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Posted August 7, 2020

Back when I worked in an after-school program, we had a kid named David who never wanted to do his homework. I would order him, I would cajole him, one time I even forbade him from doing it just to see if I could leverage his contrarian nature. None of these worked.

“Just give him two options,” my boss told me.


“What do you mean?”


“When you give a kid two options, their natural instinct is to choose one. Instead of saying ‘do your homework,’ ask, 'Would you rather do your math homework or your English homework first?’ Or, ‘Where would you like to do your homework? At the desk? Or on the bean bag chair?’”


“There’s no way that’ll work,” I thought.


It worked.


When you spend time at a school, you think you are learning how to communicate with children, but you are actually learning how to communicate with people. 80% of the techniques we used were at least partially applicable for adults, and the two-choice strategy was no exception. Give us a pair of options, and we’ll immediately choose between them, without ever stopping to wonder if we’re answering the right question.


Today’s debate is “should kids go back to school?” Everyone has weighed in, from Trump to Fauci to the governors to the superintendents to the teachers to your friends on Facebook. Yes or no. Two choices.


But in reality, we should be arguing something much broader: “How do we make sure our kids get the key developmental benefits of attending school in person while also ensuring that they and the rest of society remain safe as we control the spread of a pandemic?” Or, ya know, something more concise that fits on the bottom of the screen for a debate show.


Children under ten years of age have been shown to be significantly less likely than older kids to spread coronavirus, they’re at a more crucial juncture in their cognitive and social development, their class sizes are more contained, and they’re a hell of a lot harder for parents to watch while working a full-time job. So, one option would be bringing them back to school while older students continue learning remotely. Is that the right solution? I have no idea, but it’s the kind of thing we’d at least be discussing if we were asking the broader question instead of the constrained one.


What about that $600 per week people, up until recently, were receiving on top of their regular unemployment? For weeks, the argument was focused around whether to extend it or not. Democrats said yes, because we need to support people enduring hardship. Republicans said no, because it discouraged people from going back to work.


But really, we should be asking how we get money into the hands of those in need without removing the incentive to work. Two months ago, I wrote a piece arguing that in return for that weekly unemployment, the government should give people jobs combating COVID-19. They could serve as contact tracers, call individuals to ensure their employers are complying with reopening safety guidelines, or talk to people in senior care facilities who are now more isolated than ever. This would expand our efforts to combat coronavirus, give money to those who need it most, and remove the option of people doing nothing in return for a weekly government check.


I’m not saying these solutions are the right ones, and I'm sure they're not the best ones. After all, I’m just an internet blogger who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But there are plenty of people who actually do know what they’re talking about. Teachers, health experts, business owners, economists. And I’m guessing that if instead of asking them “should we reopen schools” and “should we extend the $600 unemployment stimulus,” we started asking them how do we solve the problems of safely educating our children and helping our most vulnerable citizens while still encouraging people to return to work, we’d start coming up with some exciting answers.

As a species, we love solving problems. Give us one to noodle on for an hour and we’ll come back with a dozen solutions. Give us a month and the number may be limitless. At the time I was writing this, Buzzfeed’s homepage had an article titled, “29 Products That Will Solve Summer Clothing Problems.” Are we really 29 times better at coming up with ways to solve our summer clothing problems than our education ones? No.

Well, okay, maybe yes. These underarm shields that absorb armpit sweat before it can stain your clothes or start to smell look pretty amazing. But the point is, we may never know. Because when we identified one solution to the education problem, then framed our debate around whether or not to proceed with that one, we essentially ended the brainstorming process before it could even start.

I started this piece talking about David, but I had the same issue with another student named Gabe. Only, when I tried my boss’ two-option Jedi mind trick on him, he just looked up at me blankly, then returned to crashing his plastic cars together.


In other words, I asked him whether he wanted to do math homework or English homework and his answer was essentially, “I choose to play with my toys.”


As a student, Gabe drove me nuts. As a thinker, he might have been onto something.


The original names of all students involved in this piece and any others have been changed. I'm not a monster.

You can read more about the time I spent working in an afterschool program, as well as my short-lived careers as a nightclub bouncer, balloon twister, landmine detector tester and more in my book Odd Jobs by clicking here.

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