The Curse of Knowledge

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Can mastery and knowledge (of a subject / topic / process) go against an individual?

For example, can an experienced observer/inspector be influenced by their own memory?

It’s frightening to think, that despite what evidence tells us, some schools are still grading lessons and/or teachers. Whatever way you look at it, it’s the same thing! Cognitive Bias in prevalent in all of us. We find the things we are looking for. If we perceive a teacher to be good at what we do, if we observe them, there’s a high chance that teacher will match our perceptions. I wonder if the same process can be applied to school inspection?

The most-effective learning strategies are not intuitive suggest Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, authors of Make It Stick. So, I wonder if the same can be applied to observers who are making assessments about the quality of teaching? Learning from a set criteria, past experiences and/or the information that is in front of them. How reliable can an assessment be made? Or instead, would a formative methodology – something like coaching and peer inspection – remove unreliability and therefore improve the teacher / teaching / a school?

The answer to illusion and misjudgment, is to replace subjective experiences as the basis for decisions with a set of objective gauges outside ourselves. so that [our] judgement squares with the real world around us.”

Observational Bias:

The same can be said for school inspections. Work in a school with a high-proportion of disadvantaged students? Then research from Education Policy Institute suggests that you are likely to be judged unfairly – when compared to a school with more able students – in a one-size-fits-all methodology, led by inspectors who may or may not make a reliable decision. (8% according to the latest research published by OfSTED themselves).

The Curse of Knowledge:

In terms of making judgement in lessons – or as teachers assessing what students know or don’t know – psychologists call this the curse of knowledge which “is our tendency to underestimate how long it will take another person to learn something new or perform a task …”

As explained in Making It Stick (Avoid Illusions of Knowing, pg 115) by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel;

Teachers often suffer this illusion – the calculus instructor who finds calculus so easy, that he/she can no longer place themselves in the shoes of the student who is just starting out and struggling with the subject.”

I wonder how much of this is true for new teachers in the classroom? Or those who are observing another teacher for the first time? Worse, the OfSTED inspector on their first set of school inspections …

The authors go on to write: “the curse-of-knowledge effect is close kin to hindsight bias, or what is often called the ‘knew-it-all-along-effect’, in which we view events after the fact as having been more predictable than they were before they occurred.

This is one reason that political or advertising claims that are not factual (e.g. grammar schools) but are repeated gain traction with the public, particularly if they have emotional resonance. ”

Memory and Influence:

So, if a summative judgement has to be made, what impact could a ‘knew-it-all-along-effect’ have on observation bias in the classroom or on a school? As observers and inspectors, we are subject to social influence and tend to align with the memories of people around us.

If you are in a group reminiscing about the past [e.g. lessons observations, school inspection comparisons etc] and someone adds a wrong detail about the story, observers will tend to incorporate this detail into their own [narrative] memory and later remember the experience with erroneous detail.”

This is called ‘memory conformity’ in which one person’s error can ‘infect’ another person’s memory. n.b. not all influences are negative. As the authors of the marvelous book go on to explain: “In the obverse of the social influence effect, humans are pre-disposed to assume that others share their beliefs, a process called ‘false consensus effect’. We generally fail to recognise that … our personal understanding … and interpretation of events differ from others.”

Better Testing:

With this in mind, memory cannot be a reliable indication of accuracy. What is important, is that observers should make frequent testing and retrieval practice to verify what you really do know versus what you think you know.

This is why, one-off observations and one-off school inspections are not a reliable method for assessing the quality of teaching – or for that matter, a teacher. We must move towards a peer-review framework, where observations and school inspections are built into the system, led by practitioners in the classroom who are developing teaching and learning, not measuring.

What memory and influences do you use? Or those observing you: what do they do? Do you allow your expertise to get in the way of what is ‘actually going on’ in the classroom?

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