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A Lesson in Educational Triage: If Others are to Survive, Some Assignments Must Be Left for Dead

Dan Dunn

What is it that we learn at MIT? There are a lot of people who think that when we walk out of here, we are armed with an education that is second to none. But what is it that separates this education from the others?

Professor of Mechanical Engineering Woodie C. Flowers SM '73, who taught a manufacturing class that I took, gave the best explanation that I have heard yet. He didn't intend it to be a definition of MIT's teaching, but I think it is a great one: "MIT teaches students to perform triage. There is no way that students can meet all of the demands on their time. They must perform triage to decide what is the most important."

Triage is a medical term. It is a method used in times of battle and emergency to sort through victims and maximize the number of survivors. The stubbed toes and scratched arms are put at the end of the line, while the pumping wounds are dealt with right away. And the really badly wounded ones, the ones that might not make it no matter how hard you try? Those cases are left to die.

This analogy works on so many levels. First of all, I love the strong connotations of blood, casualties, and war. They grab the imagination. Double-oh-one is one war and two-seventy is another. Each war has its own battles: pee-ess-two, lab-four, mid-term-exam.

School is a war. It is not student versus student. It is student versus the Institute, day and and day out. It is a messy battle through the trenches where every tiny gain is a moral victory.

The notion of triage assumes that there will be failure. It assumes that there will be casualties, that some of the patients will die. Almost every MIT student expects to fail, at least a little bit. They won't get the highest grade in the class and they won't get an A every time. If you do, this column isn't about you, anyway.

The acceptance of failure is key to surviving MIT. Many students made it here without ever losing, but almost no one leaves without having been humbled many times. Life is like that; if these students left MIT thinking they would always win, they wouldn't be very useful at all. But this school teaches failure and how to manage it. It teaches when failure is the best policy, how to manage it, and how to minimize it.

Think about all the times you looked at a problem set at 3 a.m. that you had been trudging through since 7 p.m. the day before. It has eight questions, and you've done the five of them that were worth 90 percent of the grade. Then you simply skipped the last three, didn't you? You decided that the sleep you needed for the battle of the next day was more important than that ten percent of the homework grade. You performed triage.

Or what about the day you had two exams and a problem set? I'm sure you studied for hours on end for the exams. But the problem set? You left it for dead. You couldn't save it, and rather than waste time and skills, you worked on the patient you could save. You performed triage.

Management consultants hire MIT students because they say we learn "problem solving skills." The theory is that our education does not derive its value from the differential equations or labs that we struggle through. Our education is in our ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, to separate the key issues from the irrelevant ones. That way, when we wear our new suits to our new clients, we can study their systems and point at the place that is causing all the problems. We will be able to define and ignore the side issues that distracted everyone else.

Clearly MIT students benefit from the material they are taught in their classes. No set of problem solving skills is useful without tools to evaluate the problem. Students learn from a curriculum taught by the some of the best researchers there are. Also, you can't minimize how much we learn from the students we study next to. MIT recruits students of the highest caliber; those students cross-pollinate their knowledge.

But the skill that puts all of this together is the ability to prioritize. We learn, by both trial-and-error and example, how to make those ranking decisions. We work on the problem set at the expense of the exam; we realize the error of our ways and punt the problem set the next time. And we simply write off the problems that need to be written off no more late nights flailing over the lab report that is just going to stink anyway. Triage is the link.

So over the next few weeks, think about the way you make your decisions, especially during exams. Do you really do everything you are asked to? Do you cut corners? Do you skip problems? Do you turn in every assignment?

I know that you won't. Now think about the criteria that decides what work you actually pay attention to. I bet you will bind a lot of wounds, skip a lot of band-aids, and leave a body or two for dead.