Teaching and the Trichotomy of Control

Epictetus said;

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.

There are things we can control, such as our opinions and desires and choices. There are things we cannot control, among which Epictetus includes our bodies and our reputations. Some more obvious examples would be time, the weather, gas prices, or cats. Basically anything except our own mind.

Will Irvine expands on this dichotomy by splitting the category of things that are not up to us into two; things over which we have no control, and things over which we have some but not complete control.

When it comes to our students’ learning we have very little control.

Stoic philosophers often used the metaphor of an archer to describe our attachment to external outcomes. An archer’s job is to line up the shot to the best of their ability. Of course they would like to hit their target, but they also have no control over the wind and many other variables that will effect the arrow’s flight. So, having shot their best, a Stoic archer is satisfied even if they do not hit their mark.

Like the archer, as teachers all we can do is perform our duties well and then hope for fortune’s favor.

It has been difficult for me to work in a profession where there is so little actual control over the results, especially when accountability measures want to judge teachers by something as probabilistic as their students’ standardized test scores. Try to extend the metaphor of the archer to a teacher and her students’ test scores. Much like the flight of an arrow, despite how well prepared the student is leading up to the test, how well that teacher lines up the shot, the teacher has no control over the other variables that can effect the student’s performance in that particular moment. Did the student eat breakfast that morning? Were the police called to their house the night before? Does the student care to do well on this test, today? And let’s not forget that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to line up over a dozen shots all at the same time!

It’s frustrating to think that we can only lead students toward learning, as a horse to water, and only hope that eventually, fortunately, they will drink. It’s also strangely liberating. If I choose and act rightly, I have done my duty as a teacher, regardless of any external outcomes. But as we can see this is at odds with current accountability measures, which assume that the classroom teacher has nearly complete control, and that would judge us by our students’ single performance on a standardized test.

Would we honestly accept the idea that any teacher, having inordinate control over their students’ learning, would nevertheless allow them to underachieve?

A perfect accountability system would somehow weigh the rationality of the thousands of choices a teacher makes because this is the sole element of education that is completely within their control.

And likewise I believe the best measure of the effectiveness of an education system is not the results of standardized tests of achievement but the quality of the choices its students make. If we changed our focus, we might even find that one follows from the other. Although we have no control over our students, I am suggesting that we can measure our impact by the amount of control students leave schools with over their selves.

What did Greg Graffin say? Oh right. “We have no controooooooooooooooooool“. Stay virtuous everybody!


A philosophy of life: my personal foundational texts

My life has been a bit of a mess. When I want to fix things, I read a book.

I started with some specific areas; depression, procrastination, countless books on teaching and learning thinking that if I read enough to achieve my career goals everything else would fall into place.

Then I moved on to general self help texts, starting with “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. I want to be effective! But apparently not the kind of effective Covey had in mind because I just couldn’t connect with it.

Finally I came to “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”. Philosophy. But surely philosophy has little to offer when it comes to happiness. I had studied philosophy in college and it was all logic and epistemology, and never practical. Irvine assures us that it was not always so. There was a time when philosophers dealt in philosophies of life.

And Irvine has this to say of philosophies of life:

Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

And I may have found a philosophy of life in stoicism, a philosophy that plays on many of my strengths. And ultimately I can distill that philosophy down to just three words; virtue, tranquility, and fortune.

Below are the texts that have helped me understand each.


“How To Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie

Marcus teaches us that our purpose as human beings is to befriend each other, and that our duty is to our fellow man. Carnegie gives practical advice on how to practice fellowship, and a plethora of anecdotal evidence of the rewards.

“The Marshmallow Test”, Walter Mischel

Ancient philosophers practically worshiped the “rational principle” within each human being. Mischel explains the origin, function, and limitations of that rational principle.


“A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, William Irvine.

This text provides an excellent introduction to stoicism, but focuses on methods Roman philosophers taught for maintaining tranquility. Those methods include negative visualization, internalization of goals, voluntary discomfort, and exercises in fatalism.

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, Charles Duhigg

“The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work”, Christine Carter

Noticing and managing my habits has done a lot to help me preserve my tranquility. The latter chapters of Duhigg’s work I did not find helpful, but the beginning does an excellent job of explaining the fundamentals of habit formation and change by way of the “habit loop” model. Carter references Duhigg’s work, and expands upon how to use habits to create peace of mind.


“The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives”, Leonard Mlodinow

I love probability and statistics. I was fascinated by Mlodinow’s account of how that mathematics has developed over time, but he also describes very well how large of a role Fortune plays in success and failure.

“Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman details our reactions to randomness; the heuristics and biases we use to make a coherent story out of a chaotic world. This text helps us understand how to be virtuous in the face of Fortune, or in Kahneman’s words to invoke our lazy System 2 when System 1 starts jumping to conclusions.