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“Education is not the Filling of a Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire” -William Butler Yeats

by Mark DiGiovanni, CFP

My first career was in teaching.  It was rewarding, but also frustrating.  The rewarding part was opening doors for young people to become more than they thought they could be.  The frustrating part was dealing with the politics and bureaucracy that seems to be a part of any education system.

In the U.S. today, there is an obsession with accountability in education.  To that end, standardized testing has become rampant.  The average student spends approximately 7% of the school year preparing for and taking standardized tests.  This amount is equivalent to nearly a full school year by the time they graduate from high school.  The purpose of the testing is not to educate; it is to measure what the students have “learned.”  The preparation is very much like filling a pail, then hoping the students retain enough in the pail before dumping it onto a test paper.  Long-term retention, much less enlightenment, is not the goal. Such methods not only fail to light a fire in students, they are increasingly extinguishing the fire in teachers.

Asking the Right Questions

Think back to your own experiences as a student.  The most boring and uninspiring classes you took were probably ones that only asked “who?”, “what?”, “when?”, and “where?” questions.  You memorized data, regurgitated it back to the teacher, and were rewarded or punished based on your ability to perform that task.  Even if you were good at that task, you probably received little intrinsic reward for what you had memorized.

The most inspiring, mind-altering classes you took probably asked a very different question – “why?”  The difference between the first group of questions and the second is the difference between the left and right brain.  The left brain is the analytical, computer-like part of the brain.  The right brain is where our curiosity, our creativity, even our humanity reside.  Asking “why?” engages the right brain.  Asking “why?” lights a fire.  Those other questions are merely filling buckets.

When you understand why you need to know something, the who-what-when-where questions become interesting to answer, which means the answers also become easier to retain.  If students in a history class can learn why a war was fought several centuries ago, they are much more likely to remember who the combatants were, where the war was fought, and when it took place.  And if they don’t first learn why a war was fought, what’s the point of even learning the other facts?

Lighting Fires in Finance

When people today are studying for the CFP exam, they learn about investments, insurance, taxes, retirement planning, and estate planning. These subjects are all valuable. When I was studying to earn my CFP designation many years ago, I felt like it would have taken me at least a decade of on-the-job training to learn what I learned in preparation for the CFP exam.  Nevertheless, what is taught in financial classes is still designed to answer the who-what-when-where questions, in part because those questions have clear right and wrong answers, and they can be graded easily by computer.

Answering the “why” questions requires an essay, not a multiple choice format.  Even coming up with “why” questions requires more in-depth thought, which is one reason we don’t see much of it.  But we need to ask such questions when training the next generation of planners.  New areas of study such as Behavioral Finance and Neuroeconomics are beginning to ask and answer many of those “why” questions about the way people behave (and misbehave) with money.  The next generation of financial planners needs to become comfortable with “why” questions for another very important reason – they will be asking such questions of their clients every day for the rest of their careers.  The future of financial planning does not rest with those who can answer the old who-what-when-where questions.  Computers are already answering more and more of these questions.  The future lies with those who are comfortable with asking the “why” questions, and who also know how to answer the “why” questions when they are posed to them.

I’ll conclude with a simple illustration of the relative power of these two different types of questions.  A young planner is reviewing information on a new client.  The questionnaire that the client has completed lists all the relevant data, including expected rates of return, desired income levels, etc.  Such information is necessary, but hardly gives a complete picture. The questionnaire is different in that it also asks the client why they have stated certain goals and expectations.  As the young planner reads down the questionnaire, she comes across a question, “Why do you feel it is important to obtain the investment objective you have stated?”  The surprising answer is, “Because I have a daughter who has suffered from (blank) disease since birth, and she will never be able to care for herself.  I will bear any burden to make sure she has to bear no more than she currently has.”  If you were that young planner, would your fire not be lit?

3 comments to “Education is not the Filling of a Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire” -William Butler Yeats

  • Mark you are spot on. I’ll add that as important as it is for the planner to know the why it is essential for the client to also be able to define what their “why” is specificly. In your example helping that client identify what the burdens cost and developing a plan to help acumulate the necessary amount to accomplish the goal lights the fire in the client to successfully implement the plan.

    In my experience too many clients define their goals in abstract terms. Teaching them how to make their plans concrete allows the planner to function as a real “fire initiator” and tends to cement the client/planner relationship.

    • Thanks for your comments, Jack. You are right – as important as it is for the planner to know the why of their clients goals, it is even more important for the client to know them. When they know why they are sacrificing, the sacrifice become much easier to make.

  • Keith D. Macdonald, CFP

    Great article! I agree with you wholeheartedly Mark that a Financial Planner’s skill comes through in the process of open and honest enquiry. It is by asking the ‘’why’’ questions that the great leaps can occur in the client’s mind and they can then fully engage with a course of action that will lead to a more fulfilling life. It’s a great privilege to help people tackle the challenge of organising and managing their money so that it supports their values and aspirations. It’s one of the best benefits of our profession!

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