The ABCs of Unintended Consequences

October 4, 2007

Beware. Fixing a problem isn’t always as simple as A, B, C.

Let me explain.

Our daughter started kindergarten a few weeks ago. One week in she wanted to share with me how WE do the alphabet song in MY class.

She’s known how to sing/say her ABCs properly for a couple of years, but this time when she gets to the LMNOP section she slows down and sings it without the N. She does it again, but this time inverts some of the letters in that section. She repeats it incorrectly again, as if for emphasis.

I’m not sure if she’s teasing me. I say don’t you mean L-M-N-O-P. She firmly says NO and does it wrong again. I tell her no that’s not right. She says yes, that’s how my teacher says to do it.

I ask her if she maybe heard it wrong, or whether the teacher was teasing or testing them, wanting them to spot the mistake…? No, no, no! My daughter says maybe I am wrong about the alphabet, or maybe their alphabet at school was different.

I assure her that there is indeed only one alphabet (at least for English) and that the whole purpose of the song is to help kids remember the order of the letters, so singing it out of order was counterproductive. She will have none of it.

A marvelous start to her public school education.

We eventually agree that I will ask the teacher next time I saw her. And I do so a few days later.

Of course the teacher wasn’t teaching them to do the letters in a different order. But she was having them sing it differently, with claps at various intervals, one being in the middle of the infamous LMNOP. She said it was helpful to do it this way because so many kids think LMNOP is one word and this way they recognize the distinct letters. That’s the theory anyway.

Of course, because that’s common knowledge about kids and the alphabet, I had always slowed down that section and had made a point of enunciating those letters distinctly. We also discussed (and laughed about) how little kids often say LMNOP as one word, so she wouldn’t get thrown off by hearing it that way.

This is not a rant about public school (my daughter’s teacher is warm and caring and bright).

It’s just a reminder to watch out for unintended consequences.

It happens in all fields, on scales large and small.

Saddam Hussein is bad. So removing him will be good, right?

I’ve certainly seen it a lot in the corporate world.

There’s a study. Or a usability session. Or a focus group. Or some guy in the Product group’s mother had trouble with something. And so everything needs to be fixed according to this “finding.”

But the finding is misinterpreted. Misapplied. Over-extended. Not properly communicated. So the fixes don’t always fix. They breaks things. Or they may fix in one area and break in another, as probably happened in my daughter’s kindergarten class.

Caveat fixer.



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