When Evaluation Misleads


I don’t agree that people can only succeed if they have an inborn talent. I believe that it is possible for anyone to be more successful. A recent article prompted me to give this idea more thought.

“Secrets of amazing teachers: What both sides of the education reform debate get wrong about autonomy and accountability” was posted on the Slate website. http://www.salon.com/2014/08/09/secrets_of_amazing_teachers_what_both_sides_of_the_education_reform_debate_get_wrong_about_autonomy_and_accountability/

While it is about teaching, I think many of the ideas in this article apply more broadly; for example: in my own field of transportation planning. In particular my interest was the use of tests and measurements to rate teachers.

Testing and Rating

Tests are often used to rate people on their abilities. Unfortunately, many people use a poor rating as an excuse to do nothing, or worse, to punish the person for their failure. I think our focus should be on how to improve people’s performance. Tests should be used to identify opportunities for improvement. While someone may be poor at something now, there are ways that they can improve.

This seems very obvious to me, and I find it hard to understand why others would reject that view.

I suspect that when someone looks narrowly at their own immediate self interest, then an improvement in someone else’s chances for success, is a threat to their own chances for success. People who have succeeded through luck or a privileged position are more likely to feel this way.

In contrast, when someone looks at the situation with a broader, societal, point of view, then they see how other people success can make society better. A world full of successful people is a better place than a world full of failures.

The 10,000 Rule

The 10,000 rule, which says that people need 10,000 hours of practice before they become top performers. This is often attributed to Malcolm Gladwell, although in his book he makes it clear he is just reporting what others have found.

What is often lost in the discussion is that 10,000 hours is an average; for particular individuals it can vary widely from the average. It can be as few as 4,000 hours for some people. While the length of time can vary, the important point is that it is not zero. If talent was all there was, then it would be unnecessary to put in any time. All who succeed do so because of the time they spend on learning and practicing. Some people may start with an advantage, due to genetics and life circumstance, but they still need that time to reach their potential.

Although I don’t recall that Gladwell said so explicitly, but the 10,000 hours is not just any kind of practice. It is mentored practice. Their practice is directed by more experienced people who also encourage them,  point out areas where they can improve, and give them advice. It is the feedback they get that helps them learn and develop their skills.

There is a danger that people will assume that people’s failure is a result of their unwillingness to “put in their 10,000 hours.” I think this would be a mistake. In many of the stories in Gladwell book, what makes the difference is whether or not people have the opportunity to get mentored practice. Without a capable mentor to show the way, extra practice helps little.

As an aside, if you want to evaluate teachers to separate the “good” from the “bad”, you need to be aware that it can take a decade, or longer, for a teacher to gain 10,000 hours of experience. It could well take a decade before you can identify “bad” teachers with any confidence. Many teachers don’t even stay that long in the profession.

More to Come?

I looked at this issue before, in my blog post “Transportation Planning and “Bad” Teachers”. (See:  https://dynamiclethargyfilms.ca/transportation-planning-and-bad-teachers/ )

I feel strongly about these issues and want to find ways to share my views more effectively. So far, I haven’t come up with a way to do that in a story.

I am not finished with these thoughts and I want to dig deeper. Maybe that will bring some inspiration.

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