Why do we keep paving the cowpaths?

Derek Sivers says that we should let pedestrians define the walkways.  Here’s his anecdote:

A new college campus was built, but one thing was still debated: where in the grass should we put the paved walkways?

Some people thought the walkways should go around the grass, to leave it green. Some thought the walkways should cut across diagonally.

One professor had the winning idea: Don’t make any walkways this year. At the end of the year, look where the grass has worn away. That shows where the students are walking. Then just pave those paths.

Brilliant idea.  Or not?

Cowpath theory

I have often heard of this referred to as the ‘cow path’ theory of design, which (allegedly) draws its origins from the story of how the streets of Boston were originally laid out in the 17th century.  The streets of downtown Boston (and many other old cities) are characterized by labyrinthine roads that seem to follow no logic at all until you are told that these roads were once cowpaths that cattle trod when moving through Boston hundreds of years ago.  At some point in time, someone decided to pave those cowpaths.  Whether the origin story is true, or not, I would assume that modern city planners would not build the same roads if given the chance to start over.  

In the same way, what would happen if the college (above) wanted to have a grassy quad in the middle of the campus for students to use for sports or relaxation?  Would they really want to pave a walkway right through the centre of it just because it represents the shortest distance between two points?  Would it really hurt those students and staff to take a couple of moments to walk around it?  Perhaps they could design walkways that encourage people to use them?  

So there is an obvious design tension here.  It makes sense to work backward from what the users want – to see what preferred paths are – but at the same time, is there not also a need for the design to reflect what was actually envisioned in the first place?  Cowpath thinking does not just apply to a college campus and street planning, it can be found wherever you look and can be described as a tension between idealism and pragmatism (Naumof, 2021).  

As such, I wonder if Apple would have removed the headphone jack from the iPhone in 2016 without some ‘wireless’ idealism? 

The pragmatic 3.5mm jack, a ubiquitous piece of technology so good that it was still going after 70+ years, was consigned to the past to make room for a better wireless future. A future of using either Apple’s new (and expensive to buy) wireless AirPods – or flapping around with extra adapters to plug in the (now) old headphones.  Apple told us that the decision was underpinned by having “the courage to move on, to do something new that betters all of us”. 

I was not convinced at the time, and this was a view shared by many tech pundits who saw the move as evidence that Apple was in decline and lost without Steve Jobs. A loud contingent of iPhone users, including myself, vowed that their next smartphone would be an Android with a 3.5mm jack.  The share price for Apple dropped, petitions were launched, and the market sat waiting to watch the doom unfold.  But it didn’t.  Perhaps it wasn’t such a big deal after all.

Why did Apple remove the headphone jack? Predominately, taking it out freed up a load of space to introduce a load of new innovations to help maintain its market position. However, there were other reasons cited such as improved sound quality, design aesthetics, and the convenience of a hands-free UX. But it was also consistent with the long-standing strategy for Apple products to operate completely wirelessly.  

Many organizations find it easier to layer new ideas on top of the old way of doing things – without really thinking if the old way is still the best way of doing things.   Paving over an existing cow path is the easy way out, but not always the best way.  Not paving over a cow path takes a commitment to a different way of doing things. It also requires educating those affected by the change as to the benefits associated with the new design.  I guess this is part of what makes Apple different.

Digging in?

Whether we like it or not, school education is still shaped by the higher education admissions system.  It is less of a paved walkway and more of a 7-lane motorway.  

The inescapable (and pragmatic) truth is that although COVID has caused huge cracks and potholes to appear, it is still the only road to take people where they want to go.  Some commentators think that COVID is going to set the conditions for the education system to be reformed – for the old roads to be dug up – but if you look closely, that is simply not evident at the moment.  People are digging in – not up!

The mother-of-all-cowpaths is actually being re-paved.  It is not being paved in the same way as before – it is being done with greater efficiency, using new materials, processes and technologies.   And at the same time, there are new vehicles being developed that will continue to help (those who can afford them) avoid any traffic, queuing, or any other inconvenience.

So what exactly is going to be different when the dust settles post-COVID?  My own idealism is for an education system with greater access, inclusion, and diversity – what I feel are the prerequisites for a more peaceful and sustainable planet.  But I worry that the hard edge of pragmatism is going to make that work more challenging than I might like.

Paving the cowpath is a bad idea.  It’s a bad idea in a city.  And it’s a bad idea when thinking about reforming education.  When you upgrade something, you can usually do better if you focus on the desired end result, not simply replicate existing practice with new technology.

Digging up?

Before leaving it at that, I thought I would share three particular paved cow-paths that I feel need digging up if education is to be made more relevant, fairer and worthwhile for (all) our children.

  1. University Admissions. Can we have a higher education admissions system that recognises a greater range of evidence to determine student ability and/or suitability? It should not all rest of the result of summative high stakes exams. This is the big one for me.
  2. Standardised testing. It drives learning and teaching. And not in a good way. Many schools are mandated to do them. Many others do them by choice.
  3. The academic offer. If a learning programme is only aimed at getting students into (tier 1) higher education, then it can only serve a specific cohort of students. It also serves to define a very narrow benchmark for what success looks like. Particularly in high school, I would see students having more choice over what, how, when and where they want (or are best placed) to learn. No one should feel that they have failed at school.

Derek Sivers (2020) Hell Yeah or No

Nick Naumof (2021) Paving the Cow-Paths: The Demise of Idealism and the Pathway to Pragmatism

One thought on “Why do we keep paving the cowpaths?

  1. A really well written and poignant article Damian. I really enjoyed reading this alongside some of your other blogs. Your points are valid in many areas outside education too. Covid has highlighted how our education system fails many in its one size fits all approach. Sitting alongside your recent comparison blog, there’s a similar message. Too many children, with different skills and potential elsewhere are left dealing a failure in the current school cowpath where they then have to build their self efficacy later when (and if) they discover their strengths elsewhere. Our school system should be muttering them earlier so they’re not left way behind the start line when they leave school. I don’t know the solution but suspect that something akin to the German system might be a start point.
    This article requires a large audience to include the policy makers if they start to rethink.


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