teachers are average about every semester and most good teachers are good every semester and most great teachers are great most semesters.   Okay, there is always some moving around but not as much as I would expect.   The alignment pretty much holds semester after semester.

Like students, I think most teachers have self-limiting perceptions of their abilities.   “No matter what I do, I’m always going to be an average teacher.”  Or  “I’m pretty good but I’ll never be great.”  

Is that true?  If it is not true for students, then it should not be true for teachers.   I believe firmly that an average or a good teacher should be able to become great.   Every speech I’ve ever given is based on that belief.

Yes, I wrote the following email to my students to push them to consider how to become better students.   I wanted them to cast off any upper limits they perceive and make an A even if they have never done so before.

But, I am sending the same email to every teacher (including myself) with exactly the same message:   YOU CAN BE BETTER.   YOU CAN GROW.   YOU CAN BECOME A GREAT TEACHER.   EVOLUTION IS POSSIBLE.

However, it does not happen by accident.   That is the point of my email below to my students and my message to you.   As I say here, learn to think differently.   Learn to think like a freak.

To:   My Intermediate Accounting Students for the Fall

The semester begins in a few weeks.   I had suggested (with the offer of a bribe) that you read the book Think like a Freak over the summer.   Several of you have written to talk about what you have already uncovered in your reading. 

At the beginning of Think/Freak, the authors talk about the world hot dog eating contest.   Okay, that is a bizarre way to begin a book but they make a good point.   For many years, everyone believed that there was a specific upper limit to the number of hot dogs a person could physically consume in a particular period of time.   That was a barrier that just could not be broken.   Consequently, contestants could never get beyond that number because they did not believe they could get beyond that number.   

A new competitor came along who ignored the so-called limit.   He did something no one else had done.  He took the process apart step by step and analyzed each action carefully.   He questioned how each step was to be performed and whether it could be carried out in a different, more efficient way.   Then, he experimented endlessly with every alternative to see if he could uncover some better way to proceed.   As a result, he blew well past the world’s record.   And, his methods became the new norm.  

Ignore the perceived limits.
Analyze each step in the process.
Question how each step is done and look for better alternatives.
Experiment endlessly
Exceed the upper barrier.

My guess is that every one of you approaches my class with an upper limit buried deep in your mind:

“I will be lucky to make a C.”
“I’ll work hard and pray that I can make a B.”
“I’d love an A but I will be thrilled if I can make a B+.”
“I hear Professor Hoyle is an ogre—I just hope I pass.”

If you have an upper limit in mind, then the chances of your exceeding that limit are probably zero and the semester hasn’t even started.   That upper limit just hangs over you and pushes you down.   “Here is the grade I expect to make by doing X so I will do X and hope I can make that grade.”   That is self-limiting.

There is no upper limit.   You are very bright folks.    You are all smart enough to make an A+.    If you wash the concept of an upper limit out of your head, you and every other student can be excellent in this class.   And, when that happens, you will be thrilled.   You will start to think differently about your own abilities.

What’s the key?   Just like in the hot dog eating contest, look at everything you do in this course:   reading the textbook, setting times to study, working problems that I give out to you, working alone versus working with people, taking notes, reviewing your notes, studying for tests, listening in class—just absolutely everything.   Is there a better way that you can do any of these?   Can you experiment to see what works better and what works worse?   In other words, can you push through that self-imposed limitation and become an A+ student.    Can you evolve?   I believe you can but I think it might require some different thinking on your part:     

Ignore the perceived limits.
Analyze each step in the process.
Question how each step is done and look for alternatives.
Experiment endlessly
Exceed the upper barrier.

Think like a freak.

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