THE LINDY EFFECT

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). All feedback is welcome!]

We live in a world where many things are vying for our attention and money. I’m not just referring to the lure of streaming services, social media, tabloids, and other time devouring creations aimed for consumption during one’s personal life. Leaders within the field of education are inundated with requests by vendors to show them the newest shiny object, which could be for math, English, science and STEM related products, social studies, and a very large number of technology-related programs (i.e. coding, engineering, labs, etc.). Of course, none of these programs or curriculums are bad; if you had a million dollars lying around, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to purchase a few.

The problem is you probably don’t have a million dollars. Worse still, buying a program could very well add complexity to your organization. Questions arise such as: Who’s going to use it? How are they going to use it? Who’s going to train them? Who will set up the program? Further still, these programs could be ad hoc implementations that have been created with little thought as to how they fit into your school’s ecosystem. Sure, thought may have gone into how the program could be implemented at a generic school site, but no one is making products tailored exactly for you, your teachers, or your students. That’s why it’s so important you and your team vet the programs being sold by the salespeople banging on your door. Vetting includes asking the question, “Does this product provide educational value to our students?” The inquiry should also ask, “Does this program fit perfectly within our educational ecosystem?”

A phenomenon known in economics as the Lindy Effect can help educators determine the value of a potential implementation. Named after a famous restaurant in New York known for its cheesecake, Lindy is where Broadway actors came up with the heuristic that if a show lasted 100 days, it was likely to last 100 more. If it lasted 200 days, then it would be around another 200. In other words, every day the show’s building kept its lights on, the chances it would continue to last increased. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes:

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and this is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years… Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy.”

Returning to Taleb’s idea of fragility, robustness, and antifragility, it’s important to note that things that have lasted many years are well suited in times of chaos. Ancient scriptures, trade and barter, marriage–these are ideas, practices, or institutions that have survived far back into recorded history, and they’ll be around after we’re all gone. Humans have practiced them through times of peace and war. As a matter of fact, chaotic times may even increase the reading of scriptures, the commerce of trade, and the likelihood that two people will marry. This is the epitome of antifragility.

Conversely, the vase my wife purchased from Pottery Barn sitting in front of me as I type does not like chaos. It wants to remain on the shelf unbothered by my children, the dog’s wagging tail, or my clumsiness while dusting. The vase is much more perishable than scriptures, trade, and marriage. As Taleb writes, “For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy.” The vase it fragile, and it will most likely not be around 100 years from now. I can be certain that the institution of marriage, on the other hand, will still be kicking in 100 years–even if it looks a little different.

How does the Lindy Effect apply to education? I’m sure you can see many parallels, but let’s illuminate a couple. First, leaders should make decisions with the past in mind. For example, a flashy new program being sold by a salesperson that has no history of engaging students and encouraging them to learn is probably not a wise use of funds. It’s important to examine how long a potential implementation has been around. If it has been in existence for ten years, a good rule of thumb is that it will stick around for another ten years.

Second, instructional practices should be examined under a Lindy Effect lens. Direct instruction and inquiry have been around since the days of Socrates, so one can safely assume these strategies will be kicking for thousands of years to come. Other robust-antifragile practices include a “learn by doing” approach, studying what naturally interests a person, and the effectiveness of an instructor. On the other hand, many of the programs schools are purchasing today will not be around ten years from now–let alone next fall when school starts again. For a number of reasons, teachers and administrators like brand new things that promise student engagement, but what they fail to realize is that doubling down on the “tried and true” practices that Socrates used will pay the biggest dividends in student learning.

Before we move on, I’d like to address a point the reader may be thinking: the Lindy Effect is not always correct. You may want to say to me right now, “What about Google, Steve? It has been around for approximately 20 years. Are you telling me it will only be around for another 20 years?” The only answer I can give you is the Lindy Effect is a heuristic–a rule of thumb we can use in order to make sense of the world. I believe Google will still be a powerful company many decades from the time of this writing, and I also believe that just because something has been around for 100 years does not mean it will be around for exactly another 100 years. I do, however, believe the Lindy Effect is a useful tool for gauging the robustness of an idea, teaching strategy, and any implementation a school or district is eyeing.

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