Lou Russell is an expert trainer, a consultant in Team and Project Management, and an old friend. In her recent article, she explores the truth behind John Merrow’s 2005 article entitled “Unlearning Bad Science.”
What happens when we “learn” something that isn’t true, Lou wonders. If it’s something innocuous like whether the earth is closer to the sun during a New England summer or winter, no harm is done.
But what if the “mis-learning” relates to the skills and capabilities of our kids, employees, students, or team members?
One of my favorite videos was featured in an article in Education Week, February 23, 2005, titled “Unlearning Bad Science” by John Merrow. Filmmakers at a Harvard graduation more than 15 years ago asked new graduates why it’s colder in New England in the winter and warmer in the summer. In the 1988 film, “A Private Universe,” each explains with confidence that the sun is closer to Earth in the summer and farther away in winter.
Of course, the opposite is true. New Englanders are actually closer to the sun in winter. Earth is tilted away, however, and it is the tilt of its axis that determines the climate.
Assume that nobody taught those Harvard seniors bad science. Instead, they probably intuited that “fact” when they were young and never unlearned it. The video shows the picture from our early science books still etched in your head and mine. This is a graphic of a dramatically elliptical orbit. It looks like the logic should work. We probably don’t even know that we learned the bad science from that picture. Amazingly, even Harvard students (and a few faculty in the video) learned enough classroom science to get high grades on tests without dislodging or unlearning what they thought they knew from observation of this original textbook picture. As Lee Shulman, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has noted, “The first influence on learning is … the learning that’s already inside the learner.”
When high school seniors were asked pretty much the same question on last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress science test, 40 percent got it right. It seems like the picture in the text books may have changed. But this Halo Effect as it is called can influence a lot of other things besides a bad answer to a science quiz.
Imagine sitting on the sidelines as your child is once again not getting the playtime that you think they deserve. You know as a fact that your child is better than the other kids that are always starting. As a parent, your ‘Halo Effect’ is that no matter what, your child is the best. Similarly, the coach at some point ‘decides’ how your child ranks as a player on the team. From that point forward the coach unconsciously looks for ways to prove that belief. It’s the way the brain works; it is not intentional. It is, however, often unfair, and unfounded in truth. That’s why good coaches trust stats rather than observation. Still, if your child never plays, there won’t be any stats!
Similarly, we do the same type of thing with our staff. At some point that we don’t remember, we ‘learned’ the strengths and weaknesses of each member of our team. As leaders, we unconsciously screw up by looking for events that confirm our beliefs. We do have favorites – we can’t help it. The problem is our treatment predicts success.
Think about your team. Observe the work that you give to the people you trust more. Try to catch how you unconsciously communicate your lack of trust in others. Is the “Halo Effect” preventing you from growing all the members of your team? Almost certainly there is potential sitting close to you that has not been nurtured. Do it now. Instead of trusting your intuition, build measurable goals and trust your stats. Your team will be more effective, and you’ll be more consistent.
Lou Russell is the CEO of Russell Martin & Associates, an executive consultant, speaker, and author whose passion is to create growth in companies by guiding the growth of their people. Author of six popular and practical books, Lou draws on 30 years of experience helping organizations achieve their full potential by inspiring improvement in leadership, project management, and individual learning.