Category Archives: Acuity

Cell Phone Lure

Our smartphones distract us, even if they are not turned on, which decreases our ability to concentrate.

This is certainly something that instructors in both school and professional training classrooms have to deal with. The mere presence of your cell phone makes you stupider by distracting you with the lure of potential social connection.

It’s tough because you can’t, at least in many professional settings, tell participants they can’t bring their phones with them. It would be better anyway, perhaps, to help people understand the effect and develop metacognitive strategies to focus. But how?


Intelligence and Picking Winners at the Horse Track

In a nice coincidence, two books I’m reading–Make It Stick and Everybody Lies–both talk about intelligence and practical problem solving in the context of identifying horses that will be winners at the track.

In Make it Stick, the authors speak of successful horse handicapping as a demonstration of practical intelligence–as opposed to analytical or creative intelligence, the other two types in Robert Sternberg’s model. The success of handicappers is unrelated to IQ, they point out. Handicappers develop “complex mental models involving as many as seven variables” (p. 150), and one doesn’t have to be intelligent in the IQ sense to develop this ability.

In Everybody Lies,¬†Seth Stephens-Davidowitz also discusses individuals who are able to successfully identify gifted horses, but for him the discussion is geared toward to use of data. For him, the users of new data and new analysis techniques are likely to have the biggest impact in situations where old ways of using data aren’t very successful–such as, he contends, identifying likely winners among horses.

Successful handicapper Jeff Seder’s innovation,¬†Stephens-Davidowitz points out, was to systematically measure every element of horses, both physical and familial, he could and use data analysis to determine correlations with winning. Using x-rays, he finally discovered the one variable that makes a meaningful difference is aorta size.

If Stephens-Davidowitz is right, it demonstrates that Sternberg’s practical intelligence is vulnerable to significant disruption from analytical intelligence. Practical intelligence is also likely more prone to biases (if Stephens-Davidowitz is correct that prior to Jeff Seder that horse evaluation was ineffective, then identifying successful horse handicappers would be prone to survivor bias; those that got lucky and identified winners would attribute their success to practical intelligence instead of luck).

The Pathways Principle


The next principle is the Pathways principle, which postulates that people assume there is one best path to goals, and that faster is better.

Rose uses learning to walk as an example. Parents worry if their babies are late walkers, or if they take a strange path to learning to walk, even though it’s fine; children learn to walk no matter which path they take.

He then moves on to discuss Bloom…

The Context Principle


Rose’s second principle of individuality is the Context Principle, which postulates that, as he puts it, “traits are a myth.” In other words, while we think of ourselves and others as having fixed traits, in fact our behavior is determined far more by context than by traits. I might believe that I’m an introvert, but how introverted or extroverted I act depends on where I am and who I’m interacting with.

This is hard to wrap one’s head around because fixed traits seem intuitively true. Part of this is because we generally only interact with people in one context–we only see co-workers at work-related functions, for instance. But also partly because we create narratives for ourselves and others and then let confirmation bias affirm those narratives. We see what we expect to see.

Rose contends that personality traits and actual behavior at best only correlates at a level of 0.3, suggesting that personality traits can only explain 9% of how we behave.

The context principle, then, asserts that behavior cannot be predicted outside of specific situations. To understand someone, then, you need to understand how they behave across a wide range of situations.

Labeling a child as aggressive, Rose argues as an example, ignores the likely reality that the child is aggressive under some situations but not others, which bypasses an opportunity to try and understand why.

Rose speaks of the famous marshmallow study, which people tend to point to as an example of how some people have good self-control and some don’t. But the original researcher himself didn’t view the study through this lens, and subsequent work had been done to show that children react very differently in situations where they have reason to trust the researcher than in situations of distrust. (This doesn’t really disprove the existence of traits, of course, since it could mean that people override traits when there is good reason to.)

Do I believe in traits? (In Rose’s words, am I an essentialist?) Maybe. It’s important to separate out adaptability from context dependence. Just because we constantly adapt to situations doesn’t mean there isn’t a baseline “me” in there somewhere. That said, I’m sure our true selves are far more variable and less in our control than we believe. I don’t like personality assessments or communication style instruments for this reason; they place us into boxes that limit our possibilities rather than in kaleidoscopes that celebrate our potential.

The Jaggedness Principle

Continuing a thread from here

Rose’s first principle of individually is the Jaggedness principle. This principle asserts that any complex physical or cognitive trait is a collection of multiple traits that can be measured individually and, crucially, any individual is likely to rate above average on some of the traits and below on others. Yet, we tend to look at such complex traits unidimensionally.

The example Rose leads with is big. He demonstrates that there is no definitive answer to the question of which of two men is bigger because big could mean height, weight, etc.

This isn’t a perfect example of the principle because big isn’t something that people really rank order. Intelligence might be a better example. We rank people by IQ or perceived intelligence assuming that intelligence is some monolithic thing and not a collection of jagged traits. We reduce people to a judgement rather than celebrate their internal diversity of skills and interests.

A shortcoming, perhaps, of jaggedness as a principle is that it is not fractal in nature. In other words, big might be a concept made up of multiple components, but the individual components themselves are not jagged. It’s certainly possible to order people by height.

I like the imagery of a jaggedness principle, though. It gives form to the recoil I feel when, as a leader of a team, I’m asked to reduce everyone in my team to a number or category.

Learning Athlete, Part 2: Temperature

I hate freezing cold classrooms.

One of the areas of improvement we are looking at is whether we can gain better control over temperature in classrooms in the hotels and other venues we hold classes. First, we had to ask, what is the optimal temperature range for learning?

The team assigned to this couldn’t find research specific to learning and classrooms, but they did find research on workplace productivity. This metastudy talks about how productivity drops two percent for every degree Celsius outside of 21 to 24 degrees Celsius (70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s a little warmer than I expected.

Of course, the age and gender of participants matters.

Then I got schooled by the folks at RSM who work with the hotels. Apparently, it’s not that hotels aren’t aware that their rooms are too cold or too hot; they just have less control than we realize. The way the HVAC systems are set up makes it often impossible to make all of their classrooms comfortable at the same time.

We decided to focus our efforts on making sure site staff are equipped to address concerns as honestly and realistically as possible. It’s no good to tell conference participants that the hotel staff has been notified and is working on it if we know darn well that the situation won’t change. Making someone believe that change is coming if it isn’t is worse than just leveling with them.

Acknowledge their concerns. Be honest about what’s been done and the prospects (or lack of) for change. Offer to get them a hot cup of coffee to hold. But don’t imply that it will get better because that will distract them from learning when it doesn’t.

Learning Athlete, Part 1: Breaks

We put together some internal working teams at my firm to address some learning-related questions that are sometimes posed to us. One of the teams is focused on energy management. Intuitively, what we eat and drink and how we sleep and feel affects our ability to learn, but framing this in terms of “energy management” was new to me–an interesting frame*.

We are looking at several energy management topics. One of them is breaks. Are more shorter breaks better than fewer longer ones?

The individual assigned to this question came back unable to find empirical guidance. It doesn’t seem there is a definitive answer (though my intuition says more, shorter breaks is better for learning, though if asked I suspect more learners would choose fewer longer breaks [or fewer shorter breaks to end the class earlier] so they can use the time more effectively to check in with clients or respond to emails).

To her credit, she quickly focused on what can be done from an instructional design perspective to get participants to move around and/or mentally shift gears, which should offer a mental refocus, not unlike a break. Makes sense to me.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t guidance or inspiration we can take from best practices around breaks as it relates to workplace productivity.

*I recognize that the practical impact of energy management is probably swamped by quality of the instructors, relevance of the instruction, instructional design, etc. This is strictly all-else-being-equal territory.