Improving Performance: Teach them how to think for themselves

Our school committee wants to buy laptops for all the students in the high school that’s being built. It’s probably a good way to ensure the students will never be able to do much on their own. The rationale goes something like, “We have to teach kids the way they want to learn.”

In a recent conversation with a local teacher, he admitted he cannot give the same exams he used to give when he first started teaching 30 years ago. But he went on to say, “Kids are really smart today! They’re just smart in a different way. For instance, you can ask them anything you want, and they can find the answer.”

I was stunned, “Being able to ask Google doesn’t make somebody smart. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the developers of Google, are incredibly smart, but their brains are little justification for not educating and developing ours.”

Forget about computers, I don’t even think calculators should be allowed in schools until perhaps senior year in college. Unless we learn to do things for ourselves, we never learn at all.

The slide rule was probably the best tool ever devised for teaching us to think numerically. The beauty of it was that it only gave us part of the answer in three digits. We still had to do the math in our heads to know where to put the decimal point.

People who developed this discipline still use it when they use calculators and computers. They can tell instantly, whether an answer is reasonable or not. Those who don’t have this discipline have no feel for what the answer should be. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen someone presenting to a room full of people, and someone says, “Wait a minute; that can’t be right!” To me, that’s embarrassing, not just to the presenter, but to all who didn’t catch it. Good business results usually depend on right answers.

Need to know

Employers are pretty good at listing the qualifications for jobs they advertise. However, there are many professional qualifications that are taken for granted and not listed. We’re not supposed to be able to get a degree without these abilities. However, some companies have learned and are now testing for these abilities.

They include things like:

• The ability to write memos, letters, reports, proposals and other documents

• An understanding of sentence and paragraph structure as well as proper grammar

• The ability to spell (Even with spelling and grammar checkers in popular word processing programs, it’s interesting to see what we get.).

• The ability to create and think out a strategy in your mind, to make trade-offs and adjust as you discuss with others

• Public speaking or the ability to present your ideas effectively in front of a group. This includes developing and designing any slides you may need.

• The ability to manage and prioritize your time effectively

• A good understanding of U.S. and world history so we don’t have to keep repeating the same mistakes. If you don’t understand these, you probably don’t understand business history either.

• In our global economy, a good understanding of geography is paramount. Before you commit to being in Phuket tomorrow afternoon, you might want to find out where it is and what it takes to get there. You might also want to study about their culture before you arrive, so you don’t inadvertently insult them.

• Perhaps few qualities are more essential than good manners and the social graces, not just with customers and superiors, but with employees, vendors and just about everyone else.

Nowhere do I say you have to be a star at these. You don’t have to analyze like Einstein, write like Hemingway or speak like Obama, but you have to be very capable in each of these areas to succeed.

As I think back, the teachers I greatly admire are not the ones who let me do what I wanted, but those who made me do what I needed to do. If you’re competing in a global economy, you need employees who have had the right kind of teachers.

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871; fax 603-894-6539;;