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Op-Ed

Law and life hacks

February 20, 2022

If you want to score points, you need to have stuff that can be counted. Also, online learning should be fun.

Milt Policzer

By Milt Policzer

Courthouse News columnist; racehorse owner and breeder; one of those guys who always got picked last.

I have two life lessons for you this week.

One: Almost everything boils down to numbers.

Two: Know your audience.

I’m pointing these things out because of an interesting Twitter thread posted recently by a Georgetown associate law professor named Jonah Perlin who maybe shouldn’t have been giving away the tricks of his trade.

As I’ve told you before, I was one of those guys who never did any work in school but was a whiz on exams anyway. I attribute this to a combination of laziness and being in horrible physical shape. It’s hard getting any studying done in the library when you’re exhausted by the walk to the library.

But I got by in part because of the strategy Perlin recommends: focus on points. Put yourself in the shoes of your grader.

Yes, I know schools are supposed to be about learning. I have no quarrel with that idea, but are schools really about learning? They are to an extent, but mostly they’re about accumulating points. You may get letter grades, but they’re quickly turned into numbers and if you don’t have a 4.0, you’re not succeeding.

Now put yourself in the shoes or other items of clothing of a professor or an appellate judge or, as in Perlin’s analogy, an ice skating judge. How do you keep score?

You do it by counting things. Whoever has the biggest number wins.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t Perlin’s point. He seemed to be saying that doing a lot of easier things perfectly was better than just doing one less-than-perfect incredible thing. This may be good advice for people who can’t do incredible things, but shouldn’t we be encouraging incredible things from people who can give them to us?

The real message — unintentionally, I assume — is that law professors and other sorts of graders want to be able to count things. How else are you going to grade?

And that’s the sort of thing I did on tests. If you spit out enough random facts that can be counted, it sounds like you know things whether you do or not.

To be fair, Perlin admits this isn’t necessarily great: “Independent thinking & identifying creative solutions are important. But not as important as demonstrating mastery at the key topics. Plus it allows for comparisons on a curve.”

And you can’t calculate a curve without numbers. Professors shouldn’t be admitting this.

By the way, I have to note that it helps if you can write well. I’m pretty sure I got points for writing complete sentences and not writing endless, almost incomprehensible sentences. Amusing analogies help, too — bored graders appreciate a laugh.

It also helps to know the biases of your graders (or judges or potential bosses). You score higher with answers they like.

An education revolution. Finally, we have a common ground for at least some anti-maskers/vaxxers and some who’d rather not spread disease: keeping children out of school.

The antis (not to be confused with aunties) don’t want to follow rules. The pros (not to be confused with prostitutes or descriptive writing) would rather not have their children exposed to the offspring of the antis and/or some anti teachers.

So they agree on something! They both want online learning and a number of school districts seem happy to comply with this demand.

The problem, of course, is that, so far at least, online learning doesn’t seem to be working all that well. Students get bored, don’t pay attention, or play with their cellphones. Yelling doesn’t have the same effect when it’s not in person.

I will now offer a very wise quote from video game called “Yakuza: Like a Dragon” that I’ve been playing lately: “Life is like an RPG.”

Indeed it is. The more experience you get, the more your abilities increase. The more you learn, the more you can do.

Why isn’t online school being taught like this? Why put a child to sleep with repetition when that child could be solving problems to earn a nifty sword? What if learning the alphabet was the key to slaying a dragon? What if you needed just the right chemicals for an immortality potion?

The kids learn to work with their computers and can team up to reach their goals (which, preferably, include treasure).

There are so many possibilities. Someone needs to get to work on this.

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