Monday, June 20, 2011

Finding what we look for

In their book The Myths of Standardized Tests, Phillip Harris, Bruce Smith and Joan Harris tell this story:

"What are you doing?" a helpful passerby asks.
"Looking for my car keys," answers the drunk.
"Did you drop them somewhere around here?"
"I don't think so," replies the drunk.
"Then why look here? the puzzled would-be helper wonders.
"It's the only place where there's any light."
What we find is largely dependent on where we look. The more we tighten our focus on highly prescribed curriculums that are enforced by test and punish standardized exams the more we miss. Ironically, an intense focus requires a kind of tunnel vision that blinds us to the wider consequences of our decisions.

Here's what I mean:

Before you read further, you might want to try out this selective attention experiment.

One of the designers of the experiment, Dr. Daniel Simons, explains what he's learned from conducting this experiment around the world:

We experience far less of our visual world than we think we do. We feel like we are going to take in what's around us. But we don't. We pay attention to what we are told to attend to, or what we're looking for, or what we already know. Top-down factors play a big role. Fashion designers will notice clothes. Engineers will notice mechanics. But what we see is amazingly limited.
In her book Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan puts it this way:

We see what we expect to see, what we're looking for. And we can't see all that much. 

And when Heffernan asked Simons if some people see more than others here was his response:

There is really limited evidence for that. People who are experienced basketball players are slightly better at seeing what's happening in the video - but that's probably because they're more accustomed to watching passes; it isn't so hard for them to read what's going on. You can train yourself to focus on more than one spot. You might improve your eye muscles somewhat. But the limits are pretty fixed. There's a physical and an evolutionary barrier. You can't change the limits of your mind.
The point to be taken here for educators is that our attention and vision is biologically limited, and the more time and effort we spend collecting and analyzing test scores, the less time and effort we can expend looking at things that are never found on tests like creativity, perseverance, empathy, resourcefulness and work ethic. In life, there's always too much data. The trick is knowing which to collect and which to let go. The same is true with learning. And unfortunately, today's accountability regimes are encouraging educators to become slaves to the wrong sort of data.

Here's Simons:

For the human brain attention is a zero-sum game: If we pay more attention to one place, object, or event, we necessarily pay less attention to others.
The more we focus on data-driven decisions based on measurable outcomes, the less we attend to educating the whole-child. This might look something like this:
"What are you doing?" a helpful passerby asks.
"Looking for learning," answers the teacher.
"Is there learning in that test?"
"I'm not sure," replies the teacher.
"Then why look here? the puzzled would-be helper wonders.
"This is the easiest place to look."


  1. Excellent and thought-provoking post!

  2. This was a great reminder to me as well. Thank you for putting these elements together in my mind.

  3. This is a great post and a wonderful reminder that we need to remain cognizant of our own biases and expectations! If one were to say that teachers have a plethora of instructional strategies and resources to teach, then why should student assessment be standardized? Do we, as parents, sit our toddler down and make them write a test on the alphabet, colours, or numbers? How would teachers feel if they had to write an exam (2 essays & 100 multiple choice) on how they taught that year so they could move on next year to continue teaching? I think if our focus remains on teaching to the test, then we miss teaching the student.


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