The central question remains, “Why? Why The Back To School Special?” As announced earlier, The Back To School Special was recently held at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University.

[The intrepid Columbus Dispatch reporter Joe Blundo braved the warm, sunny day and reported thoughtfully on the proceedings. To read his article on the Dispatch website, click here. Or just skip to the bottom of this post, where I’ve placed the text.]

The day was beautiful and so were the participants. Time spent with my teachers is always rewarding, especially when the stakes are high. And the stakes are indeed high when the game is Public Performance Art. John Detrick and Kevin Morrin, legendary instructors from The Columbus Academy, prepared hard for this. Props were assembled for a day of flexing pedagogical muscles developed through the decades. Questions included geometry and vocabulary. Brutal.

Snap1Half of the fun was seeking permission.
You can really scatter the deans when you offer to ask questions of passers-by in a courtyard. What are you doing? (Just asking questions of the passers-by and giving treats for answers both right and wrong.) Are you selling anything? (No.) Is this religious or political? (No. The only belief we will espouse is the Pythagorean Theorem.)  Why are you doing this? (To welcome the students and faculty back to school. They need some back-to-school exercises to sharpen their brains.) Really, why are you doing this? (So I can get some extra credit for my 1976 tenth grade geometry class.) And so on….

The advance permission I received was a message from an administrator that said, basically, “I’ll route this around to a bunch of deans. If no one responds with disapproval, that might be the approval you need.” Nobody responded during our months of preparation.

Prod14628_sm_2But there was a response. No sooner did we hammer our 10-foot-long pencil-shaped “Welcome Back To School” sign into the manicured turf than a man in an OSU polo shirt appeared kinda like a kinder Lorax. “What are you doing here?” he asked nicely. I gave him the litany of frustrating answers. “Do you have a permit?” I showed him my faculty ID and tried to name the department that lets me teach Creativity to MBAs.

He shrugged and said it must be OK. I offered him candy and tried to ask him about the tricycle on the table beside us. He smiled and backed away.

And The Back To School Special was on. Let’s trust the reporting to the professional journalist…

Reasoning can’t always be trusted, test shows
Thursday,  October 4, 2007
The Columbus Dispatch

So a guy told me that, just for fun, he and two of his old high-school teachers were going to set up a table at Ohio State University and ask students questions about math, science and English.

And because the guy is Artie Isaac, I went.

Isaac, president of the Young Isaac advertising agency, is funny. Also, he wasn’t selling anything. Both seemed like adequate reasons to check it out.

Snap9Sure enough, at the appointed time a few days ago, there was Isaac with Kevin Morrin and John Detrick, retired teachers from Columbus Academy. They were beckoning students to stop and try the tests.

But why?

To teach the importance of careful reasoning, said Detrick.

Because he enjoys being around Isaac and Detrick, said Morrin.

To earn extra credit for a 1976 math class he took from Detrick, said Isaac. (There’s no time limit on earning extra credit, Isaac has determined.)

They were sitting outside the Fisher College of Business (where Isaac teaches an occasional class), reeling in master’s candidates in business administration plus finance, marketing, English and engineering majors.

The most engaging test involved a tricycle. It had a string that stretched from a downward-pointing pedal to a point a few feet beyond the front wheel. It seemed obvious that pulling the string would move the pedal in the direction that would make the tricycle go backward.

The question: If the string is pulled, will the tricycle really go backward? Or will it go forward?

A lot of students breezed by, oblivious to Isaac’s entreaties, because they were talking on cell phones or listening to iPods.

Some, caught with their electronic shields down, offered “I’m good” as their reason for not participating. It’s the new “No, thank you.”

I prefer the original.

Many students did accept the challenge, lured by either Isaac’s patter or his offer of free raisins and candy bars. (More chose raisins, but you know they really wanted the candy bars.)

Watching them ponder the tricycle, I began categorizing them by problem-solving styles:

• Intuitives see that the string will move the pedal in reverse and conclude that the tricycle must go backward.

• Counterintuitives say the bike will move forward because they’ve watched enough quiz shows to know that the less-obvious answer is often correct.

• Conformists are swayed by what everyone else is saying.

• Contemplaters mull the situation before supplying a thoughtful answer, often wrong.

• Challengers want more choices. One guy said the bike wouldn’t move at all, because the forward pull of the string would cancel the backward motion of the pedal.

• Competents actually know what will happen because they paid attention in physics.

The correct answer: The bike moves forward. Don’t ask me why (I’m an intuitive). But it was a lesson in not believing your eyes.

“We can’t always trust our reasoning,” Isaac said.

So what was accomplished?

A few future executives, engineers, doctors and lawyers learned that they don’t know everything.

The rest should put away their cell phones and learn it soon.

Joe Blundo is a Dispatch columnist.

Joe’s description of the cell phones is right on. It was a little depressing: here are so many bright people, drawn to a campus where spontaneous intellectual and social interaction is available — but so many are so overscheduled that even a walk across a courtyard is devoted to a telephone call. It was as if everyone was somewhere else. How sad.

So back to the central question: “Why? Why The Back To School Special?” As a marketing strategist, it is constantly interesting for me to see people facing questions. I love to watch people make decisions — and to have the opportunity to interrupt their decision-making with questions of “What do you think now?” With Young Isaac‘s focus on helping trustworthy clients sell important things, it’s ever more informative to see students (and faculty) face questions where reason seems to fail, where decision-making requires more than a fashion or fad for guidance.

Would you have answered the questions? Or are you good?