23 July 2014

On Gary Klein on Insight

Klein G (2014) Seeing What Others Don't; the remarkable ways we gain insights London and Boston MA; Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

I first encountered Gary Klein (not in person, though) through his Edge interview in 2011. Anyone who has Daniel Kahneman as his warm-up deserves attention and respect. So when I spotted this book in Heffers the other day, I was immediately interested. Klein specialises in the psychology of intuition, decision-making, and here of insight.

But he does it naturalistically. He doesn't bring his subjects into a laboratory to put them through some experimental protocol; instead he listens to their stories of life in the real world. Indeed, sometimes he relies on historical records or news reports, contaminated though they may be. He sets out his reasons very cogently in ch.13 of the book. His approach is idiographic, rather than nomothetic, to use Allport's (1937) terms. He argues that standardised methods are by definition incapable of capturing the lightning strike which is "insight".

He embraces the messiness of contextual and confusing variables, but tries to find the common features underlying them all. This is typical of much educational research, too. It's one reason why so much of it is so poor. So it is good to read an account of painstaking qualitative research undertaken on an opportunistic sample of 120 instances of insight, with some discussion of necessary and sufficient conditions for accepting an instance, ranging from backwoodsman Daniel Boone rescuing his daughter from marauding "Indians", to the identification of the Aids virus—and the stories are terrific. Malcolm Gladwell should look to his laurels (and endorses Klein, but not this book specifically, on the cover).

Educational researchers could benefit from reading this account of methodology (scattered throughout the book), but... there's a lot left out.

And that is interesting, because from page 4, Klein introduces a notional equation:

(I've prettied it up a little: I may have occasion to use it...)  It's reminiscent of Herzberg on motivational hygiene. But if Herzberg's point (originating in the 1950s) was about minimising the downers, Klein is broadly about boosting the uppers.

He argues powerfully in Part II that emphasising "not getting it wrong", or minimising error creates a culture not only of "quality assurance" but also of risk aversion and closes the door on innovation, and he has the anecdotal evidence to demonstrate it. It's an important argument, but Klein is well aware of its limitations. His final section on creating an organisational culture which encourages insight is not convincing, but then it is speculative. Someone would have to give it a try...

That's the problem. It's the discourse, stupid. More precisely, it's the market. Klein has moved (according to his bio.) from academe, to government service, to consultancy. So his pitch has changed. That is not in itself a criticism; but it's not enough to explore the issues. In that world you need answers. Hence Part III of the book: "Opening the Gates; how can we foster insights?" which is definitely the weakest part, and indeed comes close to contradicting the insights of the earlier parts. Despite arguing that insights are disruptive and unpredictable (p.153) he ends up talking about how to manage their creation. It don't work like that.

Klein writes accessibly: sometimes too much so. Every point is referenced back to one or more of his case-studies, which makes the argument easy to follow if you can remember who Gopnik is, and what her distinctive insight is (about infants' "theory of mind"—and well worth remembering) but he does tend to treat his corpus of case-studies as definitive. He does pepper the book with disclaimers about the limitations of the studies, but in practice these are tokenistic. Ch. 13 is salutary on the problems of experimental design in this area, but his own approach does need monitoring for the likelihood of Type I errors, and would not be allowed to stand alone in sound academic circles.

But then they would come up with hedged, boring, qualified claims which no-one would be able to relate to or actually use.

21 July 2014

Items to Share: 20 July 2014

Education Focus
  • Stop this educational madness [spiked] (Kathryn Ecclestone) 'Beyond the trivial or cynical claims being made with regard to mental health, more people seem to find everyday life and education a constant source of distress. The idea that almost all people are psychologically and emotionally vulnerable is everywhere, and we need a wider debate about what impact this has had on how we teach and how we relate to people. We need to resist calls for more support and more intervention and start rethinking how education and other meaningful activities can lead to a world outside the self.'
  • Hard Evidence: at what age are children ready for school? [theconversation.com] 'When are children “ready” for school? There is much debate about when the transition between play-based pre-school and the start of “formal” schooling should begin. The trend in the UK primary school curriculum over recent decades has been towards an earlier start to formal instruction, and an erosion of learning through play. [] But the evidence from international comparisons and psychological research of young children’s development all points to the advantages of a later start to formal instruction, particularly in relation to literacy.'
  • Direct Instruction and the teaching of reading [theconversation.com] 'Direct Instruction is a teaching method developed in the United States in the 1960s, focused particularly on the needs of children with learning difficulties. Building on behaviourist learning theory, Direct Instruction breaks each learning task down into its smallest component and requires mastery of simpler skills before proceeding to more difficult skills. Students are grouped according to their achievement, teachers are provided with closely scripted lesson plans, students respond to the teacher orally and as a group, and the group does not move on until everyone understands the material.'
  • For lecturers, there is life beyond Death by PowerPoint  [Times Higher Education] 'By harnessing the power of images, academics can fully exploit students’ learning potential, says David Roberts.'  But my reason for selecting this is that it is totally unoriginal. People knew all this in the days of hand-written "overheads" (transparencies) and even using the black- green- white-board... And the Higher Education Academy are interested in his work? What does this say about the dissemination of the scholarship of teaching and learning, however banal?
Other Business

18 July 2014

On Hensher "The Missing Ink"

Hensher P (2012) The Missing Ink; how handwriting made us who we are London; Pan Books.

This is the review I posted to Amazon.co.uk. (one star) with some editing because Amazon readers would have some background information you wouldn't necessarily share:

OK. I didn't finish it. I threw it across the room at about p.135. (And reluctantly recovered it, to be fair for this review.)

This is such a wasted opportunity. There is so much to say about handwriting. There is a debate (principally in the States) about the necessity or otherwise of teaching what they call 'cursive' (joined-up) script. There is interesting (but early) neuroscience research about the difference between taking lecture notes by hand and by digital device.

Instead, we get a self-indulgent, self-admittedly sloppy (see jokey footnote on p.43), gratuitously padded (the useless "witness" testimonies between chapters), text clearly aimed at a limited coterie of the chattering classes (see the opening of ch.18 "When you are elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as most English writers sooner or later are..." —which is egregious rubbish), which buries some interesting material under irritating ordure.

At the cost, indeed, of clarity. The examples of handwriting are not systematically chosen. There is no way to link the points made in the text to the illustrations (which are badly reproduced—although this book is not alone in this). I was particularly interested in the chapter on German orthography; I remember struggling with a book on „Deutschland und die Deutschen” for German O level in the late '50s. It was in black-letter typeface. (No, that's not the same as Gothic, at all--he does get that right.) But for all the discussion of the politics of orthography in Germany, where were the illustrations of actual handwriting? I have no clear idea of what Sütterlin or Fraktur actually look like.

At least Palmer's advice on writing with the whole arm (p.73-5) does provide some support for my own to teachers about how to write on boards!

14 July 2014

Items to Share; 13 July 2014

  • The Uses of Being Wrong - The Chronicle of Higher Education 'For all the intellectual benefits of being incorrect, however, how one is wrong matters. It is much less risky to predict doom and gloom than to predict that things will work out fine. Warnings about disasters that never happen carry less cost to one’s reputation than asserting that all is well just before a calamity. History has stigmatized optimistic prognosticators who, in retrospect, turned out to be wrong. From Norman Angell (who, in 1909, argued that war among European powers was unlikely) onward, errant optimists have been derided for their naïveté. If the global economy tanks or global economic governance collapses in the next few years, I’ll be wrong again—and in the worst way possible.'

12 July 2014

On Trivers "Deceit and Self-Deception"

Trivers R (2013) Deceit and Self-Deception; fooling yourself the better to fool others London; Penguin (p-back edition)

This is a quite extraordinary book. As Robert Trivers comments in the very last paragraph:
"One nice feature of the study of deceit and self-deception is that we will never run out of examples."
And indeed he finds them everywhere, from plants mimicking poisonous varieties, to male fish misrepresenting their sex to gain a reproductive advantage, to the competition within families between the maternal and the paternal genes inherited by offspring, to aviation and space accidents, to international relations and nationalistic myths, and of course religion.

Some of the material is clumsy and clunky and could have done with a brutal editor—principally in the more scientific passages where terms like "donor" and "recipient" are insufficiently precise for a naive reader to follow the argument (not sure he uses those terms, but you get the idea). There's an element here of going through the motions of establishing his unimpeachable biological credential, just so he can move on to the more interesting stuff...

And that stuff—particularly the historical material and the Chomskyan expose of the self-serving myths of US imperialism—is passionate and riveting, but I suspect highly contestable.

Trivers readily admits the limitations of current research in all the areas he covers, but he cites his sources only in end-notes. Generally I prefer this approach in "popular science" texts; author/date citation ruins to flow for the reader, but it is not until you follow up the endnotes that you discover that a whole page of argument may be based on a single source, which may be highly contentious, and the surrounding dispute is not mentioned at all. Much of the discussion of conflict in the Middle East, for example, relies on the work of Robert Fisk—hugely respected, but equally hugely contested in the field, I gather. The intriguing idea that xenophobia and inter-group conflict and religiosity are higher in societies which carry a higher load of parasites and hence probably infections rely on four articles (albeit some in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B—but some of which are not fully referenced). The effect is dogmatic, but he does include occasional exclusions where he acknowledges that he must paint with a broad brush because of the scope of the topic. Hence he starts chapter 12, on religion, with;
"A book could be written on this subject—no, a twelve-volume treatise..."
He is an avowed positivist and reductionist; the social "sciences" in his view forfeit any claim to credibility insofar as they drift away from biology. It's all in the genes, in the Dawkins mould, and he aligns his early thought with E O Wilson (of Sociobiology notoriety in the 70s).

He is also prepared to step into the picture himself, in anecdotes which rarely redound to his credit.

So he has a clear frame of reference, or lens, through which he views a vast swathe of biological to political activity, and as might be expected he finds deceit and self-deception wherever he looks—just as a critical theorist finds oppression and exploitation everywhere. The content and examples are fascinating and thought-provoking, but does the whole really work as anything other than another cynic's charter?