Gut Feelings vs. Data-Driven Decisions

Do you ever make decisions based on “gut feeling”? Can you tell within minutes of meeting someone whether you like them or you don’t?  Are you a teacher who can tell within the first week which of your students will graduate first in class, last in class, or not at all?  

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, talks about the decisions we make every day, in an instant – in the blink of an eye. In the book, he talks about processing information quickly with the ability to “thin-slice” or filter multiple factors to come to a conclusion. He goes on to point out that there are some people who are very good at this, but there are more that think they have great intuition and, in fact, they are very, very wrong.

So what is the alternative? Stew for days over all the information? Deliberate over every single indicator? Get stuck in “analysis paralysis” before ever making a decision?

Intuition or data-driven: which is better?  

Well, I think it’s a combination, honestly. When we apply this to student learning, the stakes are high, so we can’t afford to be all one or all the other. We need a balanced approach. Intuition backed by real data – the yin and yang, if you will, of helping today’s students.  

So here’s my thinking: Gut feelings are important – but validation is mandatory.

Let’s take a personal, non-school example to help illustrate this methodology: I have a gut feeling that my Spicy Chicken Caesar salad HALF SIZE is a healthy choice for my lunch. I feel good about this choice since my goal is to lose 10 pounds and improve my overall waistline. It has all the ingredients of what I (in a blink) recognize as healthy: lettuce, chicken, small portion. Good choice, my intuition says. Way to go!

Now let’s validate that choice. Hmmmmm…… using Wendy’s website, the data tells me this little salad actually packs 450 calories. By comparison, McDonald’s double cheeseburger is 437 calories. It appears my intuition may have led me astray (if the only thing I’m concerned about is calories).

What happened here?! I “thin-sliced” and filtered multiple factors (as described in Gladwell’s book) and made a decision. Most salads ARE healthy, but there is so much more to that Caesar salad than meets the eye. Once I see a breakdown of each individual ingredient and its contribution to the overall calorie count, the data makes it very obvious what my intuition missed. A few tweaks (remove the dressing!) and I’m back on track.

And so it is with students. There are indicators (ingredients) that teachers have learned over the years to recognize (in a blink) as signs of progress or decline. Teachers are very busy, so they must use intuition for decision making most times. But why don’t they follow that up with some validation?

My theory is the lack of validation is not due to a lack of available information. They simply don’t have TIME to go find the data and compile it in one place to see the big picture of a student. Listen, if I had to take my Chicken Caesar salad and look up every little ingredient myself on multiple websites, chances are I wouldn’t do that either. Thank goodness Wendy’s did that work for me. Otherwise, I might continue to believe that the half-size Caesar salad was the best low-calorie choice, and I would be forever confused about why I can’t reach my weight loss goals!

That’s what the Five-Star Pivot Data Warehouse does for teachers. It provides teachers one place to find all students’ data from assessments, attendance, behavior, and grades. Teachers can select one student and quickly review their data to VALIDATE their intuition. Perhaps, like me with my healthy Caesar salad, their intuition is wrong. And if they continue working off that wrong decision, they will be forever confused about why they can’t reach their goals of increasing student achievement.

Written by Tamra Ranard