Why Assessment Trumps Judgment

For slightly convoluted reasons (suffice to say a Kindle subscription was involved, which I don’t recommend on either moral or practical grounds) I’ve found myself reading Daniel Kahneman’s doorstop Thinking, Fast and Slow. It merits the description perennial best-seller, though my guess is it is more widely acquired than read, but this isn’t a book review.

Among the many (interminably many) fascinating titbits Kahneman doles out is a story about interviewing soldiers in an effort to forecast future military performance.

Initially, he and his team conducted brief, routine interviews. The trained interviewers would then offer their judgments about the recruits’ likely outcomes. “Unfortunately,” Kahneman notes, “follow-up evaluations had already indicated that this interview procedure was almost useless for predicting the future success of recruits.”

So he designed an interview method that ignored the future but assessed past form on a selected set of traits (responsibility, sociability, etc.).

“I composed for each trait,” Kahneman writes, “a series of factual questions about the individual’s life before his enlistment, including the number of different jobs he had held, how regular and punctual he had been in his work and studies, the frequency of his interactions with friends, and his interest and participation in sports, among others.”

After conducting a few hundred interviews with this new assessment, performance evaluations showed that the questionnaires “predicted soldiers’ performance much more accurately than the global evaluations of the previous interviewing method, though far from perfectly. We had progressed from ‘completely useless’ to ‘moderately useful.'”

This may seem an intuitive finding to anyone who’s heard, much less repeated, the much bandied quote from the philosopher Will Durant: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

But how many of us — especially teachers — are guilty of acting contrary to common sense and relying on subjective judgments instead of thoughtful assessments?

Every educator has encountered students who have potential. We see flashes of brilliance and judge what a student might do. This is probably most widespread when it comes to writing recommendations. In fact, most standard forms ask teachers to predict how a student will perform in future.

If we trust Kahneman’s research even a little bit, we should be much more circumspect about prognostication and base our predictions, if we must make them, on students’ demonstrated performance.

Intellectual capacity, even if it is extraordinary, only yields positive outcomes when applied. A genius student who spends class time scrolling Instagram or staring into space is unlikely to outperform a hard-working average student.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Take as an example my dear brother, the closest person to a real-life genius I know. He dropped out of high school because he was bored and skated through a BS in Economics without buying the textbooks. Inauspicious, to be sure. But he had a track record of deep, almost obsessive dives into topics that fascinated him; his laser focus, coupled with his intellectual gifts, meant he could take on any subject and become an expert once he applied himself. Eventually, he applied that ability to programming and has developed a robust, well-remunerated career.

It wasn’t sheer brainpower, although he has that in abundance, it was his capacity for work and focus that transformed talent into expertise.

To be blunt: smarts are nothing without elbow grease.

It is a pleasure to encounter gifted students. But it is our job as educators to live and breathe the message that being ‘gifted’ isn’t enough. Habits of work are more important to eventual success than the ability to quickly and easily complete a particular academic task. In fact, ease is probably the worst enemy of growth.

Didactic and assessment methods that reward superficial ‘mastery’ are likely to encourage poor work habits, hampering students’ chances of excelling as they continue their studies and move into adulthood.

As educators, it is incumbent upon us to challenge gifted learners, to ensure they experience authentic difficulties and even (whisper it) the occasional failure. Ultimately, diligence and a growth mind-set are more valuable than a few good grades.

How do you help students develop good habits of work? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke