Not knowing what we don’t know

Every now and then the Guardian newspaper publishes an extract from the Secret Footballer offering some anecdotes and insight, from someone who played at the highest level, on what makes professional footballers ‘tick’ and what the fans get out of the game.

In talking about the fans the Secret Footballer commented recently that it is not so much that many fans know very little about football, the point is that they do not know how little they know:

‘Some people are so stupid that they have no idea how stupid they are. Professor of psychology at Cornell University, David Dunning, argues that in order to know how good you are at something, it requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place – which means if you’re absolutely no good at something at all then you lack exactly the skills you need to know that you’re absolutely no good at it. Understand?’

This sounds harsh but a few minutes listening to a football phone-in or reading a fans forum will show, that people are not so much saying ‘stupid things’ but that they talk with absolute certainty about tactics or team choices for a game they may not even have played, and certainly not played or managed at the highest level. This is odd even ‘stupid’ as there is absolutely no way of knowing whether, say, the two substitutions they wanted the manger to make would really have made any difference to the outcome of the game at all. This is not a put down of phone-ins, if you are in the mood they are good entertainment, but I do understand that you might get miffed as a professional listening to people talk dogmatically of things they do not know, a bit like teachers having to listen to politicians talk about education, I suppose.

So what does Professor David Dunning, cited by the secret footballer, say? His web site tells us that his work focuses on:

‘two related phenomena. First I am interested in why people tend to have overly favorable and objectively indefensible views of their own abilities, talents, and moral character. For example, a full 94% of college professors state that they do “above average” work, although it is statistically impossible for virtually everybody to be above average. Second, I am interested in how people bolster their sense of self-worth by carefully tailoring the judgments they make of others. That is, people tend to make judgments of others that reflect favorably back on themselves, doing so even when the self is not under explicit scrutiny.’

In one of his papers* Dunnings concluded that:

‘Taken together, these findings reaffirm the notion that poor performers show little insight into the depth of their deficiencies relative to their peers. They tend to think they are doing just fine relative to their peers when, in fact, they are at the bottom of the performance distribution. Yet, in each of these familiar circumstances, poor performing participants did not seem to know how poorly they were doing.
[] Part of why the dramatic overestimation demonstrated by poor performers is so fascinating is precisely because they show dramatic overconfidence on tasks about which they have likely received substantial feedback in the past.’

What I like about the paper is that rather than doing ‘pretend research’, ie how people behave in the artificial environment of the lab, the team explored the concept of self-evaluation of competence in ‘ecological valid’ or real life contexts. In particular they asked undergraduate students to estimate how well they had performed on course exams and asked members of college debate teams to evaluate their tournament performance. A criticism here is that, like much similar work, this is skewing research in psychology to university contexts where it is much easier to get access to willing participants. In this case they are picking up on more successful learners and not the crushing lack of self esteem of some who fail completely in the education system – see my previous blog.

It was however good that the paper offered some positive ideas about how to deal with this problem of over-optimistic self-evaluation – we need (not their phrase) to learn how to learn.

But it did leave me with some further thoughts about assessment of performance and, in the spirit of offering opinions on something I know not a lot about, it seems to me that part of this phenomenon of over optimism is that if you really did know what was involved in ‘complex performance’, would you would start to try and learn it in the first place? In many cases naïve optimism sounds like a good idea. The pity of it is that with greater understanding you get better at it but you realise that it could all go wrong and that your performance falls short of the ideal – one reason to explain the phenomenom of sports people (including I think the Secret Footballer) and entertainers falling out of love with what they once dreamed of doing as their performance becomes assessed and taken apart.

A second thought I offer is more about our reference point in making a self evaluation. It is all very well to ask people to assess against a norm or a supposed average but in reality we are always going to look at our nearest salient points of reference. Thus, for example, in thinking about how well off we are, we will blank out the huge salaries and bonuses that some are earning but feel genuine rage if someone we worth gets an extra bonus or earns more than us when they ‘don’t deserve it’. Self-assessment comes up too in the context of health and weight studies, for even if the data show we are getting chunkier and chunkier our relative assessment of being overweight changes to adjust to the sizes of those around us, in our eyes we are not overweight at all.

It could be then that distorted self-evaluation serves a purpose or is simply our default. Perhaps this is why lack of self esteem is so disempowering. It is also, to be honest, a lot more fun expressing strong opinions on things you know relatively little about than offer measured opinions on something you know is complex and uncertain. So perhaps we should be relaxed and try to find out when distorted self evaluation really matters and when it does, yes, we need to understand that we may well be long way off from where we think we are and need to start engaging in a rather long and difficult process of analysis and feedback. If it doesn’t really matter, hold on to your naïve optimism, try the phone-in but do expect to be found out at some point.

* Ehrlinger, J., Johnson, K., Banner, M., Dunning, D., & Kruger, J. (2008). Why the unskilled are unaware? Further explorations of (lack of) self-insight among the incompetent. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105, 98-121.

in praise of praise

As I come to later, I was taken back a little by a Sutton Trust report on ‘what makes great teaching’ . [The Sutton Trust is linked here [] and the report itself is at] .

The report says many sensible things about support for learning and the critical importance of feedback. However tucked away was a small section on ‘ineffective practices’ including criticism of ‘lavish’ praise:

‘Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning.’ In fact this criticism of lavish praise was highlighted in the Sutton Trust’s press release and although the report was focused on ‘great teaching’ press reviews predictably accentuated the negative (‘what we were doing wrong’) including the harmful effects of too much praise. For example TES saw lavish praise as one of the ‘seven deadly sins of teaching’ (the report did not of course say anything about sin but never mind) and praise was the focus an ITV news item:

This is one more example where there was an opportunity for a national conversation about teaching that was sidetracked into a put down of practice – not much evidence of praise, lavish or otherwise, when it comes to the media and teaching. But there is a larger question here, are children (or for that matter adult learners) being praised too much? As it happens a while age I wrote a short reflection on my first experiences of teaching in secondary school, of my first school I noted:

‘Many teachers spent a lot of time mentoring youngsters both informally and formally. I saw impressive ‘active’ tutorial work and a constant appeal to students to behave responsibly and be reasonable when considering other people. Those struggling for language or other reasons were given whatever boost to self-esteem and self-confidence was possible. I remember one girl, let us call her Shahira, an eleven year old who had been working with a teaching assistant in one of my mathematics classes. The assistant sent her to me to show off some work she had done. I said ‘thanks that was good, well done’. Perhaps it was a little perfunctory and Shahira looked a little disappointed. The teaching assistant picked up on this and said: “well done Shahira, this is very good, are you pleased with it? Mr Hammond is very pleased with it, shall we now show the head of the department and see if he is pleased with it? Shahira duly went out to show her work to the head of department and was told, with more enthusiasm than I had mustered, how well she had done. The point is that the teaching assistant understood Shahira’s fragility as a learner in a way that I did not. She would not let Shahira go until she had been convinced about the value of her work and was willing to accept that she had the capacity to learn. I know this kind of reinforcement is maddening for conservative commentators who see explicit ranking of performance as core to the work of a school and ultimately in the best interests of students themselves. However the liberal ethos in my school was very inspiring for me and very different from my own schooling. I had never properly understood what it might be like to struggle academically or lack belief in my potential for learning and the teaching assistant had, whether intentionally or not, pointed this out to me. I thank her to this day for doing so.’

Was I wrong? Well I don’t think so. Self-esteem is core to learning – and many of us are fragile learners, we believe criticism and need to hear praise several times over to believe it. Of course if you only hear the praise and are not given the advice on how you can improve then yes praise is an ‘ineffective practice’. Most teachers follow a ‘two stars and a wish’ approach and this mix of praise and formative feedback is surely effective practice. However praise needs to be seen in context. Praise may indeed be lavish for one but finely tuned for others like Shahira. What the teaching assistant in my story was telling me was that I was not going to get anywhere without looking at each particular child and trying to see the world through her eyes and adapt accordingly.

understanding slaktivism

I have recently been researching the idea of online community and came across the concept of slacktivism; as Choi and Park* explain (they are looking at the use of social media in a protest movement in South Korea) online slacktivism is about soothing participants without contributing to any political or social impact.

An example that has been picked in the media recently has been the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, this in response to the abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls last April (for a summary go to though this was posted in May); several commentators have pointed out the absurdity of the campaign set against the unyielding fanaticism of Boko Haram. For one, Scott Gilmore:

‘The #BringBackOurGirls campaign is the latest disgrace from slacktivists, those who support good causes by doing very little, and achieving even less. A slacktivist is someone who believes it is more important to be seen to help than to actually help. He will wear a T-shirt to raise awareness. She will wear a wristband to demonstrate support, sign a petition to add her voice, share a video to spread the message, even pour a bucket of ice over her head. The one thing slacktivists don’t do is help by, for example, giving money or time to those who are truly making the world a better place: the cancer researcher, the aid worker, the hospice manager.”

The phenomenon of slaktivism is not, of course, new. Tom Lehrer did a skit on the protest song movement in the mid 1960’s, he had a nice ironic line in song introductions,:

“One type of song that has come into increasing prominence in recent months is the folk-song of protest. You have to admire people who sing these songs. It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. The nicest thing about a protest song is that it makes you feel so good.”

`You can hear the song at various places on YouTube e.g.

Slacktivism is difficult to take when it slips into self-righteousness but by temperament I am a slacktivist. Choi and Park treat slacktivism fairly sympathetically too, noting for example it might lead as much to action in the future rather than an excuse not to act. If there is such a thing as hard activism, at the other end of slaktivism, this is not really embodied in the jobs people do, as Gilmore puts it, but in the stances they take  The people I know who do ‘truly good work’ would not raise their choice of occupation above the those of others; many are in some respects at least, by temperament, slaktivists too.

These thoughts on slacktivism were triggered by the news of the disappearance of student teachers from a training college in Ayotzinapa in Mexico – again more on the BBC site, for example

I noticed too what might be dismissed as a slacktivist response by Mexican illustrators and designers at . This invites artist to draw and paint portraits of the missing young people based on their student photos (I should stress that artists have traditionally had a more activist role in Mexican public life so there might be much more at stake in this initiative than meets the eyes). The online contributions have become widely shared using the hashtag #IlustradoresConAyotzinapa.

Critics of slacktivism are right to tell us how inadequate all this is, but when all is said and done, as with the Nigerian girls, the story of these student teachers breaks your heart; we will be lessened if we don’t offer some kind of response, as the Mexican illustrators have done as the BringBackOurGirls campaign did earlier, even though it will be of scant consolation for the families involved and of little practical help. We do need to be reminded of who we are and what we believe in, slaktivists or otherwise.

*Choi, Sujin and Park, Han Woo (2014) Title: An exploratory approach to a Twitter-based community centered on a political goal in South Korea: Who organized it, what they shared, and how they acted, New Media & Society, 16, 1, 129-148.

For those wanting more on the link between social media and activism try the Westminster Papers at volume 9,2 which I think is freely available.