“To do nothing is within the power of all men.” ~ Samuel Johnson
Ages ago, when I was in my early twenties I had a huge crush on someone. Do you remember that feeling? It’s like butterflies are flapping their wings in your stomach, you have rose-flushed cheeks when he comes around, you spend too much time imagining the two of you together, and you always come off as stupid when you have the opportunity for small talk. Well, I had it all.
Being the shy young woman that I was, I could not bring myself to ask him out on a date, or even just tell him how I felt. Instead, I spent months and months (days and nights) dreaming about him and wasting a ton of my brain power planning how to make him fall in love with me.
Good friends tried convincing me to take a chance, be courageous and just approach him. They also had enough hearing me talk about him all the time. Nothing they said was even close to convincing enough for me to take the small (but big) step. Nothing, except one thing.
During a three-day workshop, I met a young woman (I know, it’s lame sharing this with a person I knew for only three days) who had a very rational argument. She said, “You are now in a 100% failure zone. Anything you do will either keep you in the same place of failure or will improve your status.” This was another way of saying, “You got nothing to lose, and everything to gain.” And, even though it’s a simple point, it hit me hard. The only rational thing for me to do was to ACT! Why am I telling you this story about my love life qualms from what feels like a different lifetime? Because a few weeks ago, it dawned on me that this personal anecdote from my past is a nice analogy to the story of the education system in Israel. Yes, you read that correctly. My juvenile shyness, fear of taking a chance, and ongoing mumbling about it all is much like the big, old-fashioned, and heavily bureaucratic education system in Israel.
We, my 20-something-year-old self and my country’s education system, suffer from a cognitive bias known as the “status quo bias.”
This isn’t a new truth. It’s as old as the human mind itself. Public sector organizations, civil society movements, and corporations all play on this bias–some use it for good like to help urge people to save money for retirement, while others use it to purely profit more. By choosing the “default” position, they tend to get their way.
For example, in Sweden, Austria and Belgium, the default after one passes away is for their organs to be donated. If you don’t want this outcome, then you have to actively opt-out. On the other hand, in Israel, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, the default is not to donate organs. One must actively opt-in if they so wish for this result. In 2003, Daniel Goldstein and Eric Johnson found that when the default is set to donating, 85% or more do so. When the default is not to donate, only about 2%-20% of people choose to opt-in and donate.
In Israel, and all over the world, it seems like there exists a consensus that fears change when it comes to the education system. Although there is a call for radical change, we only witness incremental change. In fact, it took a pandemic to make us change our ways dramatically, and that’s only because it was forced. Since it was forced, I’m not entirely sure that the choices that have been made have been the most optimal.
Think about it– in recent decades, the field of education has remained relatively constant. Sure, we see novel adaptations here and there, but the foundational aspects are stagnant: the structure of classes, the hours of learning, the locations, the partners involved in teaching and so on. Unlike my young and love-struck self, I don’t think we are in 100% failure, but I am certain that we are fooling ourselves if we think we can keep doing the same things (keep the status quo by choosing the default) and create new gains. It takes immense courage to overcome this bias.
We know the results of the system right now; they are the same as what we’ve witnessed over and over again. For qualitative change to occur, we need to act differently. At the core, we simply need to just act.
The opponents of this thought process will say that the risks are too high because it is our kids’ future and lives that we are dealing with. Any radical changes made today can and will influence an entire generation and beyond. I agree this is true. However, the status quo bias clouds us from being able to see that the current system is already failing us. Its influence on the future generation is depressive, narrow-minded, and curiosity-killing.
The system we have is not a law of nature. It is the creation of human beings. We are the same human beings that can apply courage, overcome biases, opt-out, break fixedness, and ask this guy on a date…. I mean, change the system, of course.