diagnosis bias

First Impressions

Originally Posted November 2011

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I just finished reading SWAY: The Irresitable Pull of Irrational Behaviour.  A friend and colleague who recommended the book described it as the opposite of Gladwell’s BLINK.  It is a fascinating book that examines the pull of irrational behaviour.

The authors of SWAY, Ori and Rom Bronfman, share an interesting study about the draft rankings of NBA players and their resulting professional careers.  It turns out that scoring points, rebounding, blocking or stealing shots does not impact the playing time or even the career lengths of NBA players as much as draft order does.  In essence, “once a player is tagged as a ‘low pick’, most coaches let that diagnosis cloud their entire perception of him.” (p.71-72).  We all have a tendency to label ideas, things, or people on the basis of our first impressions, and find it difficult to change our perceptions once they have been established.  In essence, we are inclined to see what we want to see, expect to see, and what seems to reinforce our opinion.

As an educator, this is a big concern.  I don’t want to have any pre-conceptions concerning my students.  I know that it will interfere with my work in support of their learning.  I make conscious efforts to avoid having a fixed opinion of my students.  Perfect, I am not.  But I know that I am doing well simply because I continue to challenge myself, ask questions, look at things from multiple perspectives, use multiple sources of evidence, and remain flexible.
As a colleague, I know I can do better.  I need to do a better job of managing my diagnosis bias.  Like most professionals, I have an opinion of my colleagues, mainly based on first impressions, limited evidence or perspectives.  Regretfully, I have certainly not been as flexible with my colleagues as I have with my students.  I am striving to challenge myself to re-think my first impressions, to ask questions that will challenge or highlight my own personal bias.

As an inspiring administrator, monitoring diagnosis bias, is of keen personal and professional interest.  I am equally confident in saying that I have benefitted from, and been restricted by, the bias of administrators that I have worked with.  I have witnessed colleagues who struggled to overcome this bias. As an educational leader, your bias has an enormous impact on the culture of your community, and ultimately on the quality of the teaching and learning in your school.  Do the first impressions you make of people help or hinder your efforts as a learning leader?  Are they empowering or limiting?

As educators, we need to avoid the pitfalls of the NBA coaches. But how can we do it?  I think the best place is to simply try.  Be meta-cognitive.  Be flexible.  Be reflective.  How often do you change your first impressions?  Challenge yourself to look at things with different lenses.  I think if you do, like the Houston Rockets, you will be able to recognize the talents of individuals that may have gone unrecognized or under appreciated.  And like the Houston Rockets, you are likely to find your own Shane Battier, your own superstar.