Introverts Unite?

I’ve written before – quite a lot, actually, here, here, here, here, and here – about cognitive failures. I think these failures – our ability to see the truth, put simply – corrupt many of our organizations, especially on matters of hiring. We choose to hire people, for the most part, based on a faulty set of ideas. And then we live with those decisions, in a kind of confirmation-bias prison, unable to see the folly of our ways.

I proceed from well-established premises: that schools can improve; that teachers are the most important factor in establishing quality schools, and that leaders are second only to teachers in their importance. One more: hiring the right people is crucial.

The kinds of traits selected for in the hiring process appear to be just that: traits. Not skills or abilities, but personality markers; markers that the hiring teams tend to be swayed by in the way we are sometimes swayed by a clever salesman. We end up with overly gregarious types, men who are tall and possessed of a firm handshake. This is especially true of leadership positions. And when these larger-than-life types create mediocre results, we pawn it off on outside factors (“Boy, that’s a tough job – I wouldn’t want it”), and sometimes even muse “how much worse it would have been without him.”

Enter Susan Cain. A Manhattan-corporate-lawyer-turned author, she tries to salvage the lowly introvert in the TED clip below. Like (the extroverted) Jim Collins in his wildly influential Good to Great (in his insistence that humility and will constitutes the best leadership), she points out that some of our most beloved leaders are introverts. If all we were looking for was a broad smile, firm handshake, and wonderful small talk, we would have missed out on some of the best, Abraham Lincoln included.

Also see Carla Luchetta, of TVOs The Agenda, on a similar theme.

The Illusion of Skill

Those who know me, know I tend to repeat ideas I like a lot.  One of those ideas is the Kruger-Dunning Effect.  I think it has a tremendous explanatory power in understanding the world.  Fundamentally, this effect seeks to understand deficiencies in cognition, in understanding the world.  I’ve argued that this effect explains why it is our schools don’t succeed as we want them to: leaders are often not up to the task, but by their own lights, they certainly are. The problem: their lights are wrong.

A friend passed on a recent article Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence, by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, in the New York Times.  Kahneman explains his experiences struggling with humanity’s persistent “illusion of skill” – our tendency to exaggerate our own decision-making, cognition, and perception abilities, noting that “Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.” After finding out, during an exercise in his formative years, that he and his team had failed miserably at predicting the performance of future military leaders:

“I thought that what was happening to us was remarkable. The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgments of particular candidates, but it did not. It should also have caused us to moderate our predictions, but it did not. We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid. I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false. I was so struck by the analogy that I coined a term for our experience: the illusion of validity.”

He calls the phenomenon WYSIATI:

‘“What you see is all there is.” We had made up a story from the little we knew but had no way to allow for what we did not know about the individual’s future, which was almost everything that would actually matter. When you know as little as we did, you should not make extreme predictions like “He will be a star.” The stars we saw on the obstacle field were most likely accidental flickers, in which a coincidence of random events — like who was near the wall — largely determined who became a leader. Other events — some of them also random — would determine later success in training and combat.’

I think of many instances that validate this view: Presidential debates, job interviews, and hasty performance evaluations to name a few.  How many of us have worked at institutions who have hired “stars,” only to find later that they were mediocre – or worse, harmful towards the long-term success of the organization.

His conclusion is note perfect: “In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”  We ignore this advice at our peril.

Here’s Kahneman in his Ted Talk on experience versus memory:

Teacher Burn Out

Teachers, like any group of workers who regularly confront humanity, suffer from the threat of burn out.  They fret and stress to the point of wanting to quit the career.  They look longingly at other fields of work and daydream about retirement.  Not all teachers, but many. Legions.It could be, like some have suggested, that teachers have unrealistic views of what any profession can take from you.  People say that lawyers and doctors are worked harder and longer than teachers do.  And the vacation time teachers get leads many to argue that they’re just whining.

I don’t think teachers whine when they feel overworked.  There is nearly no level a teacher could go to feel he had done his job to the fullest; there are always needs left unsatisfied.  Accusations of not-doing-enough linger around every corner.  Coach a team?  You didn’t have enough practices/play my child enough/win enough games.  Run a club?  Haven’t inspired the students to new heights.  Give extra help?  Until all students achieve at the highest levels, you can’t relax.

The difference, I think, between teachers and other professionals are the expectations involved.  Doctors aren’t held responsible for the health of their patients; they are only held responsible for the things directly under their control.  If a doctor tells his patients to quit smoking, follows all the standard protocols, then he’s done his job – and we should feel lucky to have an appointment. Teachers are held responsible for the motivations, dispositions, and psychologies of their charges.  Few blame the lawyer cursed with the unreasonable client – in fact, most pity him.  Teachers, though, do feel the weight of responsibility for the success of each of their students.  And when the efforts of the teacher don’t achieve results, it can be hard to bear.

Perhaps the strain on teachers is increasing; maybe it’s always been this way.  But any career that loses something like ? of its new recruits in the first five years should be reformed.  Do the best teachers stay?  Or just the one’s with the fewest options and smallest imaginations?

I think that the emotional geographies of the school, as people like Andy Hargreaves call it, are central to the mission of school and school system improvement.  Morale and motivation are not peripheral to the mission; in a highly emotive job like teaching, there are few things more important that teachers’ mental states.

If we want to improve schools, one of the levers at our disposal is the happiness of teachers itself.  Ken Leithwood and Brenda Beatty have written about this; I can hardly think of a much more promising area of research and policy.

Moneyball for Schooling?

The premise of the new Hollywood movie and book of the same name, Moneyball, is quite simple: the great minds who operated baseball’s best clubs were, collectively, not as clever as they thought they were – and as a result, much of their money and effort was being wasted on ideas that, when held to the light of analysis and scrutiny, weren’t worthwhile. When the old scouts asked the wrong questions, when they misunderstood the very mechanics of the game they were entrusted to understand, when they were wrong, they (and everyone else) believed they were right. Until they were proved otherwise. A team could win by spending less but by understanding the game better – wisdom would yield results.

Moneyball Trailer 2 by teasertrailer

That basic premise applies well to education, too: we all think we ‘know’ what works best, which teachers are ‘better’ than others, some techniques are stars and some are dogs, and yet we rarely have much to go on besides often-faulty instincts. I’ve gone on and on about it recently: that education requires the blending of practice and research; that some ideas are better than others, and that we should know the difference between the two; that thinking alone does not make it so; that the Kruger-Dunning Effect explains why it is much of the reason behind under-performing schools; all the way back to the first blog post in this space 15 months ago on Doug Lemov’s attempts to build a better teacher.

Of course, there is work that has been done to address the longstanding questions in education – but it is complicated. Not all the research is good; education is dynamic and responds to some degree to the society it tires to educate; and no system as chaotic as schooling can be expected to perform as a computer does, with completely predictable outcomes. But then, neither can we expect it from baseball either.

Yet, there is still truth to the premise: we can run an organization, the Oakland As or the local school, with wisdom or wives’ tales. The results, on average, have got to be better when we move past old unchallenged assumptions and stop equating the number of grey hairs with truth.

Good to Great – Part I: Leadership

Leadership = Humility and Will

Few management gurus have had an impact in educational circles as great as Jim Collins has had.  Following in the footsteps of management profs like Douglas McGregor, Collins seeks to understand what makes organizations thrive.  And many – so many as to suggest cliche – educational consultants, writers, and leaders have turned to Collins for answers on how to build great schools.

His methodology is as good as it comes in management circles – he and his team identified companies that outperformed their sector and the market generally.  Then, they decided to identify factors that these “good to great” companies had in common.  (There are ways to find fault still, though – stock markets don’t always know what’s best; but compared to most management books, it’s an incredibly reliable methodology.)  He writes well, uses compelling evidence, and goes beyond mere platitudes in his analysis; it would be hard to ignore the work.

Not suprisingly, one of the topics explored by Collins is leadership.  Indeed – it’s the first meathy topic he settles on.  And while much of his analysis is familiar (a good leader has a strong will, for example), perhaps his most powerful assertion on leadership is that the best leaders aren’t necessarily the most charismatic; in fact, he points out in the speech below, many of the best leaders seem to have a “charisma bypass.”

Too often, in organizations generally but in education specifically, we turn to the gregarious and the charming to lead us, believing that personality is more important than insight.  Collins counters: “Leadership is not about personality… we should never confuse charisma with leadership.” I would agree, and put it this way: until we prize competence over handshakes and haridos, we are doomed to inhabit mediocre schools.

In fact, extending this thinking even further, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, argues that those with mental illnesses like depression actually make better leaders than the happy-go-lucky types.

“‘Normal’ nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them,” argues Ghaemi.

“Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is. In one classic study, subjects pressed a button and observed whether it turned on a green light, which was actually controlled by the researchers. Those who had no depressive symptoms consistently overestimated their control over the light; those who had some depressive symptoms realized they had little control.”

Practice and Research

One of my beliefs is that while teaching is partly an art, it must also be partly a science – by “science,” I mean the gathering of data, the interpretation of findings, and the constant reassessment of those two in order to attain a better truth than the one before.  While it might only produce provisional truths, there must be a science behind teaching and education generally – for if not, we might as well let anyone at all take the helm of our classes, and teach them in any way they see fit.

One of my Profs., Ben Levin (and his ideas echo in that first paragraph above), gave an interview on this some time ago, but it bears repeating: “We actually know a lot about good practice and policy in education.  And if we could bring into place what we already know we would produce quantum improvements in education results.”

Of course, exactly what those truths are – well, a tougher task indeed.  But no tougher or less complicated than any other profession we consider a science, but with a practical division, too – say, psychiatry.

The Intelligent and the Stupid

“There are only two races on this planet-the intelligent and the stupid.”
John Fowles

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”
Bertrand Russell

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”
Charles Darwin

The world is filled with organizations running beneath their potential – or failing for years and years. And perhaps no where is this more true than in schooling. Schools can fail, and fail, and fail without respite; well-meaning people leading well-meaning people can produce bad results for a generation or more, cluelessly replicating failure, engineering irrelevant reform projects, all the while wondering why results aren’t any better.

There are lots of reasons why this might be the case, but I submit one not often discussed is this: many leaders are not smart enough. And while I am a proponent of leadership that considers the softer side of managing humans, as I’ve written before, I also firmly believe that there must be a place for the intelligent at the heads of organizations.

That seems obviously true – bright people should lead. But it seems to me that a lot of organizations are led not by the bright and able, but by the gregarious. We tend to value extroversion in our leaders, a bonhomie, that in many organizations tends to produce a leadership-by-confidence rather than a leadership-of-quality.

If So, Why So?

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University devised an experiment to shed light on why it is that intelligent people seem to doubt themselves, and vice versa. In their study, they assessed the general level of intelligence of their study group, and their level of confidence.

The results are fascinating: intelligence and confidence did indeed seem inversely related; the intelligent subjects regarded their abilities as average, while the unintelligent believed they were extraordinary; and moreover, the unintelligent were unable to see their own inadequacy while also failing to recognize ability in others.

In other words, they are not bright enough to realize they aren’t very capable – and assume those who are actually capable, by virtue of behaving differently than they, are actually the unintelligent ones. I think this phenomenon, now dubbed the Kruger-Dunning Effect, is a powerful explanatory mechanism for understanding organizations (and life in general).

David Dunning was interviewed by Errol Morris of the New York Times:

DAVID DUNNING: Well, my specialty is decision-making. How well do people make the decisions they have to make in life? And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true. And I became fascinated with that. Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them. Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.


DAVID DUNNING: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.” But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

Hiring – A Legacy of Bad Decisions

While there are many ways a less-than-intelligent leader can endanger its firm, I think at the core of the issue is hiring – leaders tend to hire people who are like themselves. When the leader is less-than-intelligent, less-than-intelligent people get hired and promoted, often creating an inner circle of confident but low-functioning management; this cabal tends to regard good ideas as bad, and bad as good, and they can reinforce each other’s inaccurate view of the world. (A cheap shot: the administration of George W. Bush?)

I’ve written before, the teacher hiring process could be described charitably as silly, but this isn’t a trivial matter – there could hardly be a more important factor in the quality of schooling than the quality of the teacher. According to Ken Leithwood, a professor of educational administration at OISE in Toronto, the second most powerful factor is the leadership of a school.

And I would argue that intelligence is relatively low down the list of criteria for hiring teachers and principals: ideas like “commitment to students” (read: the appearance of caring a lot) tends to win out.  And of course, the right attitude is important (we wouldn’t admire a doctor who seemed completely indifferent to her patients).  But my argument is this: if schooling is something beyond folk art, if it is a profession with technical skills, requiring complicated responses to confusing dilemmas, intelligence cannot be downplayed in any hiring process.

If leaders are blinded by their own lack of intelligence, how can they function well? How do they hire the best teachers? Would they recognize a good teacher if they saw one? If principals’ leaders, too, aren’t that bright, would they even know who the best principals are? Would they define “best” in accordance with reality? How would these less-than-bright leaders even know if their schools or systems were succeeding – would they choose the right criteria?  If they can’t really recognize quality, or its opposite, how will the system improve?  Will they merely embrace one irrelevant reform project after another, or pursue only those that produce results?

Does the Kruger-Dunning Effect, even if it is an academic restatement of an intuitive notion, help explain why organizations can consistently fail – despite the best efforts of well-meaning people?

What We Have Got Here is (a) Failure to Communicate

I’ve recently been reading and hearing (from some engaging and entertaining presenters) about something called “nonviolent communication” – a way of understanding the basic underlying emotional interactions of communication.The general idea is this: when we communicate, our emotions play a large role in the success or lack thereof in any interaction.  We tend to get defensive, angry, hurt and snippy when we talk with others – especially as teachers, work that I’ve said before is highly emotional labour.  The land is filled with staff meetings burdened with hostility – the people with the arms crossed at the back of the room, angry, disengaged, and muttering.

I can’t imagine something more worthwhile to the process of improving any organization that relies on any interaction – like schools – than the improvement of communication.  The quantity of human productivity lost to bitterness and frustration must be worth billions to any national economy; and school that ignores bad communication must lose capacity.

Nonviolent communication, though not originally devised for corporate productivity, has been applied to a variety of organizations.  In its basic form is quite powerful, and probably most of us do it all the time, even if we don’t articulate it that way.  It rests on two elements: feelings and needs.  We “feel” because we “need.”  I might feel frustrated at a poorly-organized staff meeting because I need clarity and purpose.  You might feel angry at a colleague who dismisses my work because you value reciprocity.  And so on. This way of thinking is an acknowledgement that we are emotional creatures, that communication is often bedevilled by emotional reactions, that those emotional reactions are driven by underlying beliefs, values or needs, and that articulating this whole mess openly might make us all happier, less defensive, and more productive.

It sounds overly lotus-eating, impractical, highly granola, but I’m not so sure.  I think even the most cynical type would acknowledge that the spectrum of emotional responses in organizations is a major impediment to organizational health.

It’s cliched to say that under anger is hurt.  But unless we address the subteranean feelings, and accept that people are highly emotional creatures, it is unlikely that we can get the best out of them.  If we accept that as teachers we need to address our students’ emotional states before we can have them learn at peak performance, why should we behave differently towards the adults in the room?  If happy teachers teach better, shouldn’t we do our best to make sure people are happy?

Embrace Standardized Testing?

Education Quality and Accountability OfficeIt nearly goes without saying that, as a teacher, I should be opposed to standardized testing. I should believe that all teaching is a spontaneous act, that is is not quantifiable, resists standardization and is tinged with more-than-a-little mystery. Attempting to measure student outcomes by reference to a standardized test at best misses the point – and, worse, might very well corrupt the learning process. Teachers might merely teach to the test.

All of that is true, to a point, but there looms a larger question: how can we know where the schooling system’s strengths and weaknesses are if we don’t use (some sort of) a test? And if that test isn’t “standardized,” the same for all students in a given jurisdiction, then won’t it be susceptible to the vagaries of the subjective evaluation of individual teachers? And, last, the best tests (say, the EQAO test in Ontario that aims to test basic reading, writing and mathematics) do not test students’ knowledge of specific answers, but rather types of answers; if you can do well on the test, it demonstrates that you are literate and numerate. You can’t get better scores by teaching to the test. But if you’re teaching richly, your students will score better on the test.

At least, that’s the idea. There are lots of questions that good teacher voice, though. Like:

Should we test what we deem to be basic skills through a province-wide assessment? Yes. Let’s imagine a world without these sorts of tests. How would we know which students are succeeding, and which are not? How would we know which techniques work and which do not? What other data would we use? Report card data is far too sensitive to the subjectivity of teachers’ evaluation styles (this weakness isn’t a major problem for “regular” assessments because they fulfill the purpose of providing students with constructive direction for future improvements).

What should we consider “basic skills”? The province of Ontario has decided that reading, writing and simple mathematics are the most important skills. Note that these are transferable – “teaching to the test” takes on a different meaning here than, say, a test about geography or history or science. Content-heavy subjects would indeed inspire teaching to the test. A reading test cannot be taught to – or at least, doing so effectively might actually resemble good literacy instruction.

Should we actually test students beginning in grade 3 (as we do in Ontario)? If tests like this are bad, then we shouldn’t be testing students at all. If, though, having gone through the preceding argument, we believe tests might yield useful data, data that would allow us to improve student results, then we would want to begin early, not late. Every year that goes by without these helpful tests condemns students to an unexamined set of teaching practices.

Is there a problem with our current tests? Even if we think large-scale data is important to ongoing educational improvement, and we think it should test basic academic skills, and it should begin early and be repeated often, we still might not like the test. Of course, it is very difficult to construct a test without cultural bias, or other common testing problems. And that is a good point; some students don’t do well on the test because of issues unrelated to the intention of the test. However, tweaking the test, and having an understanding that no test will ever be perfect, is a far cry from abandoning standardized testing.

It should be remembered that no student is condemned for not doing well on these sorts of standardized test (in fact, some teachers believe the results are not reflective because students don’t care to do well, absent the usual incentive of grades). We should look at data, even bad data, as an opportunity to improve, not a condemnation of teachers or students. This is something we tell teenagers all the time – we test not to punish you, but to learn how you can improve. Until we achieve perfection, we should continue to collect data, imperfect and all, to gain insights into where we are now and how we can get better. If we don’t, we are effectively saying that we would rather remain where we are than improve.

Below is a video produced by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario.  It largely makes the case that the EQAO test isn’t valuable because the individual students can’t prosper from it; they don’t get feedback on their individual performance.  This analysis is entirely beside the point: the test is an effort to gather system-wide data, not to show how individual kids are doing. And for the refrain within the video that it forces teachers to teach to the test, I encourage everyone to see questions that appear on the test.