Towards a democratic vision for schools

This is something I wrote many years ago. But as I reread it, it is just as relevant today as it was then.

In 1984, I transferred from the co-educational high school in which I began teaching (in 1977) to a girls’ high school nearby. The change was to revolutionize my view of teaching.

Up until that time I had been a fairly traditional (albeit in a different sort of way) teacher pretty much satisfied with the traditional view of classroom teaching. I wanted to tinker around the edges because I knew my students weren’t learning as much as they could (or at least, as much as I thought they could). I felt guilty, as a Year 12 Physics teacher, that I didn’t give out reams of notes like a friend and colleague of mine in another school who always achieved higher pass rates than I did. But yet I knew I had something going for me as a teacher. Every year, there would be a couple of students who would really respond to my teaching. They would really hang on to my approach. I knew they appreciated my patience — my willingness to explain a point over and over again and search for different ways to explain it each time. Unconsciously, at that time, I was operating on the belief that if the students didn’t understand, it wasn’t their fault — it was mine and it was my responsibility to find a way of explaining it that would allow them to 4–14 understand. (As I look back on those attempts at explanations I shudder. I was always operating from my conception of the world. There were things that really lit up for me when I first started teaching Physics and I thought if only I could transmit that same conception to my students they would understand too. I had made no effort to find out what their conceptions of the world were.)

I always stood out as a Physics teacher too in my insistence that Physics wasn’t about learning and learning how to apply formulas. I argued strongly, with other teachers and students, about this. As a student myself, I can remember more than once, working out a formula from first principles in an exam so I could answer a numerical question. Often, I wouldn’t even go that far. I might have used an intuitive form of variational analysis or sometimes, even, the answer would just jump out at me from the question and I would write it down. I wanted my students to operate like that — at least a little bit — and I knew for them to do so would require them to understand the principles of Physics rather than learning formulae.

In all this though, I believed that, as Douglas Barnes would put it, I was basically there to talk and the students were basically there to listen. Communication (at least notional communication) was from me to them.

Nevertheless, I was fairly happy and believed I was making incremental progress along the road to becoming a better teacher. And then I changed schools.

Ironically, the biggest single factor in revolutionising my pedagogy was becoming maths co-ordinator at my new schoo1. As a co-ordinator I was eager to prove myself. The school had recently undergone a school review and the report was fairly negative as far as the maths faculty was concerned stating that it needed to re-evaluate its methodology. I wanted to be the force that led the faculty down this path. But before I could do so I had to do some research myself and find out what was happening in Mathematics Education. I discovered a group of people who held a completely different pedagogy to the one I had been operating from. Learning was at least just as important as teaching. Students’ talk (to the teacher and each other) was just as important as teachers’ talk. Creating a context in which students could place themselves in a real life situation as they considered a concept was really important. (This was different to having traditional problems about so called ‘real life problems’ which students immediately see through as having no real value.) I discovered Seymour Papert who said some pretty damning things about what passes for mathematics education. Take this poignant story as an example.

I learned from his parents that Jim had developed an early habit of describing in words, often aloud, whatever he was doing as he did it. This habit caused him minor difficulties with parents and pre-school teachers. The real trouble came when he hit the arithmetic class. By this time he had learned to keep “talking aloud” under control, but I believe that he still maintained his inner running commentary on his activities. In his math class he was stymied: he simply did not know how to talk about doing sums. He lacked a vocabulary (as most of us do) and a sense of purpose. Out of this frustration grew a hatred of math, and out of the hatred grew what the tests later confirmed as poor attitude.

…I am convinced that what shows up as intellectual weakness very often grows, as Jim’s did, out of intellectual strengths. (Papert, 1980)

This discovery of a new pedagogy led me to register for a six week (two hours per week) professional development program at Monash University on the teaching of Science and thus to enrol in the Master of Educational Studies degree at the same institution where I planned to pursue my first love — the teaching of Science. I will return to the effect on the Monash Faculty of Education on me shortly.

In parallel with these experiences I was, for the first time in my life, teaching classes in which there were no boys. (One of my reasons for transferring to a girls’ school was to learn more about the teaching Of science to girls which was just becoming a major issue at that time.) From what I had read about Girls and Science and my experience teaching one or two girls a year in my Year 12 Physics classes I thought my more descriptive approach to Physics with less emphasis on formulae and mathematics would suit girls’ styles of learning. I was in for a surprise. In my first year at the school I had only one Science class — Year 12 Physics. I developed a strong rapport with the girls who, I believe, appreciated my honesty and sincerity but continually pleaded with me to “tell us the answers” and “teach us the formulas” I can remember the following plea clearly probably because of the force with which it was put to me by Ginny: —

If we had been taught like this since Year 7 we would be used to it and it would be a much better way of learning. But we’re just not used to thinking like this and we don’t know how to handle it.

The student talking above was conveying to me a lesson I never really learnt. That group of students were feeling insecure. I had tried to change just about all of the unwritten rules and they weren’t sure of the new ones and certainly didn’t know how to play the game by them. As HSC students facing arguably the most crucial year of their education (certainly in their estimation at the time) they were also just plain frightened. As time passed, their fear that I didn’t know what I was doing passed, but they were left with the fear that they weren’t prepared for what I was trying to lead them through and they wouldn’t be able to succeed in the final hurdle — the exam. Anxiety stands in the way of learning. My students were not only thus hindered in learning the set curriculum but were also hindered in learning what I was trying to teach them about learning.

In defence of myself I must say that I was also trying to learn new and unfamiliar rules in a new school. The students in the school I had come from were used to a wide range of teaching styles and thus had learnt to switch from one to the other with little concern. The new school had a strong and uniform culture which I didn’t, at that stage, understand. I was trying to learn new rules too and this made my teaching style more different for the students than I at first thought it would be.

Another defence I could use is that I was not alone. Linda, a student at Laverton High School in 1985 when PEEL was introduced states: —

The wrong method was used to introduce PEEL into our classes — and we were against it from the start…

…We had walked into the class unsettled and slightly tense, not knowing what we would have to face, but this was totally unexpected. We’d never been confronted by these questions before, nor any that required answers of such magnitude, so how could we even begin to answer them? (Baird & Mitchell, 1986)

Other teachers, backed by external agents with a great deal of experience in education had made the same mistake as I had. (This makes me feel better.)

Following my first year of teaching at the school and particularly influenced by Ginny’s comment above I decided that I would take the Year 11 Physics class the following year. This would give me a chance to introduce change in a less threatening context for the students. However, this was also to be the year when further change occurred in my own pedagogical position because of the influence of my first studies at Monash. I have to say, though, I learnt a lot about teaching in that year.

As maths co-ordinator I was trying out new techniques with my Year 7 & 10 Maths classes as well as my Year 9 Science and Year 11 Physics classes. I was trying to learn new techniques and attitudes and trying to implement them everywhere I was teaching. I had to. I had undergone a Kuhnian transformation (see Kuhn, 1962). I believed in what I was trying to do with missionary zeal. I could no longer justify going in to a class and wasting everyone’s time teaching (the word is here used to mean the practice of being the person allotted to control the activities of groups of students) in a way that could hope to induce real learning in only a handful of students. I had begun to hate what we did to young people. I had for a long time understood the anger and rebellion of so many young people locked up in institutions (that we call schools) for thousands of hours of their lives where everything that happened to them belittled and degraded them. Now I understood that the way I had been teaching contributed to that process.

I hope I have conveyed that I was in an irrational state when I decided to introduce change. I was too intricately emotionally involved with these practices to have any hope of implementing them satisfactorily

What I can see now is that what I did caused as much bitterness, heartache and alienation in my students as did the traditional practices I so despised. At the time, I thought it was just a part of the ‘J — Curve’. I knew that change always disrupts established social patterns and thus produces uneasiness as all involved learn new patterns of behaviour and establish new unwritten rules. I was determined to crash through this stage in Whitlamesque (see footnote) manner. What I was doing was for the good of the students even though they mightn’t know it. This was really being naively paternalistic in the style of so many early social reform programs. I had decided that I knew better than the students what was good for them and I was going to give it to them. The students had been given no say in their own destiny. I believed in negotiating the curriculum but I wasn’t going to negotiate whether or not to negotiate it.

It is almost superfluous to say that I failed abysmally. There are many lessons that I learnt from that experience but there is one that I would like to focus on now that I believe has wider application. In a change attempt such as this I believe the students must be involved in the decision to adopt it. Reading the PEEL case study, it is obvious that the students were not consulted as to whether or not they wanted to be a part of it and if so what form it should take. I would now argue that if this had been done, some of the problems that arose in PEEL would have been overcome. Charlie Hull (Hull, 1985) argues that students are the gatekeepers of change in the classroom. They are the one constant in the culture of school. Thus without their cooperation, he would argue, significant change is impossible. He and Jean Rudduck (Rudduck, 1983) have carried out some interesting research into how to introduce change to students. Rudduck concentrates on allowing the students to gain a picture of what it would be like if the change were introduced successfully. She has used videos of other classes using the new practice as a successful tool in this process. What she is really doing is allowing the students to develop a meaning for the change (see Fullan, 1982) so they can understand more fully what it is that they are being asked to do.

I am suggesting here that this be taken one step further. Hull and Rudduck were ‘in-servicing’ students on the change so that they would more easily and fully be able to adopt it. I would suggest that it could be used to allow students some say in whether it ought to be adopted at all or at least in how it should be implemented. Fullan (1982) suggests that in successful implementation, the decision to adopt is rightfully taken by an authority (could be the principal or the school board or council) but teachers are given a great deal of control over implementation. My argument is that, at least as a minimum, students should also be given some meaningful control over implementation. It could be argued that students have a greater right to influence over implementation as the change has far greater implications for their futures than for any other stakeholders in the change process.

Bowles and Gintis (1976, pp 250–51) state: —

Why in a democratic society, should an individual’s first real contact with a formal institution be so profoundly anti-democratic?

It is time we decided not only to make schools more democratic but also made the process towards democratisation a democratic one as well.


Whitlamesque: Gough Whitlam was a reforming Australian Prime Minister elected in 1972 after 23 years of conservative governments. He was noted for his determination to push through his reforms. He is often quoted as having said “Crash through or crash.”

The PEEL Project

The Project for Enhancing Effective Learning (PEEL) was a grassroots, Australian, collaborative action-research project involving teachers and academic colleagues researching ways of stimulating and supporting metacognitive student learning. It was co-founded in 1985 by John Baird (University of Melbourne) and Ian Mitchell (Monash University). It continued for over 25 years, involving thousands of teachers, in hundreds of schools, in several countries because it addressed issues important to many teachers.


Baird, J. & Mitchell, 1., Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning. An Australian Case Study — The Peel Project, Monash University Printery, 1986

Barnes, Douglas, From Communication to Curriculum Penguin, 1976

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. , Schooling in capitalist America, Basic Books, 1976

Fullan, M. The Meaning of Educational Change, Teachers College Press 1982

Hull, C., Pupils as Teacher Educators, Cambridge Journal of Education, 15 (1), 1–8 (1985)

Kuhn, T.S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press

Papert, Seymour, Mindstorms, Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Basic Books, 1980

Ruddock, J., In-service courses for pupils as a basic for implementing curriculum change., British Journal of In-Service Education, 10 (1), 32–34 (1983)

Embrace Conflict – Stand up and fight

This is part two of two articles dealing with conflict. In the previous article I discussed the importance of listening to conflicting views. In this piece I talk about how teams can use constructive conflict to become more effective.

Well I don’t mean physically, but I’ll come back to that a bit later.

I have worked in and with lots of leadership teams in lots of different contexts. Over time, I’ve come to recognise several types of team and have come up with my own personal set of descriptors.

The fighting team: These teams are indeed more like a boxing ring than a functional team with everyone sparring to make points. No-one really caring about what the team as a whole achieves as long as they look good.

The reluctant team. The team where everyone attends meetings only because they have to. The whole team would rather be somewhere else doing something else. Nothing gets done but they keep meeting anyway.

The charismatic team: By this I mean a team with a charismatic leader. Where team members surrender their own ideas to the leader who they believe knows so much more than they do so they must always be right. This is true even when the rational selves of members believe the leader is wrong. They justify this by believing the leader must know things they don’t.

The love-in: This is the RomCom of teams. The members act as if the success of the team depends on the fulfilment of a romantic fantasy between two of its members. Once again they surrender their own decision making to this fantasy.

The harmonious team: On the surface this seems to be the perfect team. Everyone arrives on time and well prepared. Detailed presentations are given with appropriate alternative courses of action. Team members discuss the proposals politely and respectfully and decisions are made by consensus. As I said, it seems like the perfect team — but it’s not. (Or at least it’s usually not.) The thing that’s missing from this type of team is passion. Team members subjugate their differences for the sake of harmony. They may not agree with a decision but remain quiet because they must be the odd one out.

So what should we aim for?

The whole reason we organise in teams is to get a range of views and expertise on decisions we need to make. The finance people contribute understanding of costs and benefits. Admin can tell us how much effort is involved in implementation. Subject heads bring knowledge of what’s important to teach. School organisation specialists give us an idea how we may need to involve the whole staff in decision making. Finally classroom teachers have the best insight into how it may impact the fundamental activity of the school.

If all these people are agreed without strong passionate discussion there is a problem. Someone or some sub-group is not saying what they need to say. Sometimes passionate viewpoints lead to strongly expressed arguments and we must expect raised voices and table thumping will occur in a well functioning team.

So, that’s what I mean by ‘Stand up and fight’. Stand up for what you believe. Stand up for the things you see and value that other apparently don’t. Be prepared for strong disagreements. You may need to express your ideas with passion and force.


All the above are necessary for a well function team. But they are not sufficient.

All this will be to no avail if team members fail to maintain the utmost respect for one another. Respect doesn’t come easily. You may well feel the Business Manager is a myopic idiot. But when you do, take a step back and remember they are a real person with real feelings and real concerns. You don’t understand what motivates them but that doesn’t mean you can’t find out. Or at least believe that somewhere in there, they have a reason for working the way they do. Perhaps they are as afraid of conflict as you are.

Respect involves words and concepts we often don’t like to use in organisations. Words like ‘love’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘kindness’, ‘thoughtfulness’ and ‘warmth’. People in organisations often refer to these concepts as ‘the soft stuff.’ I feel for people like that for in fact they are the hardest things and the things that require the most courage to bring to work.


This might sound overwhelming and indeed it can be.

One thing that is almost guaranteed to fail is for you as an individual to unilaterally start operating differently in your team without telling people what you are doing. Even then, working this way can be hellishly dangerous for both your career and your mental health.

I can’t recommend strongly enough that if you do want to start working differently in your team you should find someone who knows how to work like this and can hold a safe space for free, open, honest and respectful conversation.

Of course I would be very happy to work with you. Give a call or drop me a line if you would like to discuss

Listen, you might find wisdom

This is part one of two dealing with conflict. In this article I discuss the importance of listening to conflicting views.

I just typed the term ‘conflict resolution’ into my search engine. I got 425,000,000 hits. It’s a hot topic alright. It’s hot because there’s so much conflict in our organisations and schools are no exception.

Most of us have a picture in our mind of the ‘perfect organisation’ or ‘perfect School’. Perhaps top of our list of traits of such an organisation is that everyone gets on harmoniously and there is no conlict. We all have the same goals (in management speak we are ‘aligned’) and agree on the best way to achieve those goals. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to work in an organisation like that?

Maybe not.

Take a step back and think about the reason conflict arises in your school. You don’t have to be in the game for long before you realise different people have different goals for education. Or at least their stated goals are different. (We’ll come back to that shortly.)

Even when we (pretty much) agree on our goals we find ourselves in the midst of a multitude of opinions on how to achieve them. Why is this?

A reasonable answer to that question would require a whole book at least. So let’s try for a shorter analysis.

We all have different life experiences that make us the people we are. How boring would it be if we were all the same. Those experiences and our own personal philosophy we build from them, lead us to all see the same thing differently. Indeed this is the very reason we believe the best solutions arise when many different points of view are taken into account.

Bay of Pigs Incident

There are countless examples of what happens when a variety of opinions is neither sought nor taken into consideration. Let’s look at one of them.

A few days after being sworn in in January 1961, US President John Kennedy was briefed on plans prepared by the previous administration to support a counter-revolution force of Cuban exiles in an attempt to invade the island and oust Castro. With a few modifications of his own, Kennedy approved the plan for execution in mid April.

Several of Kennedy’s aides and some key figures in the military thought the operation had little chance of success. However they kept their concerns to themselves partly because they believed Kennedy and his brother Robert (then Attorney General) were fixated on removing Castro.

The invasion force was defeated within three days and was a foreign relations disaster for the United States. It helped cement the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

There have been many analyses of this incident and many attribute the origin of the term groupthink to the planning for the operation.

Without going into detail about the relationships between members of the Kennedy administration there is no doubt that the failure to include multiple viewpoints was a major factor in the operation’s failure.

So what does this have to do with conflict?

Kennedy’s advisors kept their concerns to themselves because they believed (probably rightly) that the Kennedys didn’t want to hear contrary views. Perhaps they feared for their careers or future influence,

Sound familiar?

Many years ago as a young (and brash) teacher the principal came into the staff room at recess and made an announcement about some course of action he was proposing. As it happened I was the closest person to him as he spoke. After hearing his proposal which I knew most of the staff vehemently opposed I spoke up and said “You can’t do that. It’s Illegal.”

He looked straight at me and replied “My job is to run the school. Your job is to teach. Let’s keep it that way.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve witnessed similar interactions in the years since. Things like

“It’s my company and I’ll run it however I want to.”

“I’m the Managing Director and I make the decisions around here.”

“Well you are welcome to your opinion but let’s move one.”

“Thanks for your contribution. I’ll give it due consideration.” (Meaning “I won’t give it another thought.”)

As a leader it can be tough when a member of your team disagrees with or challenges you. It directly heightens your own doubts about your leadership ability. No one knows what to do in an uncertain situation. As a leader you don’t have any special powers to magically just know the best course of action. You’re just as much in the dark as everybody else. In the end however, you are the one that has to make the decision.

This is the crux of leadership.

Are you prepared to put your thoughts under the spotlight and allow others to tell you where they think you are wrong? It’s almost certain your team sees things about your plan that you don’t see. Who knows, they might be right. Your plan might be doomed to failure. Or it might just need to incorporate scenarios you hadn’t thought of. Regardless your plan will be better for allowing others to tell you what you think. You might not change it at all but you will go ahead knowing you had taken more aspects into consideration.

As I write this I can feel my own anxiety level rising. This is a wickedly difficult situation. It’s almost as if you are standing naked in front of your team and saying “This is me. Tell me if you think I’m OK.” Your team is just as uncomfortable as you are. Nobody wants to tell the King he has no clothes. Undoubtably the easiest path for your team members is to either agree with you or to say nothing. After all to raise a concern is to place their own insecurities in public view. What if they’re wrong? What if they are humiliated by the rest of the team? What if, like me the young teacher, are put in place by you?

Nobody wants to take the risk of conflict. So it is up to you to create a spirit of openness and risk taking by setting the example. You are no different from your team members. You have no special insight. But you are the leader. The only way to create a team like this is to have the courage to be vulnerable — to both yourself and your team.

It’s a tough call. It’s so very hard to do. But the rewards are out of this world.

In the next article in this series the role of conflict within a team and why it’s important that it is out in the open.

If you can dream it, you can do it.

A few years back, I was on the leadership team of a small community organisation. We had decided to have a leadership retreat one weekend. The weekend came and we were ride sharing to get to the venue. The person who I was sharing with was a senior executive at the time with a major Australian car company and we were taking his latest model top of the line car.

As we set off my colleague remarked “This should be a nice drive. It’s got the new Nissan engine in it. It’s a beautiful engine.”

Being a fan of our ability to make best in the world products locally, I remarked “We should be able to make engines as good as that in Australia.”

“Unfortunately, we can’t.’ he replied with just the slightest twinge of sadness.

Looking back now I’m sorry I didn’t follow up with him at the time and ask why he though we couldn’t make great engines here. But I didn’t.

The story has remained with me ever since though. And it fires me up every time I think of it.

Of course we could make the best engines in the world here. We have engineers and designers as good as any in the world and our best technicians are capable of matching any competition. Finally, if we need better machines, we can buy them.

So it’s not that we can’t make the best engines in the world.

It’s that we choose not to.

Saying “we can’t” is just an excuse for mediocrity. And I have absolutely had it with mediocrity and I’ve had it with the excuses I hear every day.

Getting back to engines, it is perfectly fine to decide not to make great engines in Australia. To decide we are going to focus our attention on something else. As long, however, as we don’t mask that choice by saying we can’t.

There may be many obstacles to overcome. We might have to change the relationship between management and staff. We might have to get government policy changes. We might have to learn new skills. Most of all though, we will have to overcome our fear that we’re not good enough. Our fear that we really can’t do it.

I could go on about how much different the world would be if countries and corporations removed themselves from this terrible pall of mediocrity. But that’s not what this blog is about.

The point of this story is not about “them out there” rather its about “us in here.” Or, more directly, you.

What is it that you could do but don’t because you are afraid you can’t? What gift or talent do you have that you are withholding from the world for fear of being wrong or because there are too many obstacles in the way?

Or perhaps you are afraid you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

We often hear the first two sentences of the following quote from Marianne Williamson. I think its worth taking a moment to read this longer version:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

What is it you dream of doing but tell yourself you can’t? What is it you want to do but you are afraid you can’t? Perhaps you are afraid instead that you can and you will have to do it.

If you would like to explore how you can turn “can’t” into “will”, book a Time with Chris.



On a clear day you can see tomorrow

Strange thought perhaps, but think about it.

Pink Drive

Just been reading Dan Pink’s latest book Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us. One of those books I read to confirm everything I already believe about motivation.

As Pink says, we’ve know what really motivates people for decades, but we still cling to motivational techniques (eg pay linked to KPIs) that all the research shows actually reduce performance. (OK, that’s a simplified version of his argument but it will do for here.)

There are many radical suggestions in this book – for example perhaps ‘management’ is an out of date concept!

Thinking of performance based pay and salary I couldn’t help but continually thinking about Enron and more recently the GFC.

One thing I didn’t like was his analogy with software systems. He refers to Motivation 2.0 and Motivation 3.0. Fundamentally this is a great analogy. Where it breaks down is in the 2.0 and 3.0 bits. Anyone involved with computer systems knows you don’t go from 2.0 to 3.0. You have 2.0, 2.0.1, 2.0.3, 2.1, 2.1.1, 2.1.1 release 2 etc, etc until you get to about 2.5. When you get there you start working on 3.0 while you still supporting 2.6 and 2.7. At some stage you are ready to switch over to version 3.

The technical aspect of this is not important. What IS important is that we didn’t suddenly jump from motivation 2.0 to motivation 3.0. There were a whole lot of steps in the process (as Pink documents.) What bothers me in the way he presents it is it looks like just another big discovery and we all need to do this massive shift away from what we have been doing to what we should be doing.

The business literature is all too full of this tripe and in this respect Pink has fallen into his own trap. If we did want to move away from our current models of motivation, we would need to do it gradually. Try out bits of it here and there. Or do a 90 day trial and see how it works.

Regardless, with this one caveat, I highly recommend this book.

What happens when purpose is forgotten?

Haven’t been following Queensland much lately but wondered why everyone was saying Anna Bligh was so toxic in the state.

Went searching and found this fascinating and articulate article on the topic.
The biggest danger for political parties of all persuasions is a focus on power for power’s sake. NSW Labor comes to mind and perhaps explains the reactions to Rudd’s deposing.
What I like about Bahnisch’s article is his analysis of the effects of loss of purpose. It happens in political parties and it happens in corporations, as soon as an organisation forgets why it exists, it falls into decline.

Netfix’s “bizarre holiday policy”

Netflix lets its staff take as much holiday as they want, whenever they want – and it works – read the full article by Daniel Pink here

The modern world began in 1919

“The Modern World began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse, taken on the island of Principe off West Africa and at Sobral in Brazil, confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe.”1 The new theory of the universe was Einstein’s General Relativity, a radical, mysterious, new explanation of gravity, destined to replace the more intuitive and accessible theory of Isaac Newton that had inspired and sustained the Enlightenment.”

Paul Johnson Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties


I finally got around to watching this talk by Seth Godin on Tribes this morning.

It got me thinking about another discussion I’ve been having recently on Thought Leaders Central regarding the perennial Mac vs PC debate. We don’t make buying decisions based on which product best suits our needs at the lowest cost. At one point or other we generally join a tribe (in this case Mac or PC) and then pretty much just buy whatever everyone else in the tribe buys. We ever try to bring others into our tribe.

When I first started thinking about this I thought we did this for social/emotional reasons. We like belonging to a tribe and we like to wear the badges of that tribe.

While I still think that’s true, I wonder if there is a pure economic element to it as well. Belonging to the tribe means we don’t have to spend time comparing all possible options when we are looking for a new product – we buy what the tribe buys. This might result in us having a product that does not quite suit our needs as much as another product and we might pay slightly more than we need to. However, we have save ourselves a lot of time and energy comparing all the available products. As well its likely other members of the tribe have already tried the product we’re thinking about and they’ll give us a good indication if it will live up to our expectations. This seems pretty efficient to me.