Quality Cognition: Fast and Slow

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $1.7 billion in the creation of small schools in recent years. Intuitively, it’s easy to make the case why a small school can provide superior education. You could conclude lower staff-to-student ratios with personal attention and encouragement are a better alternative to the context of a large school.

The foregoing might describe a logical relationship but it’s not accurate.

In fact, according to studies, large schools tend to produce better results. When a variety of curriculum options are available, especially in higher grades, large schools yield greater student success. Some important details were overlooked in the initial conclusion of “small is better.” In planning work, a survey of more than 1600 schools was used. The survey sample had an over representation of small schools. Both a pattern and logic contributed to a preliminary error.

Pursue Good Questions

Had questions been asked about the characteristics of the worst schools – it may have been discovered that those, too, were small. Ultimately statisticians demonstrated that small schools are more variable in student success. In effect, student achievement in small schools can be both very good and very bad. Regardless, the variability and scale in small schools may be a far better context for improvement. (We’ve had the privilege of experience with the Gates Foundation. No doubt: their small school funding has had substantial social benefit.)

 Fast and Slow

Humans think in both fast and slow modes. Daniel Kahneman refers to these modes as System 1 and 2. The thoughtful, careful analysis you used to review the Gates story, cited in  Kahneman’s book, uses System  2. Through precise and deliberate effort you considered the descriptive narrative.

In contrast, System 1 is nearly instant. For example, it helps you quickly respond to a loud noise or simple, verbal sentence. It is most simply understood as a reaction. Often, this is based on impulse. We all need to make quality decisions and plans – whether instantly or over time.

Patterns, Chance and Humility

Because humans are predisposed to causal thinking, we look for patterns and associated explanations first. We can easily make mistakes. Our mind prefers perceptions of an ordered, coherent world. But, these can be cognitive illusions.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman urges us to recognize “many facts are due to chance.” The definition of chance is humbling because it means random events cannot be explained. It’s important to look for patterns and cause while we also acknowledge chance.

Deliberate Quality

The implications of this reality has influence on the potential for our effectiveness. It may be important to: listen better, do enough diligent discovery, understand key factors, and explore alternative hypotheses. It is essential that we review data more carefully for validity and reliability.

Fast and slow thinking are both important to our complex work environments. Consider meta-cognition a quality check. Think about your own thinking and that of others. Be careful enough you sidestep either a foregone or logical conclusion which may be wrong.

 –Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

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