Chief executive, Confederation of School Trusts

3 Nov 2019, 5:00


Book review: The Educated Guess

By Warwick Sharp






3 Oct 2019

Do you know how a fridge works? Think carefully before answering. Most people say yes, but when tested we realise we don’t know very much at all. We mistake basic familiarity with understanding. This is one of the many ‘thinking biases’ explored in The Educated Guess, a book designed to make us aware of our invisible biases and help us to make better choices about education.

This is small gem of a book – easily digested in a couple of hours, yet pleasantly challenging. The most demanding section for me was the one on intuition. I have always valued my intuition and often acted on it, but Sharp argues that, “whilst fast and automatic, [it] is riddled with what we call ‘cognitive biases’.” Intuition, he explains, doesn’t wait for the logical, analytical part of our brains to engage.

The book begins with an exploration of the ‘bigger picture’. There is a fascinating chapter on negative news and the distortions these create in our thinking. News items stick in our minds. They worry us. They give the sense of an ever-present danger to our children and evoke strong emotional responses. This, Sharp says, is problematic because we have become so risk-averse that there is some evidence that our children have fewer developmental experiences than ever before.

This book starts us on a journey of thinking differently

Yet in many ways, he argues, children are safer than ever before. Sharp is certainly not making the case that we should abandon our protective instincts but rather that we should avoid over-protection. We need our young people to be able to navigate the world confidently and to do this, they need a healthy range of experiences.

Another of the thinking biases Sharp explores is what he calls the ‘narrow lens.’ This is where we focus on a single factor in decision making, like class sizes. He interrogates the evidence on class size, counter-intuitively looking at the benefits of larger classes. By all means, he concludes, “zoom in to view the details, but zoom out too to look at the bigger picture.”

Sharp applies similar laser-like interrogation to the ‘bandwagon bias’ towards university rather than vocational education and ‘survivorship bias’ in which the grand stories of success against the odds lead some young people down unrealistic paths. For example, 21 percent of 15- to 16-year-olds have ambitions to secure the 2.1 percent of jobs in culture, media and sport. He is certainly not saying that we should not encourage young people to be ambitious – or that we should not be ambitious for them – but he cautions that we need to balance ambition with realistic paths.

The final section of the book really touched me. It is about how we create a good, fair and equitable society. He explores the unconscious bias of choosing ‘people like us’, which he calls ‘in-group’ bias. He cites research which shows that people make education choices related to social class and makes a brilliant case for more integration in education as a way of helping young people prepare for life in the real world. He encourages a collective national effort for each of us to play our part in taking care of others.

The book ends with a call to action: “the next step is deciding and acting differently to what our biases might be telling us. When we realise our thinking is flawed, we can slow down, assess the facts and information for ourselves as part of the broader view.”

He leaves us with an overarching message: “trust your ability to challenge these particular thinking biases.” Ultimately, for me, this book starts us on a journey of thinking differently, pausing to consider the evidence in order to make better decisions that will foster the common good and a better society.

I can’t help but wonder, though: What biases did I bring to reading the book? My intuition tells me I will need to read it again.

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