Some years ago, I worked with children in care. I visited every secondary school on the south side of Glasgow, with the task of persuading schools to enrol these children. I developed a rule of thumb: if the office staff were friendly, the head would also be and the young people would be treated with understanding. I would have dismissed these "judgments" as emotional reactions, were it not that the welcoming schools were where the young people were most likely to succeed.
I was reminded of this recently when I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell has a thesis that some of our so-called "snap judgments" are as sound as our carefully-considered ones. He uses the term "thin-slicing" to describe our unconscious ability to find patterns in situations and behaviours, based on narrow slices of experience.
This was confirmed by my experience as a quality improvement officer. Arriving at a school early, I found the janitor putting up a notice near a computer screen linked to a camera in a nesting box in the garden, recording that a blue tit had visited, prospecting for a nest. A knot of children discussed the event with the janitor - about whether the bird might return, when nesting would begin, how it could be identified, and what they might do to encourage nesting.
Later, we unpicked what had given us such a positive view. We had made computations which related to the performance indicators that were our official guides:
- there was not only a garden, but one which excited interest and involvement across the school community;
- there was collective responsibility for the garden, and shared decision-making;
- opportunities for learning were being created and exploited beyond the classroom;
- leadership was not confined to the headteacher and promoted staff;
- children were encouraged to be responsible for themselves and for the environment.
Could awareness of our "thin-slicing" abilities help us become more efficient in assessing quality? Gladwell urges caution. In some cases, our unconscious finds patterns that are built on prejudice, not experience.
Perhaps the message to take away from Blink is that we would benefit from appreciating more our power of making sound judgments quickly, as long as this is accompanied by an understanding of how prejudiced we still may be.
Jeannie Mackenzie is director of Conditions for Learning, an educational consultancy.