Friday 13 January 2017

The school research lead - do we need more foxes and fewer hedgehogs?

Does your school have too many 'hedgehogs' and not enough 'foxes' ?  Is your school's teaching staff full of individuals - hedgehogs - who are all committed to their own one big idea, and will stick with it even when it's been shown to fail.  Or is your school full of foxes? Individuals who know lots about everything, though not everything about anything.  Individuals who are pragmatic, prone to self-doubt and who are willing to admit when they get things wrong.  In this post, we will look at the role of specialists and expertise and how it can often get in the way of the evidence-based school.  I will then make some suggestions as to how not to become imprisoned by your own expertise.

One of the problems with past-experience and expertise is that it can get in the way of an individual assessing their data objectively. (Tetlock and Gardner, 2016) describing Tetlock’s book  Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It and How Can We Know? found that being a subject expert more often than not, got in the way of making an accurate forecast or prediction.  These experts – classified as hedgehogs who know one big thing.  Furthermore, ‘hedgehogs’ were totally committed to their conclusions.  This resulted in ‘hedghogs’ being extremely reluctant to alter their opinions even if their forecasts had gone ‘horribly wrong’.  And, for want of a better phrase ‘hedgehogs’s predictions were not as accurate as random guesses, which could have been produced the so-called dart-throwing chimp

On the the other hand, there were another group of experts called ‘foxes’ who were more accurate in their predictions – though they only just beat the so-called dart-throwing chimpanzee.    Now ‘foxes’ know many things, they don’t just know one thing.   They sought out information and evidence from many different sources and used a number of different techniques to analyse the data.  ‘Foxes’ tended to be much less confident about their predictions and forecasts, and were willing to change their minds and admit when they had made mistakes and were wrong.

So how come specialists's forecasts were less accurate than the generalists'?  Tetlock and Gardner (2016) argue that the hedgehog has one big idea,  or a ‘set of spectacles’ which dominates how they see situations and informs their subsequent forecasts and predictions.  Unfortunately, these spectacles are tinged with a particular colour, which distorts the ‘hedghogs’ predictions and forecasts.  This leads to hedgehogs trying to squeeze what they see into a narrow frame of reference, even though it may not fit.  However, because they are wearing ‘glasses’ the hedgehogs believe that they are seeing things with more accuracy than others, so this increases their confidence and belief in what they are seeing.  

So what can you do to make yourself more fox-like and less like a hedgehog.  Tetlock and Gardner (2016) suggest a range of strategies, which I have adapted for the use of evidence-based school leaders :
  • Strike the right balance between over and under-reacting to evidence - in other words don't have over-react when new evidence is made available, it may be random noise, on the other hand don't ignore it.
  • Get the views of outsiders - just because you know your school extremely well does not mean that others from outside of the school cannot provide an insight into the workings of your school.  They may spot something you have missed or have taken for granted
  • Break problems into their components parts - some of which you'll know more about than others.  Recognise that although you may be an expert in one area relevant to the problem, you may not be an expert in everything
  • Look for clashing causal forces - things that are pushing and pulling in opposite directions.  There may well be factors which can have a positive impact on staff engagement - be how individual staff are treated - on the other hand, external factors, such as poorly planned external curriculum change may have a detrimental impact
  • Strike the right balance between under and over-confidence - bottom line your decisions involve making judgements, you may be right, you many be wrong.  All you can do is ensure that whatever decision you make is made with positive intent
  • Allow yourself some degrees of doubt, but not too much so that you become paralysed with indecision 
  • Look for errors in your mistakes - but avoid fundamental attribution error - when things go wrong it's not always about what others have done or not done, or circumstances beyond your control - sometimes you just got it wrong through thinking which was prone to biases
  • Bring out the best in others and let others bring out the best in your - it's not all you, it's about us - and creating an environment for making decisions which brings out the best in you and the best in your colleagues
And finally, if you want to be a better evidence-based school leader, give it a go, you'll make mistakes but you will get better at it


TETLOCK, P. & GARDNER, D. 2016. Superforecasting: The art and science of prediction, Random House.

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