The Visible Project

“The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see” (The Undoing Project, page 40).

I was pretty excited when I first heard Michael Lewis was publishing a book about the lives of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I’ve come to believe is required reading for anyone who finds value in recognizing cognitive biases. Lewis’s book, The Undoing Project, includes the riveting life stories of Kahneman and Tversky along with their important body of work in psychology, which birthed the field of behavioral economics.

After publishing Moneyball in 2004, Lewis began a correspondence with Kahneman. (Tversky unfortunately died in 1996.) Moneyball is about how Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane used statistics and other unconventional means to draft or trade for players who were collectively believed to be “subpar” (i.e. cheap), but who nevertheless brought value to Oakland. Ultimately, Beane avoided the cognitive biases Kahneman researched for most of his professional life.

“Simply knowing about a bias wasn’t sufficient to overcome it… The mere fact that (the Houston Rockets) owned Kyle Lowry appeared to have distorted their judgment about him” (The Undoing Project, page 44)

In the field of education, much has been written about John Hattie’s Visible Learning research. He’s accomplished the important work of ranking 195 influences related to learning outcomes. Some of these influences have little positive impact on student learning, and others have a huge impact. Although the effect sizes have slightly changed throughout the years due to the addition of hundreds of meta-analysis, these influences are a valuable tool for educators–primarily because they give us the best advice available for making objective decisions regarding how to best teach kids.

“Theories for Amos were like mental pockets or briefcases, places to put the ideas you wanted to keep. Until you could replace a theory with a better theory–a theory that better predicted what actually happened–you didn’t chuck a theory out. Theories ordered knowledge, and allowed for better prediction” (The Undoing Project, page 151).

As stated above, Hattie’s effect sizes change as more research is conducted, and educators should use the effect sizes as Amos used theories: we don’t replace them until the data tells us there’s a more powerful effect size. This is important for a number of reasons.

  1. We’re getting the biggest bang for our buck in regard to instructional time.
  2. We’re avoiding our faulty and biased opinion when deciding large initiatives for schools and districts.
  3. We’re willing to change course when the data suggests it’s prudent to do so.

The way I see it, education has been in a dark room for decades. Hattie’s research has guided our hand to the light switch.

“You need to be so careful when there is one simple diagnosis that instantly pops into your mind that beautifully explains everything all at once. That’s when you need to stop and check your thinking” (The Undoing Project, page 216).

Of course, there’s no simple diagnosis. Effect sizes should guide our thinking, but there is still value in experienced intuition and heuristics. The lesson to be learned from The Undoing Project, and also from Kahneman’s work, is that it’s really difficult to be completely certain of anything–especially when it comes to how students learn best. The research must continue.

“There was a reason for this: To acknowledge uncertainty was to admit the possibility of error. The entire (medical) profession had arranged itself as if to confirm the wisdom of its decisions. Whenever a patient recovered, for instance, the doctor typically attributed the recovery to the treatment he had prescribed, without solid evidence that the treatment was responsible. Just because the patient is better after I treated him doesn’t mean he got better because I treated him, Redelmeier thought. ‘So many diseases are self-limiting,’ he said. ‘They will cure themselves. People who are in distress seek care. When they seek car, physicians feel the need to do something. You put leeches on; the condition improves. And that can propel a lifetime of leeches. A lifetime of over prescribing antibiotics. A lifetime of giving tonsillectomies to people with ear infections. You try it and they get better the next day and it is so compelling. You go see a psychiatrist and your depression improves–you are convinced of the efficacy of psychiatry'” (The Undoing Project, page 221).

We must use data to guide decision making while at the same time constantly question whether our strategies are what’s actually causing the positive outcome. Also, it’s important to touch upon a portion of the above excerpt: “So many diseases are self-limiting… they will cure themselves.” Are there any strategies we’re using in education that are the equivalent of leeches? Do we deploy initiatives because they make it easier for us to explain how we’re being effective?

“It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place” (The Undoing Project, page 230).

Billy Beane has found success with his statistical approach. The Boston Red Sox borrowed his strategies and eventually became world champions. In education, let’s adopt continual inquiry into our practice, along with Hattie’s research, so we can experience the same level of success for student learning.

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