The Rumpelstiltskin Principle

by Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70 on August 16, 2009 · 7 comments

in Prof. Winston's Ideas

kidsProfessor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

I’ve always believed that mutual respect is an important prerequisite to learning. Students show respect to me by showing up on time, by paying attention, and by keeping their laptops closed and their cell phones turned off.

So how do I show respect to the students? Traditionally, by doing my best to give useful and interesting lectures. And, lately, by knowing each student’s name. I always knew some of their names, but a few years ago it occurred to me that I could learn to recognize all my students using the pictures conveniently provided by the registrar.

Because my introductory Artificial Intelligence class has on the order of 200 students, it takes a few hours to get the job done, so it is time to get started. Learning the final 10% of the names is always tough. Some students look alike; some don’t look anything like the pictures they sent to MIT when they were high-school seniors; and some have names that roll awkwardly off my English-speaking tongue.

But it is worth the trouble. Usually the first time I greet a student by name, especially outside of class, the student is astonished, as if witnessing some sort of miracle.

Actually, a sort of miracle does occur, because once I know a student’s name, we both tend to perceive our relationship as collaborative, rather than adversarial. The student works harder; I spend more time preparing; and we both enjoy the teaching and learning experience more.

It’s empowering, and I’m reminded of the princess in the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale who got power over Rumpelstiltskin once she learned his name. There is actually quite a lot we learn from fairy tales, but I’ll tell that story another time.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Fishburn August 18, 2009 at 5:34 pm

As an MIT freshman, I was taking a seminar with a famous, but quite old, math professor. I never expected him to remember my name – certainly his mind wasn’t optimized for remembering names.

I still remember walking down the building 56 hallway at 8:30 pm and seeing him coming the other way. Just after we had passed one another, he cried out “Fishburn!” I never felt so happy that someone had remembered my name – it made my week. Every time another student mentioned the professor, I’d share this memory of him and talk about how he was not only a brilliant professor, but a great person.

Matt Fishburn
EECS ’07

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Scott Holmes August 18, 2009 at 6:08 pm

This principle goes both ways. Ever have someone introduce themself to you, but then forget their name minutes later? This happens to most people. There are many techniques created to remember others people’s names, but few to help them remember yours.

What you can do to help others learn your name is to create a good name story to tell during introductions. People can remember stories much better than names.

My name story? Hi, I’m Scott. As you can probably tell from the freckles and reddish hair, I’ve got a fair bit of Scottish ancestry. And have you heard of my English relative, Sherlock Holmes? Well, I’m the Scottish version — Scott Holmes.

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S August 30, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Have you heard of a novel which mentions Rumpelstiltskin? I have a memory of a book which describes “Rumpelstiltskinizing” someone as labeling or categorizing them in order to be able to dismiss them.

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Ovidiu Badita April 5, 2014 at 5:43 pm

I watched the first course on youtube, and I must say I have a lot of respect for you. I wish I would have started studying computer sciences when I was younger and maybe had a chance to make something out of it, not having it just as a hobby. The Rumpelstiltskin principle seems to have a great importance, and by intuition I could tell that having a richer vocabulary gives you a better chance to understand the world. Up until now, I never even knew that this principle existed. But indeed, giving a name to something, whatever it may be – even if it is not the right name – allows one to expand its knowledge. I plan to follow the entire course about AI when I have the time. Your way of explaining things, reducing it to basics is very useful. Also, focusing on simplicity and making the difference from trivial is extremely useful, and very few people are capable to see that difference. Your students are lucky to have it pointed out in the beginning.
Thanks MIT for sharing all the information. Is nice to be able to learn on your own stuff that is interesting, and you can’t afford to learn it in a traditional school. I may never use what I learn from these courses in real life, but learning it helps me understand better what I actually need to understand for my job and in life in general.

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Vlad A. April 11, 2016 at 2:15 pm

I watched the first course on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjZBTDzGeGg0) and saw the “Rumpelstiltskin principle” written on the board. And I just had to know what’s a fairytale got to do with your class.
I sure wish I could attend your classes live.

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James McQuaid April 17, 2017 at 6:07 am

This really makes me want to study at MIT. Prof. Winston is a true gentleman and a scholar.

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Tim Chambers May 20, 2017 at 5:56 pm

It was a special honor to have studied under you, Professor, even if it _was_ before you had the tools to learn your students’ names (c. 1983)!

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