Two More Heuristics

Yesterday I described one heuristic. Here are two more. I think they operate together for teachers. The "anchoring-and-adjustment heuristic" means you overly rely on 1 piece of information -- the first piece of information -- and then you bias the rest of your thinking towards that anchor.

The "availability heuristic" refers to “the tendency to judge the frequency or likelihood of an event by the ease with which relevant instances come to mind."

Ever notice this during teacher staff meetings?

Ideas are floated. Some are good. Some are bad. The typical school leader believes the point of the meeting is to sort out the quality of ideas.

E.g., the principal explains an idea.

"Kids don't study hard enough for midterms and finals. Yet college is heavily weighted towards midterms and finals. Let's get them used to these high-stakes tests for which you spend many, many hours studying. Therefore, let's make midterms and finals count for more of the yearlong grade."

The first teacher who responds sets the "anchor." That is, if you hear the first teacher deride the idea, then you probably think "Hmm...either this is bad or it's okay-with-flaws." The idea has been anchored downward.

Enter the "availability" heuristic. If an example pops up in your head, you over-weight that in decision-making. For example, a teacher operating on the availability heuristic might say:

"Terrible idea! My kids last year were already over-stressed during my final last year. Two got sick! Five totally shut down during the final, just handed in their test after 15 minutes. Then they failed for the year, got held back."

Is this relevant information? Sure. But the teacher hasn't fully thought things through. In the long-term, kids will have high-stakes finals -- in college. Just because kids were stressed at their high school final doesn't mean the stress isn't worthwhile. The "availability" of a single negative example shouldn't lock that teacher into her view.

Anyway, now she has locked in. So we think about the group. An anchor has been set. Should that one viewpoint be the basis of a decision that affects all 20 teachers in the school? Of course not.

Yet now that the example has been voiced, other teachers feel the "anchor." They may be less likely to speak up strongly in favor of the idea -- even if that's what they felt as the principal described the idea.

I prefer surveying individual teachers in advance of any meeting. That way I get a true reading of teacher viewpoint, unaffected by the "anchor" response -- which itself likely to be an "available example" response.

It's still important to have people reason together through ideas. But it's easier for all involved if they have useful information like:

Thanks to all of you for your brief feedback on X idea: 15 generally liked it, and 5 of you were concerned. Person A, share why you like it; and then Person B, share your concerns.

That way, the data point of 15-5 becomes the "anchor" -- the true perceptions of all of the teachers, not just whomever is first to speak up.