What’s Wrong with Us?

Have you ever had your students self-assess a project and watched them inflate their scores? Or, have you had the students assess one another and again seen the same inflation? Or, have you shown students examples of ‘A’ level work (while they look at their own ‘D’ level work) and watched the students unable to see why their own products need more editing? Maybe it’s not really their fault.

We may be frighteningly normal when we overestimate our abilities and the abilities of others according to a Salon article.

Although the article is focused on politics, I can easily see its relevance in the classroom.

Here is one finding of the study on which the article is based:

On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile [when looking at their answers on a logical reasoning assessment], revealing that most of us tend to overestimate our skills somewhat. But those in the bottom 25 percent consistently overestimated their ability to the greatest extent. For example, in the logical reasoning section, individuals who scored in the 12th percentile believed that their general reasoning abilities fell at the 68th percentile, and that their overall scores would be in the 62nd percentile. The authors point out that the problem was not primarily underestimating how others had done; those in the bottom quartile overestimated the number of their correct answers by nearly 50 percent. Similarly, after seeing the answers of the best performers — those in the top quartile — those in the bottom quartile continued to believe that they had performed well.

Perhaps we just have a very difficult time assessing success. We like our rose-colored glasses.

When I read the following statement, I could not help but think of the students who continually repeat their mistakes despite so much assistance and teaching:

People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s.

My next thought was, “how do we combat this in the classroom?” One of my more blunt colleagues liked to say, “there is such a thing as a low IQ.” While harsh, I do think there are times when I agree. Some students will just struggle no matter the support. This does not mean we abandon them, but we may have to accept smaller gains from these students; barely passing may be quite an accomplishment for them.

The inability to assess adequately is not limited to those performing at low levels:

Despite the fact that students in the top quartile fairly accurately estimated how well they did, they also tended to overestimate the performance of others. In short, smart people tend to believe that everyone else “gets it.”

I know I’ve seen my high-achieving students utterly awestruck when they realize not everyone is ready to move on at the same time. I know there are times when I feel this way in staff meetings, too.

In the political analysis of the Salon article, a story is presented about choosing a candidate. Here it is:

Last week, I jokingly asked a health club acquaintance whether he would change his mind about his choice for president if presented with sufficient facts that contradicted his present beliefs. He responded with utter confidence. “Absolutely not,” he said. “No new facts will change my mind because I know that these facts are correct.”

I was floored. In his brief rebuttal, he blindly demonstrated overconfidence in his own ideas and the inability to consider how new facts might alter a presently cherished opinion. Worse, he seemed unaware of how irrational his response might appear to others. It’s clear, I thought, that carefully constructed arguments and presentation of irrefutable evidence will not change this man’s mind.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve spoken to teachers about why they teach a certain way, and I hear something like this: “I go with my gut” or “I just know” or something similar. No research. No study. Not even any anecdotal classroom evidence. Logic, reason, and facts just seem to get in the way.

Maybe we truly are irrational beings.


4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Us?

  1. Mystery Teacher

    When I teach something and it doesn’t work, I look for another way to present the information again. I have never been one to use one way of teaching. Kids learn different ways and so I try to teach different ways. It still doesn’t always work but I do try to put effort into it. I know of teachers in the past who actually used the same lesson plans year after year. The exact same plans. I find that appalling. (sp?) The kids are different every year. How can they teach that way?

  2. Clix

    A lot of recent research implies that humans decide first and then use supporting information to rationalize, rather than weighing information and then deciding.

  3. Pat P.

    Yes, there is a need for study, research etc. to support decisions we make. But I think it is a mistake to completely discount the usefulness of the “going with the gut” approach – at least when we are in the flow of instruction. When one thinks of the myriad decisions we have to make on the fly during a day of instruction it seems clear that some things DO have to be decided based on instinct. If we were TOO reflective about these decisions, we’d be paralyzed. Now, presumably the “gut-level” decisions we make are informed by past experiences and get better as we gain experience. But I have to say that there are many times when I am confronted with a situation in my instruction that requires me to just do what feels right at the moment. Later on, I can take the luxury to research and evaluate my choice, but in the heat of battle, you just have to go for it.

  4. drpezz Post author

    I agree with you, Pat, about those myriad decisions made on the fly, but I was thinking more of the overarching decisions: sequencing, processes used, content choices, and the like. Too often I think we allow the emotional side of our brains rule the rational side, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.


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