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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

y=mx+b: Modeling success in education

Prepare for a bit of a stroll around the barn. I don’t know yet where this will take us but it’s something I’d like to explore.

This is not an economics lesson, I promise you. It’s about education. At the same time, I think that the field of economics provides an excellent starting point in pursuit of perspective on education, on life, and on our meandering journey.

My wife regularly admonishes me with the line, “before you do that, think first about where you’d like to be at the end of it all” (by the end of this, I’d like to be talking about education). Whether she knows it or not, she’s counseling me to engage in predictive modeling. Understand your current position (A). Identify your desired destination (B). Plot the path from A to B.

We engage in predictive modeling every moment of every day.

Do I climb that tree to cut off the dead branch, or do I call in an outside service? If I climb the tree, which shoes do I wear? Do I tie myself off? Which tools do I need? Does the branch need to be taken down in small pieces or can I lop it all off as a whole? Where will it fall? Does someone have 911 pre-dialed just in case?

What makes a great date night? Flowers? Wine? Dinner? Music? Dancing? A movie? Some combination of the above? If yes, in what proportions? The possibilities are near endless. One wrong step can ruin the entire enterprise. Do we actually model such activities? If we’re in our right minds, you bet we do.

Each of these decisions comes to bear on outcomes, some consequential, others of lesser importance.

Computer geeks have a language all of their own that supports such modeling behaviour. At a very basic level, we find such programming terms as “if-then”; “do-while”; “loop”; and “end-if” statements. An if-then statement, for example, essentially means, “if this is true, then do that”. Binary. Choose this path… or don’t.

There’s a beauty and a beast in binary models. Once you create a decision tree, it does the same thing every time. That’s great if you’ve built the model correctly. If you’re in error at the design stage, however, it does the same thing… wrong every time.

If binary decision-making is challenging, navigating life outside of a binary environment is treacherous to say the least. Too many choices. Trial and error. Trial and error. Trial and error. If we’re lucky, pattern recognition evolves and our decision-making improves. Conditional decisions are like 3D chess. With conditional decisions, very quickly, the number of detours and dead ends multiplies exponentially. Life is an entertaining journey of mistakes, discoveries, and corrective measures. I call this education. Told you this was about education.

I would argue that our brains do the same thing, though not as consistently, as computers. We’re forever playing out if-then statements, but we do so mostly in reaction to things that happen to us, rather than as pre-planned navigations of a forecasted path.

For a long time, entrepreneurs and economists have attempted to model markets and economies. If I charge this much, how many widgets can I sell? If I double the price, what happens to the demand side? If we prop up the unemployed by way of higher taxes, what happens to the GNP? Business investment? Crime? Suicide? Education? Emigration? The next election… of course?

In short, how do we build the model for a successful venture, be it a business, an economy, or an education? We model every activity we undertake, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Today’s blog entry, itself, is a function of modeling. Every word choice here is the result of some form of binary selection, influenced by my life experiences from the womb to this moment. Are we all just living in a math equation too big to understand?


From where I sit, there are three prominent challenges in model building for success in education.

The first challenge is one that everyone will tell you. It’s too complicated. y=mx+b doesn’t cut it. Education (indeed, life itself) cannot be reduced to a two-dimensional straight-line formula. Education is not curvilinear and it’s not three-dimensional either. The layers and directions and shapes in this model are far beyond measure, to be sure. Our formula for success very quickly explodes into y=mx + b + c3 + d2 + e5… + zz?.

Relevant ‘ranges’ also play a role, requiring yet one more re-think of our models. Our education model may work perfectly up to this size of school, or until that time of day, or for a particular gender or ethnic group or (fill in the blank)… and then it fails.

Externalities. Try as we might, we do not operate inside a closed system. Just when we think we’ve got the right model for a perfect enterprise, someone in another place makes a speech or declares war, or opens a new school, and our model takes a hit. Covid-19 is an excellent example of externality. John Lennon would say that Covid-19 is what happened to us while we were planning something else.

The second challenge in model building involves the measurement of contributing factors. Some models lend themselves very well to quantitative analysis. GNP is a number. Profit is a number. They are built in large part from quantifiable inputs. For these success measures, it’s much easier to build a model based on some form of binary selection. For others – what’s a good date, holiday, education, life – numbers don’t work so well. As a result, we tend to not even try building a quantitative model for success. That’s not to say we shouldn’t, just that we don’t.

The third challenge, and this one the most important, is identifying the destination. Even if we could pin down all the contributing terms on the right side of the equation, how do we know that we started in the right place in naming ‘y’? What is ‘y’? What is your ‘y’? Is it different from mine?

What is a good education?

More specifically, what is success in education? Unless we agree on one vision of a successful education for our children, we cannot agree on the correct path to that destination. The definition of a successful education should be the very first conversation we have with prospective parents, students, and teachers. This conversation, of course, should also be informed by alumni, the only ones who can truly look back and say yea or nay from the first-person perspective.

My contention here is that, because we have all taken unique, exponential, binary-selection life journeys, we will never agree on a singular definition of success in education. For some, report cards reflect success in education. For others, college admission or a good-paying job is success in education.

For me, all of these measures used to be the most prominent yardsticks of success in education. Not any more. In 25 years, I have not yet worked with a single school that has not met the threshold of academic preparation (the three R’s) necessary for the next stage in life. It just has not happened. So… why are so many people focused on ‘kicking it up a notch’ on the academic front? Is it because all we own is a hammer and everything looks like a nail? Once you’ve met the threshold, you’ve got to ask, what else can we do for our children and students? To my way of thinking, educators who have attained and exceeded this threshold of preparedness in their students and still cater to Type A parents (like me) or their own personal preferences to ‘kick it up’ in academics are doing a great disservice to students.

For all but a very small, rarefied group of students, kicking it up a notch in academics is not the path to success. Even for this very small group of students, academic focus at the expense of life skills yields a negative return. Are we placing at risk the well-being of a majority of students for the sake of producing a very small group of elite performers? Forty-five years ago, in my final year of high school, I took four math courses: functions and relations; calculus; statistics; and algebra. With perhaps 18 students in the algebra class, 17 of us felt that this course was being taught at the level of one extremely talented student (a friend, Ken, who will soon be reading this piece). I feel compelled to ask, to what end? Let me be clear here. I’m not advocating a ‘dumbing down’ of program. I’m advocating balance in program.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation about recruiting with my next-door neighbour. As managing partner for one of the ‘big-four’ accounting firms, he is the last checkpoint in the recruiting process. Warren is an accountant, of course. His Master’s thesis, written back in the 80s, was ground-breaking. He developed a computer algorithm to determine whether a business was a ‘going concern’ or likely to go ‘belly up’. His effort was the basis for what, even today, forms a key guideline for accountants everywhere. My point? If you were to think of people who would apply an entirely quantitative analysis in their assessment of potential recruits, somebody like Warren would be top of mind. Not so! Warren’s assessment assumes a basic threshold of technical skills already in place. Once you’ve achieved that threshold, he would say, we can teach you whatever else you need to learn. His focus, I’m pleased to report, is on whether or not you’ll make a good fit as part of the team. How well do you communicate? Are you a good collaborator? Are you creative? Curious? Adaptable (my topic for last week’s blog entry)? Can you carry a conversation? What are your values? What does your character bring to the table?

For the record, I see each of these so-called ‘soft’ attributes as open to quantitative measure. It happens in my work every single day.

Here’s the thing. If a senior partner in one of the world’s largest accounting firms is looking primarily for soft skills and attributes, what are we as parents and educators doing to create and support a balanced program for our children and students as they pursue a path leading to successful outcomes? It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a job in an accounting firm or a happy marriage. We need to pay attention.

So, how do I see success in education? Very simply: Help my children to find and feed their passions. Help my children to learn how to fail in a safe environment. Help my children to learn that they are part of something much larger than themselves. Help them to learn that rights don’t come without responsibilities. Help them to find and forge a productive place as net contributors to the community. Core academic skills, of course, are an important component of this model, but no more important than what I’ve described here.

Passion is and always will be the starting point in my formula for success. Explore many opportunities and figure out what you’re most passionate about. Then, become the very best you can be at it. If you’re able to find someone crazy enough to pay you to do this thing, all the better. If not, you’re still doing well what you love to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. If money is meant to come your way, it will come as a residual, not as an endpoint objective. If it’s not meant to happen, make sure that you’re in a happy place just the same. Passion is the key. Everything else will flow from passion.

In my view, this is success in education. In my view, these non-academic matters need to occupy a more foundational place in our ‘conceptual’ model of success in education, both in and out of the classroom – I repeat, both in and out of the classroom – but that’s a story for another day. Quantifiable in a binary model? Probably not, but I won’t stop trying.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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