tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A real snow day

We had a foot of snow last night. In some places it drifted and the snow is two feet or more deep. It is the first real snow we have had this winter. Of course, the weather professionals had been predicting a snow storm, so everyone was ready. I am sure that if you took an inventory of everyone’s pantry this weekend, you would find them typically stocked with soups and noodles and a varity of ready-to-heat meals.

In our house, we don’t pay too much attention to the weatherman. When I was in college I took an introduction to meteorology course. The professor told us that if every day you simply predicted that the weather tomorrow will be the same as it is today, you would be right 60 percent of the time. The professor further told us that with all of our technology and scientific knowledge, weather forecasting is correct about 80 percent of the time. In other words, all that Doppler radar and other stuff only improves our weather forecasting by about 20 percent.

Nonetheless, as people talked about the on-coming storm all week, there was a sense of surprise about it all. We have had a relatively mild winter so far and I think most of us really expected to get through the season without any substantial snow shoveling. Perhaps most of us have secretly embraced the near-term benefits of global warming. But, of course, we shouldn’t be surprised about a snow storm. This is the last week of February in Minnesota. If it doesn’t snow here, then it probably isn’t going to snow anywhere. The state high school tournaments are getting underway. That’s a sure signal that the real snowy season in Minnesota has begun. The records apparently indicated that March, in fact, is the snowiest month of the year.

I drove to church this morning and the street out in front of my house was a mess. I don’t really expect it to be plowed until Tuesday or Wednesday. I think it is amazing that it takes three days to plow all the city’s streets. It’s not like snow plowing should be a rare occurrence around here. It snows every winter. I am told the big Canadian cities get their streets plowed in a day.

As I was driving around this morning, you could feel the testosterone in the air. There were men in parkas everywhere maneuvering snow blowers over the sidewalks and driveways. Any Minnesota man takes great pride in his snow blower. The bigger the better. A man really feels like something when he can shoot a steady stream of frozen snow 15 feet in the air. I especially like the snow blowers with headlights. I once saw a snow blower that had a protective plastic casing for the operator to stand in; this machine had three headlights and chains on the wheels!

You always know when a man is feeling good about his snow blower because he gladly plows more sidewalk that his own. He keeps walking right down the sidewalk, clearing a path in front of two or three neighbor’s houses on each side of his own. The price of gas, which seems so outrageous when filling your car’s gas tank, doesn’t seem so important when it comes to keeping the snow blower operating.

People help each other out in the aftermath of a snowstorm. A car gets stuck in a drift of snow and its common for a whole crew of guys to get behind the trunk of that car and help the driver get back on his or her way. Maybe these are situations where we truly are left to our own devices. You can’t call the police or an ambulance when you get stuck in the snow. You have to rely on your neighbor. And around here anyway, the neighbors almost always seem to be there.

Then there’s me. I don’t have a working snow blower. I own an electric snow blower but the small plastic key required to make it work has been lost. I know I can write the manufacturer and get another one, but with the snow being so mild this winter I haven’t gotten around to it. So I am left to dig my way out of this snowfall with a shovel. I have one of those ergonomically designed shovels with a bend in the handle. It is supposed to be easier on the back.

I laugh as I look around me and see all my neighbors plowing with their noisy, gasoline-powered snow blowers. In a neighborhood that has a reputation as home to more environmentalists per square mile than any neighborhood east of Oregon, I am the last person who would call himself an environmentalist. And yet I’m the guy using the shovel.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Real learning requires you to weigh experience against media reports

I am a big fan of learning by doing. I do not have a business degree but I feel like I do since I have twenty-plus years of small business experience. For me, it has been very effective to learn by doing; I get a lot more out of making my own mistakes than I do by reading about someone else’s mistakes.

But not everything can be learned directly by doing; most of the time, we have to accept the authority of an expert. One of my fears about our culture is that too many people look to television and newspapers for expertise. This is a mistake. Media has its place, but it is not as an authoritative teacher.

Media is big business; major newspaper publishers and network news professionals have to weigh numerous competing commercial interests whenever they make a decision about what to publish or broadcast. Most news stories are meant to appeal to our emotions, not our intellect. News programs and newspapers are first and foremost sales vehicles, and sales is primarily an emotional game. Any sales professional knows you sell on benefits (emotional appeal), not features (intellectual appeal).

The important thing to remember about anything we learn from television or newspapers is that it is only a start; it is not the final word. And oftentimes, it is only a start of baby steps. Knowledge comes about through intellectual pursuit, which requires commitment and takes time. It is more akin to getting in shape through diet and exercise than it is to fueling up with a self-service stop at the gas station.

People are the source of news so the best way to learn is to actually visit with people. Actually talking to someone is better than reading something from someone who talked to someone.

Real knowledge, of course, is knowing what’s in someone’s heart, not what’s in the newspaper. I know a lot of people who are up on the news but don’t have a clue about who their neighbor is. Too many people are happy to read the newspaper or plop down in front of the television set, but lack the initiative to engage their neighbor. I think that is really too bad – for both the learner and the neighbor.

Realistically, most of us are forced to rely on secondary sources for much information. The value of that secondary information, however, is proportional to our first-hand information. If I spend my entire day in my house, never interacting with anyone, then the news I get on TV and in the newspaper or over the radio is far less meaningful because I have no self-determined context for the information. All I have is someone else’s context, and the context of that editor or reporter or producer may not in any way reflect my own life and circumstances. However, if I am out in the world most of the day, interacting with people, observing first-hand how people behave on the bus and in the department store and in the restaurant or in church, then I have some context for absorbing stories I get from broadcast and print media.

Economists, for example, frequently make pronouncements about the condition of the country. They cite employment figures and inflation and production levels and many other factors; newspapers regularly publish these analysis. But how often do we read this stuff and scratch our heads because it just doesn’t seem to fit our own experience? They talk about full employment, but the guy in Michigan is puzzled because he hasn’t worked in a year. Or they talk about high rates of inflation and the guy trying to sell his house wonders why he can’t get any more for it than what he paid a decade ago.

Economists often use statistics gathered from across the nation. They get numbers from everywhere so that they, in fact, represent nowhere. Aggregates and averages make for easy reporting but they do not necessarily represent what is happening in your home town. So if all you did was read the Wall Street Journal and you failed to pay attention to local market conditions -- like the price of milk at the corner store, the length of time a neighbor has been out of work, and whether anyone on the block is remodeling their kitchen -- you might have a totally inaccurate idea of what’s going on.

For many years I did not have a television set so I hardly ever saw television news. When I would mentioned this to someone, they would ask: “How do you know what’s going on?” I would answer: “I live my life.”

To this day, I continue to think that is the best way to learn. Live your life. Intellectual strength is more about interacting with others than it is about absorbing facts. It is easy to learn what is in the newspaper but it takes a little more effort to learn what is in someone’s heart, even your own.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Gov. Pawlenty on education

I had the opportunity to listen to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Wednesday address a business group in St. Paul. Throughout his governorship, Pawlenty has expressed concern about the state’s education system. Pawlenty notes that many kids are not being properly prepared to succeed in the emerging globally marketplace. Here is was he said on Feb. 7 about education:

Just one generation ago, if you missed the educational rung or skill rung, there was still a large safety net. There was the large safety net of manual labor jobs that offered higher pay and better benefits than many of them are offering today. A lot of those jobs are gone now. They have migrated to different places.

It is more important than ever that we have as many children as possible with an education or skill that is relevant to the economy of the future, and yet we have an education system that we designed in the 1940s. We have an iPod world now. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all world. With the exception of some special needs and gifted kids, our schools work kind of like an assembly line. And that is not the world we live in anymore.

When you hear the education debate, almost all the discussion is about how much money is going in. That is one important measure. I will concede they need to get some more money in; they are getting more money in. We are proposing about an 8 percent increase for the schools in this next budget cycle for K-12; it’s well into double digits for higher education.

But in addition to how much money is going in, we are focusing on trying to get some reforms that also measure the results we are getting. Does the money align to the result? Is the money aligned to the things that are actually changing student performance? This, believe it or not, is a novel concept in government. I know it is not in business. In business you say: What is my business? Who are my customers? What measurements do we have to determine whether we are getting the results that we want? And, is the money aligned to those results?

We are just starting that, 20 years late in government. With carrots, not sticks, we are saying: Join us in a different kind of system where we pay you not just for how many years you have been around, but on whether you are getting training that is actually relevant to what you are doing in the class room. Are you willing to mentor a younger teacher who is new? Are you willing to put some time into that? If you are, we will give you some extra pay. And can you move the needle with your class, not compared to some fancy school district, but from your school district? Can you move the needle on student performance, and if you can, we’ll give you some more money for that. That’s the kind of thinking we need in our schools. And we are constructively, gently, moving that way, and it’s big cultural change.

In high school, we have some really gifted and talented kids who are doing great even by international standards. We have some children who need special accommodation.

But we have a lot of “in-betweener” students who are coasting. The academic progress of these in-betweeners has flat-lined. It is flat as a pancake. We are spending a ton of money on two or three years of high school for an experience that, for too many of our kids, is adding next to no academic progress. So we have got to get more of our kids into more rigorous programs, something that is more interesting, something they are passionate about. More AP classes, more IB classes, more post-secondary enrollment classes, more technical college, while they are in school.

We need to re-orient the high school experience. Not physically, but virtually to something very different from what it is now. Bill Gates says the American high school is obsolete… that we are preparing kids for the economy and citizenship of 40 years ago. He said preparing kids for the economy of today and tomorrow in today’s high school is like using a 50-year-old mainframe. So there is dramatic change that needs to come. There’s huge institutional and cultural resistance, but we are trying to do it constructively, but it is a very, very important reform.