$5 Challenge – Are We Allowed To Break Rules In School?

What would you do with $5? Via Quora.

The best performing teams actually ignored the $5 and just went out and made money. And at least one Quora commenter takes exception to this ‘rule breaking’:

While it may be a clever story to tell at parties, I think the whole thing had a lot of ethical/ procedural holes. I may be being nitpicky and missing the entire picture, but here goes:

My main gripe is that the students were told to make the $5 grow, not just make the most money they can in 2 hours. Yes the real world has no rules, but then you can’t impose rules and then go around and say, wait, if you followed the rules you’ll be last.

1. The bicycle repair story is the only story that I feel truly won in the spirit of the test. I’m assuming they bought the pump for the $5 and proceeded to use that to make their profits. Fair enough.

2. The ‘winner’ felt like cheating because they probably spent more than the $5 to contact and make the deal with the company before they even had the deal. Whether they were remunerated for their costs of making the commercial and selling the time at a later date is assuming they were allowed to take credit, in which case the $5 is irrelevant.

3. The restaurant idea, while within the confines of the problem is an ethical grey to black area. This may also be a culture-specific notion though. In India, this is called selling things ‘in black’. You can’t hoard a resource and sell it to the highest bidder – oh wait a minute… you CAN, but it is generally frowned upon and not congratulated. 😉

Finally, while the post did incite some creative processes in my head, it still left a sour taste in my mouth by seeing the parameters of the problem and ethics bent and shaped to suit the most glitzy ‘story’.

I agree that this is rule breaking behavior. I sympathize with the students who showed up Monday morning having diligently invested their $5 yet found the winning team simply sold their presentation time to an advertiser. Probably took them 10 minutes. Rule broken? Contest won.

And here’s psyblog:

Those who turned out to be the best entrepreneurs often had a history of being rule breakers in their teenage years. They were more likely to have smoked marijuana, to have bunked off school and even to have assaulted others.

But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill deviants. These are high status rule breaker/benders.

But this illicit aspect was also coupled with a very stable family background. Successful entrepreneur’s were disproportionately likely to come from families that were:

  • high-income,
  • well-educated,
  •  and stable.

So we’re not exactly talking about disadvantaged youths here.

But is it Ok to ‘break the rules’ to make money? How about to get good grades? Should means to these ends be evaluated differently? Deep stuff. I first heard from Robin Hanson that the entire purpose of school may be to promote rule-following behavior (here’s a version of this argument) and so keep order in society.

Breaking certain rules is of course punishable under criminal law, yet remember this quote attributed to Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime”; interestingly, the real quote (translation) is probably even more appropriate: “The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done”. 

One possible definition of creativity (or leadership for that matter) is the selective breaking of rules (implicit or otherwise) which nobody realized could be broken without consequence. Under this framework, creativity is a garbage collection process for out-of-date rules in our society. 

So we value rule-following behavior even while we reward creativity. Crucially, creativity is hard and fails most of the time. Either a rule isn’t broken and the discovery is useless/boring or a rule is broken that we collectively judge should not have been and the creator is punished.

There’s also a hint of unfairness about rule breaking and fairness is a strong social norm, particularly with children. Schools can’t really both teach rule following behavior and reward rule-breaking behavior. We don’t want to be unfair to our children.

To me, then, teaching creativity in school is paradoxical. We still benefit from creativity, of course, so we should find ways of promoting it, but putting creative training in school will neuter its (necessarily) subversive side and confuse kids about what creativity really is.

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