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The Dangers of Externalism

By Dave Stuart Jr.

“The big question about how people behave is whether they've got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard. I always pose it this way. I say: ‘Lookit. Would you rather be the world's greatest lover, but have everyone think you're the world's worst lover? Or would you rather be the world's worst lover but have everyone think you're the world's greatest lover?'”

-Warren Buffett, from The Snowball

When I came across Warren Buffett's “Scorecard” concept this afternoon, I was reminded of last Tuesday's article, “When Your State Reduces Your Profession to a Test Score.” Indeed, upon reframing Buffett's line into ways that mean more to me, I find a similar theme:

  • Would I rather be the world's greatest teacher, but have everyone think I'm the worst, or would I rather be the world's worst teacher, but have everyone think I'm the greatest?
  • Would I rather be the world's greatest husband, but have everyone think I'm the worst, or would I rather be the world's worst husband, but have everyone think I'm the greatest?
  • Would I rather be the world's greatest father, but have everyone think I'm the worst, or would I rather be the world's worst father, but have everyone think I'm the greatest?
  • Would I rather be the world's greatest writer, but have everyone think I'm the worst, or would I rather be the world's worst writer, but have everyone think I'm the greatest?
  • Would I rather be the world's greatest Christian, but have everyone think I'm the worst, or would I rather be the world's worst Christian, but have everyone think I'm the greatest? [1]

Why externalism makes us worse at teaching and life

Post Image- ScorecardIn our era of complex teacher evaluation systems, book-length observation rubrics, and “data warehouses,” you and I are almost commanded to define ourselves by external measures. While I certainly accept the ease with which I can deceive myself (and therefore the need for external feedback on how I'm teaching or living), I am equally aware of the ease with which I can fool most people into thinking I'm better at things than I actually am.

An obvious example is the dog-and-pony shows that typically pass for formal teacher evaluations. The principal just walked into my room, and so it's time to break into collaborative groups or refer to the day's learning target. This, by the way, is what the system is presently destined to create: inauthentic performances where teachers teach how they think they are supposed to teach so that they can get a teacher evaluation score that means they get to keep their job. (Anthony Cody has written some smart things on this.)

The problem here is that externalism doesn't yield optimal human growth. This is a pattern just about everywhere.

  • The kid driven simply to be valedictorian is unlikely to flourish as much long-term as the kid driven to be the best student she can be. We've all taught the child who cares far more about grades than actually learning. (Many of us, I'm sure, have even been that student; please don't read judgy-ness into this post because, like usual, much of it is written out of personal conviction.)
  • The teacher driven simply to get a Highly Effective evaluation score is unlikely to flourish as much long-term as the teacher driven simply to be as excellent as he can be at his calling.
  • The father driven simply to have Successful Kids is unlikely to be as epic of a dad as the one who simply wants to be a student of fatherhood (and a learner of his kids) for the rest of his life.

Why do I think these things are true? We're finite creatures with finite mental energies. Effort expended on attaining a five out of five on element 3.E.w of the Ninety-Two Dimensions of Great Teaching rubric is effort that cannot be expended thinking or reading deeply about what assessment is good for. I dropped out of Pre-Med pretty early in my undergrad career, but I remember enough of science to know that the First Law of Thermodynamics (“Energy cannot be created or destroyed”) is just as true for the universe as it is for the ways we use our hearts and minds. You can obsess about being a great teacher, or about looking like one — you can't obsess about both.

Decide and discipline

External validation is good. I think it's good to get Highly Effective ratings, it's good to have people compliment my children or my marriage, it's good to write books that sell well, and so on.

The thing is, external validation isn't ultimate; it makes a wretched Top Priority and a horrible god. Again and again, it seems like the people who live the best lives and do the most important work are those for whom external validation is a side effect of an internal quest for excellence. John Wooden, the oft-heralded former UCLA basketball coach, is most famous (an external validation) for his perhaps untouchable record (an external validation) as a college basketball coach, but he attributes this largely to an “Inner Scorecard” definition of success: “knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

Spend less time reading your teacher eval rubric and more time reading good books, talking to smart people, and thinking about great teaching. Oh, and keep reading this blog.


  1. Of interest to Christians will be the fact that the gospels are filled with Jesus' warnings against externalism. For example, the entire Sermon on the Mount is essentially a sermon on the dangers of looking religious versus being so.

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15 Responses to The Dangers of Externalism

  1. Annette Burghardt Reynolds November 14, 2015 at 11:02 am #

    Dave, you are spot on! I’ve also pondered this very thing. I’ve truly wanted to be that innovative teacher who can change my students’ perspective on learning. It brings me to the conclusion that the system that measures me as a teacher can actually be a deterant. I have to be genuine in my own efforts by loving what I do and extending my personal learning out of the best books and experiences.

    • davestuartjr November 16, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

      Annette, it is so good to hear from you. I hope all is well in Utah. Thank you, as always, for reading and responding to my little blog articles!

  2. Ana November 14, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    Hello Dave, I am enjoying reading your articles. You are so right, if we focus too much on what the scorecard says about our teaching we risk letting fear guide us. We will stick with what we know our administrators want to see rather than create lessons that are innovative for fear an administrator will come in when we are “working through” a glitch in the lesson. We stop being creative, we stop taking risks and we stop growing.

    • davestuartjr November 16, 2015 at 10:05 pm #

      Thank you, Ana, for checking in. Dead on here.

  3. Heath November 14, 2015 at 2:58 pm #


    Thank you for sharing your insight on this topic. The questions I really appreciate from administrators (and colleagues) center around the student’s achievement and not the teacher’s performance. I feel the student’s thinking is a great measure of how successful the teacher was in their lesson. In my own teaching, I have often thought I hit a home run only to find out from my students’ work that it was a strikeout.

    I think what teachers need is consistent affirmation. Teaching is a job in which we rarely get affirmed within our classrooms. I recently had a conversation with a few colleagues that said they keep cards of affirmation from students for those rainy days when they want to quit their job. We all have those moments when we question whether this is our calling. I think the best thing we can do, is to partner up as learners and encourage and reinforce the pursuit of learning. Teachers need to strip away the facade and be open about what is and isn’t working. This is the type of culture that breeds success and helps better meet student needs.

    I think the great teachers are often the hardest on themselves. Thinking about the Wooden quote you mentioned above, great teachers find peace and self-satisfaction in doing their best. For these type of teachers, it is a constant drive to meet that need. I would like to say that great teachers are strictly motivated by meeting their students needs, but I don’t believe that is necessarily as powerful as the sense of peace coming from creating the best work they are capable of.

    • davestuartjr November 16, 2015 at 10:35 pm #

      Heath, yes — “what teachers need is consistent affirmation,” as well as “the sense of peace coming from creating the best work [we] are capable of.” Thank you, Heath.

  4. lisa delille bolton rn fnp November 14, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    In our era of complex teacher evaluation systems, book-length observation rubrics, and “data warehouses,” you and I are almost commanded to define ourselves by external measures. “.

    THANK YOU for saying this! i am a nurse practitioner. same promblem going in thruout healthcare. my theory: too much capitalism. hence the customer service people who are friendly and courteous to a fault, yet not empowered by their corporate masters to actually problem- solve for customers. they must follow their scripts with zero room for creativity or professional judgement. its like virus going around and doctors finally having to fall in line and choose between spending time doing vs documenting in order to prove they have done excellent patient care.

    hence the short rushed visits that frustrate both health care professionals and patients. And ultimately lead to suboptimal outcomes with less time on healing/teaching in context of the patient/student relationship and more defensive busywork to prove you’re doing your job….

    depressing, but, will improve and change as we all wake up to the problem. im hopeful!

    thanks for these great insights and for the concept of being a lifellong student of [mother]hood!!!!!

    : )

  5. Barbara Dillon November 14, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

    Thank you. This is exactly what I needed to read today.

  6. Mari Bradley November 14, 2015 at 8:32 pm #

    One of the things I hang onto when the external forces feel crushing is something a former students said to me when she was in my sixth grade ELA class 3 years ago: “You make me feel real.” No external force can measure that. Thanks for another wonderful, though-provoking, and insightful post.

  7. Michelle November 15, 2015 at 9:45 am #

    Thanks for the disclosure about your faith. I am recent follower and had made this assumption based on what I had read so far. I knew the motivation for many of your thoughts and convictions had to come from a place of personal conviction. I love my profession and share the same set of beliefs/values which has impacted my approach to navigating the world of education for 25 years. Thanks for being an advocate for teachers and the profession.

  8. mlsr10s November 15, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    Great post! This is true not only for teachers but for our students too, especially in this season of college rejections. We can and should listen to feedback from external sources, but we can’t let them define who we are.

  9. Anita November 15, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

    I keep a file on my computer named “Remember”. When a student or colleague (rarely, alas, an administrator) says or does something that shows me I’m doing a good job, I add it to the list. And when I’m having one of those dark days when I feel helpless and hopeless, I open the file and read a few. I’ve had students who I never imagined I had managed to reach come back years after they graduated to say hello and thanks, and that keeps me going.

  10. ened4323 November 16, 2015 at 1:53 am #

    This is my favorite post I’ve read on the topic! Thanks Dave.

  11. Twins Happen November 17, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

    I think you are right on here, but my question is, how can I make myself care LESS about external motivation? I care way too much about how others see me, and about whether or not I LOOK like a good teacher (or a good wife, or a good mother, etc.) I KNOW that caring about these things isn’t going to get me anywhere, but how can I work on caring less about this and focusing on the actual things that will make me a better teacher?

  12. Helena Risdon March 29, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    A great book that connects to this idea is “Quiet, The Power of Introvert in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. Our “Rock Star” obsessed society follows the loud presenters and speakers who command the lead and make decisions, while research proves that thoughtful introverts more often than not actually make decisions that are better.

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