Sunday, May 16, 2010

Learning Purists

Youngme Moon writes about baseball in her book Different:

One of the bestselling books of 2003 was Micheal Lewis's Moneyball, which made the charged case that the right way to think about baseball was through the lens of extreme empiricism. The book was a slap in the face to baseball purists, because the implication was that the collective wisdom of a whole crew of baseball traditionalists - scouts, general managers, and so on - couldn't hold a candle to a statistician with a laptop.

In the polemic that followed the book's publication what became clear was that there was two ways of capturing reality - by the things that are measurable, and by the things that are not - and because the two don't overlap very much, it is easy for proponents of either to diminish the significance of the other.

And yet this is precisely why it can be such a fascinating experience to sit down and watch a really important baseball game - say, the seventh game of the World Series - with a hard-core baseball fan. The hard-core baseball fan is a walking repository of a vast amount of statistical data. She can tick off batting percentages, on-base percentages, runs batted in, and walk-to-strikeout ratios. She can tell you whether a pitch was an outside cut fastball or an inside curve, and what the odds are that this hitter will be able to get on base against the pitcher, in this given situation.

At the same time, the insight that the hard-core baseball fan can bring to a game can go far beyond that which can be expressed in purely statistical terms. When it comes to a big game like the seventh game of the World Series, the hard-core fan understands the journey that each team has traveled to arrive at this place, at this time. She knows the personalities of each  and every player, and is aware of the individual obstacles each has had to overcome to be in this coveted position. For the hardcore fan, the drama is not just in what is happening in the moment, it is in the collision of the present against all that has taken place in the past. Statistics count for something, certainly, but so do a lot of other things. Like context. Chemistry. Momentum. History. The beauty of the game. Which means that for the hard-core fan, to reduce the game to that which can be measured is to lose a lot.

I realize that I risk repeating myself here, but I draw this analogy as a way of illustrating the observational myopia that an over-reliance on empirics can create. As bussinesspeople, we can't afford to disregard the data that market research presents us with; we need to gather it, sift through it, and try to make sense of it as best we can. However, once we have done so, we can't assume that our work is done.

Much better that we approach our craft in the same way that a baseball purist approaches the game. Wherin we respect that statistics matter, but we also respect the fact that to reduce the game to numbers alone is to divest it of its soul.

If we only pay attention to things that we can measure, we will only pay attention to the things that are easily measurable. And in the process, we will miss a lot.

When we reduce education to things that are simply easy to measure, we miss a lot. To focus too much on the testing that typically occurs at the end of the year is to ignore the journey of the entire "regular season".

Like baseball purists, learning purists understand that to reduce learning to numbers in an obsessive effort to quantify quality in a strictly emprical manner risks losing the spirit of learning.

1 comment:

  1. There is always a discrepancy between intention and outcome isn't there? Few advocates of empirical assessment would claim that their assessments measure the totality of learning. Everyone recognizes the validity of qualitative assessment by the learner and teacher. They would even acknowledge that aspects of learning might never be adequately articulated and shared. Despite these concessions, the quantified reduction will assume a primacy in our assessments of learning simply because mathematics is comforting. She is right: "If we only pay attention to things that we can measure, we will only pay attention to the things that are easily measurable."

    Teachers always miss a lot. Students miss a lot. Everyone misses a lot. We don't have to catch everything. We simply have to create conditions in which learning can take place. If we build it, they will come (okay I had to say that, sorry).


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