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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The Experience of School and the Illusion of Being the Best

"We are one of the best schools in the world."

I've heard it many times before. In fact, I've heard it so many times that, statistically speaking, it is unlikely to be true. We can't all be the best.

So where does this overconfidence come from?

In her recent book, Thinking 101: How to Reason Better to Live Better, Woo-Kyoung Ahn, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, gives us a clue.

And, before we are too hard on ourselves, it is perhaps reassuring to know that we are not alone in our tendency to overestimate our abilities.

When one million high school students were asked to rate their leadership abilities, 70 percent assessed their skills as above average, and 60% put themselves in the top tenth percentile in terms of their ability to get along with others. When college professors were polled about their teaching skills, two thirds rated themselves in the top 25 percent.

And, if that is not convincing enough, apparently a staggering 93 percent of Americans claim that they are better than average drivers.

We all succumb, it seems, to the "allure of fluency" and, as a result, get caught out being unreasonably overconfident.

A building at night with a neon sign that reads "1st"

So what is at the heart of this tendency towards self-deception?

According to Dr Ahn, it has to do with the idea of familiarity. Familiarity helps us interpret a situation and provides a "quick-and-dirty" understanding without applying much effort. This is, in some situations, a useful function of the brain but familiarity can also create the illusion that we are better than we are: more skilled, more knowledgeable, and more competent. 

The experience of school is something that most of us are extremely familiar with. Generally speaking, we know how schools work. We understand how the pieces of school fit together. But maybe it is worth stepping back to consider that sometimes this familiarity leads us along a path where we create the illusion that the experience of school is better than it really is.

"Overconfidence in the absence of sufficient evidence," Dr Ahn concludes, "can have real-life consequences", so breaking the illusion is something that we should certainly be committed to doing. As educational leaders, we should shy away from those "quick-and-dirty" understandings that represent little effort on our part; that just assume that everything is generally okay for the students, families, and employees in our school.

So let me leave you with three simple but complex questions that might help to get under the hood of the experience, to discover how things are really going on.

  1. Are we measuring the felt experience of students, families, and employees in our school in a manner that really listens to what it is like to be a part of our school community?

  2. Are we co-creating new experiences with students, families, and employees that address points of friction at different stages of the Lifecycle of School Experience?

  3. Can we identify a student, family, or employee in our school and say that we have done the work of designing what it would mean to be the "best school in the world" for them?

Ask these questions on a regular basis and maybe then you really will be one of the best schools in the world.

Photo by Javier Quiroga on Unsplash.


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