What a wicked game you play to make me feel this way.
Chris Isaak, Wicked Game
Ok, I’ve cheated a bit. In this paper Robin M Hogarth identifies what he calls ‘kind’ and ‘wicked’ domains. A kind domain is one which provides accurate and reliable feedback, a wicked domain is one where feedback on performance is absent or biased. Hogarth cites two examples. First a kind domain:
The meteorologist is well-placed to develop accurate intuitions. She has much knowledge about how weather systems develop as well as access to much current information on which she can base her forecasts; she also receives accurate and timely feedback on the accuracy of her forecasts.
The other, a wicked domain:
The physician in the emergency room also has much relevant knowledge; however, he must make speedy decisions and will not always receive adequate feedback.Indeed, the typical feedback he receives is short term: how the patient responds to his immediate actions. It is rare that the physician ever really finds out what happened to the patients he treated within a longer, and perhaps more relevant time frame. Some patients simply go home after treatment and never return to the hospital; others are cared for in different departments of the hospital, and so on.
He makes the point that an importance difference in the domains of meteorology and healthcare is that “When the meteorologist makes a forecast, this does not affect the weather and thus the feedback that she receives. On the other hand, when the physician makes his diagnosis, he acts on it. This, in turn, affects the patient and thus the short-term feedback that the physician receives.” Physicians’ behaviour necessarily warps any feedback they get. Consider the case of the physician who became intuitively aware of when a patient was likely to develop typhoid. In order to confirm his intuitions he would palpate his patient’s tongues. But because he wasn’t aware of the need to wash his hands, his intuitions were disastrously self-fulfilling.
It seems to me that education shares some similarities with the ‘wicked’ domain of healthcare. The feedback we get as teachers is often biased (lesson observations) delayed to the point of uselessness (student satisfaction) or largely invalid (exam results). How can teachers’ judgements improve in the absence of meaningful feedback? In Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed compares the situation to playing golf in the dark:
[S]uppose that instead of practising in daylight, you practised at night – in the pitch black. In these circumstances, you could practise for ten years or ten thousand years without improving at all. How could you progress if you don’t have a clue where the ball has landed?… You wouldn’t have any data to improve your accuracy. (p.50)
Most of the time we have no real idea where ‘the ball’ has landed. We teach lessons and, as far as is possible, we see what we prefer to see. Instead of collecting real data about our accuracy we fall into the narrative fallacy and create post-hoc explanations for what we do and how our students respond. The furthest we ever check is to see how well they do in examinations.
One of my sources of shame is the knowledge that I’ve taught children to get a C grade in English language GCSE who I’ve known are functionally illiterate. It’s not that I feel guilty about them having a certificate which says they can read, it’s that I spent my time doing coaching them to pass an exam rather than teaching them to read. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. In every comprehensive school in the country there is a significant minority of children who cannot adequately read or write. You can probably bring a number of students to mind. Unless we think more carefully about where the ball lands their trajectory is fairly predictable.
So, how can we turn the lights on in teaching? How can we make education kinder?
Hogarth suggests we try to educate our intuition to make it less prone to biases and heuristics and more deliberate. He makes seven rather useful suggestions:
- Select and/or create our environments by ‘apprenticing’ ourselves to experts. tricky for an individual teacher to decide to do, but certainly it would possible for a school to engineer effective mentoring relationships so new teachers could emulate experienced colleagues.
- Seek feedback through “intelligent sampling of outcomes”. Can we follow up the consequences of our actions differently? Can we select a subset of pupils to find out how they fare after they move out of classes? And can we pay more attention to the feedback we do get? What’s the long-term signal in the noise of current performance?
- Impose “circuit breakers” Can we identify areas where our ‘natural’ tendencies to react defensively bypasses sound judgement? Can we rehearse and practise research-informed solutions to endemic problems?
- Acknowledge emotions – we should treat our emotions as data. When we feel something intuitively this might be important or it might just be distracting bias, but it could pay us to pay attention and find out. Can we check out our instincts with a colleague? How far do our feeling weigh against other, more objective sources of data?
- Explore connections – we can be more creative, intuitive and critical by noticing similarities and points of comparison. As we begin to recognise the ‘deep structure’ of teaching our subjects and phases we become better at problem solving and more likely to reach interesting and novel hypotheses. Instead of seeing differences and saying, “But my context is completely different: that would never work here” we should try to see where the ‘best bets’ of education research might be utilised most profitably.
- Accept conflict in choice – although I’m loath to admit it, sometimes we have to compromise. But all choices involve trade offs and we should pay particular attention to the opportunity cost of the decisions we make. Hogarth suggests that while “tacit choice processes typically reach “satisfactory” choices without confronting trade-offs… this can also lead to dysfunctional outcomes that should be avoided.” We need to be alert to the danger of making easy seeming options and prepared to make the most cost-effective, sometimes difficult decisions.
- Make scientific method intuitive – this is the master skill. If we can become fluent and practised enough in the methodology of science – taking care in how we make observations (separating facts from conclusions), generating different hypotheses; finding ways of testing our hypotheses, falsifying our beliefs and ideas – maybe we can avoid the grossest intuitive blunders and “learn these rules so well that you can execute the appropriate steps without having to think what these should be.”
Clearly none of this advice is the sort of thing you can ‘just do’ on Monday morning and then relax. This is a career’s work in switching the light on and becoming the best teacher you can be. Good luck.