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Intent vs. Impact

February 13, 2018
by Eric C. Abrams

I had a wonderfully enjoyable conversation with a colleague this afternoon; we touched upon a wide range of subjects. One that I'd like to explore further is the idea of Intent vs. Impact

You know the sort of half-hearted apology we sometimes hear from celebrities and politicians? "I'm sorry if anyone was offended. I didn't mean to hurt anyone." Well, that sort of apology only helps the person apologizing; it does precious little for the person who was hurt in the first place. 

Perhaps an analogy is helpful. I'm a big guy: 6-5, over 260 lbs. I also ride a motorcycle. One of the great things about my job is that I'm often called upon to make presentations to a pretty wide variety of audiences. I like to think I'm a pretty engaging speaker, and I move around a lot when I talk. Imagine that I'm giving a talk, and walking around the room...and because I was a bit tardy, I didn't have time to change out of my motorcycle boots. At one point, in my effort to be interesting, I manage to step on someone's foot. Of course, I didn't intend to hurt them--there's no malice here. But the person who had their foot stepped on by this huge guy wearing heavy boots has a broken foot. 

In that situation, my saying, "I didn't mean to hurt anyone" is pretty ineffective, isn't it? Someone still has suffered the impact of my boot on their foot! 

So we have to decouple intent from impact. I think that's something those of us who think about education should consider. Sometimes actions that have the best intentions can be very harmful in the educational context. Decisions like closing schools in a given city, or deciding which child to call on in a sea of upraised hands can have an impact far beyond the decision-makers original intent.  I believe that thinking about the impact of our actions separately from our intent behind those actions can lead to more effective decision-making.