Sunday 19 April 2015

Research Leads Brighton and keeping groupthink at bay?

researchED have done it again, with another fantastic event.  Last Saturday, Brighton University played host to the third researchED Research Leads conference.  As usual there were speakers who provided a range of insights into the use of evidence to inform practice.  Individuals, who are willing to give up Saturday to engage in real and effective professional learning, included:
  • Daniel Muijs - Can we (reliably) measure teacher effectiveness? 
  • Nick Rose - Developing Tools for Teacher Inquiry
  • James Mannion - Praxis : Professional Development through Research Inquiry
  • Louise Bamfied and Paul Foster - Building Research Rich Schools and Alliances
  • Rebecca Allen - How can you know what works in your school?
  • Lia Commissar - Teachers discussing learning with psychologists and neuroscientists - an online platform
However, there is always a danger when meeting up with like-minded individuals that you reinforce existing ‘biases’ or ‘predilections. and engage in groupthink.   Yet challenging your biases is an essential component of both,  genuine evidence-informed practice and the role of the school research lead.  Challenging biases is an essential part of evidence-informed practice, as it is necessary to actively seek out evidence and opinions, which do not confirm with your views or hypotheses. Second, School Research Leads need to mindful that in the first instance they may be working with volunteers, or shall say 'believers' who are like-minded, and which may result in groupthink leading to poor decisions being made about what should be inquired about, and how that inquiry should take-place.

With the danger of groupthink in mind, Sunstein and Hastie’s 2014 book Wiser: Getting beyond groupthink to make groups smarter, provides a range of insights on why and how group decision-making can go wrong. Sunstein and Hastie identify four problems that groups often run into:

  • Amplifying rather than correcting, individual errors of judgment
  • Cascade effects, as others follow what others say to do
  • Polarising, adopting more extreme positions than the ones they began with
  • Emphasising what everybody knows instead of focusing on critical information held by a few.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how School Research Leads may have to face and managed these four problems. However, help is at hand, and Sunstein and Hastie a number of ways to reduce the chance of failure.

Inquisitive and self-silencing leaders – who refuse to state a view at the outset and allow time and space for other ideas and perspective come to the fore.  In other words, when leading a session avoid starting off with the phrase. Well the evidence says..

Priming critical thinking – encourage the development of social norms where robust discussion is encouraged, try and reduce the incidence of subtle clues which re-inforce silence and the non-disclosure of information.  When conducting meetings leave time for a competing view to emerge, particular if a speedy consensus has been reached on what the evidence-says is ’.

Reward group success – emphasise that individuals will be rewarded on the basis of the success of the group, rather than individual outcomes, as this should provide better access to the thinking of a range of individuals.  

Role assignment – ensure that all individuals within the group are told that each holds relevant and different information to be contributed and relevant to the success of the group.  This is particularly the case in schools, as evidence-informed practice involves accessing information from all members of the school community, including administrators, teaching assistant and site management staff. Ask of everyone Tell me - what do you think?

Perspective changing  - all this require is a simple question.  If we were to ask someone else from a different department, school or sector – what would they think about the proposal or idea.

Sunstein and Hastie also recommend consideration of other more sophisticated though challenging methods to improve group decision-making – devil’s advocacy, red teams and the Delphi method – which I leave for you to explore for yourself.

To conclude, it is great to attend event such as researchED research leads one-day conferences, on the other hand, there is a real-risk that it can lead to existing biases and prejudices being confirmed.  These biases may impact on how school research leads conduct their work within their own schools, and which may contribute to groupthink and poor decisions in the development of a school based evidence-informed culture.  However, there are a number of techniques which can be used to minimise this risk, and which involve the careful and mindful management of groups.  Future posts will explore issues related to this post, such as cognitive bias and Edgar Schein’s concept of ‘humble inquiry’.


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