PISA Days Are Here Again (Part 3): Beyond An Emotional Appeal

John SenerBy John Sener

[Note: This is the last in a three-part series, “PISA Days Are Here Again.” See parts 1 and 2.]

Given that education has become such a critical element of national success, well-being, and identity, you’d think that the discussion about US students’ performance on the latest round of PISA international test scores would be a rational one. Instead, it is something very different, which at times resembles a collective spell that has been cast on the American public. What’s really going on here?

Daniel Goleman, author of  Emotional Intelligence (1995).

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence (1995).

Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence (1995) offers some clues, in particular an appendix that describes the hallmarks of the emotional mind. It’s an interesting exercise to explore how well these hallmarks map with common elements found in articles about PISA gloom-and-doom, especially US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “threat of educational stagnation and complacency” speech.1

1. Quick to the draw:  Goleman states that “the emotional mind is far quicker than the rational mind” whose quickness “precludes the deliberate, analytic reflection that is the hallmark of the thinking mind” (p.291). At first glance, that seems to fit the pattern quite well; deliberate, analytic reflection is noticeably absent in the mainstream media articles about the topic. In another sense, though, this characteristic may not fit as well as it seems — more on that a little later. 

2. Strong sense of certainty: According to Goleman, the emotional mind engenders actions that “carry a particularly strong sense of certainty” as “a by-product of a streamlined, simplified way of looking at things.”2 That certainly seems to describe Secretary Duncan’s speech, which describes “the big picture of U.S. performance on the 2012 PISA” as “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation,” a “brutal truth” and “urgent reality” that “must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.” No lack of self-certainty there.

3. Sacrificing accuracy for speed: The emotional mind operates in the realm of the snap judgment — “relying on first impressions” determined by “vivid elements” that outweigh “a careful evaluation of the details.”3 Again, Duncan’s speech is filled with vivid elements — “high-performing countries start to lap us” while US students are “running in place,” so we have to start “making sure our babies get off to a good start and have a chance in life” instead of being “dwarfed” by students in other countries — add in the “brutal truth” etc. and the net result is a vivid picture, notably lacking in any evaluation of the details.

4. A childlike reality: Goleman also argues that “the logic of the emotional mind is associative,” taking elements that symbolize a reality to be the same as that reality: “What matters is how they are perceived; things are as they seem.”4 The emotional mind triggers childlike thinking that is categorical (seeing everything in black-and-white terms), personalized (perceiving events with a self-centered bias), and self-confirming (counting supporting facts and discounting facts that undermine one’s beliefs (p.295). Check, check, and check, as illustrated by these excerpts from Duncan’s speech:

Who has caught up to or surpassed us since 2009?… In science, Poland, Ireland, and the Czech Republic are now ahead of us. And students in Lithuania, Italy, and Spain are now on a par with U.S. students…. No one can feel satisfied to announce: “America is 29th in math!” That reality is at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world. And that’s why the mediocre performance of America’s 15-year olds is a problem we cannot afford to accept and cannot afford to ignore.

Some observers might look at this data and be pleased that the rest of the world is “catching up” as a sign that educational competency has become more widely distributed — you know, “We Are the World” and all that. But apparently this insight is beyond the grasp of American leaders; instead, it’s all about us (US), and we either have to be #1 or bust (“Our country’s future is gone/Unless we can be Number One…”). Similarly, Duncan’s speech discounts the argument that students have never fared well in international assessments with flimsy evidence:

Now, some skeptics note that our students have never fared well in international assessments. But they add that our lackluster performance is no big deal because American workers manage to be highly productive, and have been leaders in entrepreneurship and innovation. What those skeptics fail to recognize is that education plays a much bigger role today in propelling economic growth than in the 1960s or the 1980s. In a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, the importance of education has increased enormously. Education is the new currency, and this currency is recognized internationally…. Today, there are basically no good jobs for high-school dropouts. To land a job that pays a living wage, most people will need at least some college. In particular, applied math and science skills of the kind measured by PISA are essential to propelling innovation and maintaining international competitiveness.

Note the number of unsupported assumptions in this statement — that PISA scores directly and accurately measure a child’s education, that PISA measures applied math and science skills used in the workplace, that PISA scores correlate with innovation and international competitiveness, to name just a few. And the evidence for these assertions — where are those in the speech? Don’t be childish. Although, actually, that is arguably what the educational and policy apparatus behind the “PISA Day5 campaign push wants you to do. At heart, their spiel is an emotional appeal — an attempt to arouse emotions that ultimately preclude analysis and other forms of rational thinking.

It’s important to distinguish between the emotionality of the appeal and that of the ones doing the appealing. Such a well-orchestrated campaign as PISA Day surely must be the product of deliberate, analytic reflection focused on how to get the message out in a way that will resonate and stick with its audience. But the message itself has been crafted to encourage snap judgments that sacrifice accuracy and induce certainty through provoking childlike thinking — an approach that appears to have been remarkably effective with the general public and with many educators.

Goleman’s concept of emotional intelligence has its flaws. For instance, Goleman’s supposition that we have an emotional mind distinct from our analytical one has been challenged by other scholars who view this distinction as a false dichotomy.6 Even if Goleman’s “two minds” construct is not valid, however, his description of the key characteristics rather accurately maps the process of creating thought and opinion that precludes careful, rational analysis.

A more current exposition of the “snap judgment” process, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking (2005), offers additional clues about what’s happening. Gladwell also describes a specific technique we use, which he calls “thin-slicing”7 — our ability to find patterns that matter from a relatively small sample (“thin slice”) of experience. Both Gladwell and Goleman describe how snap judgments are essential when careful deliberations are counterproductive or even life-threatening (for example, swerving to avoid a collision while driving a vehicle). What’s particularly notable about Gladwell’s examples of “thin-slicing” experts is how their ability to make accurate rapid judgments is the product of considerable rational analysis. We all make snap judgments, but it seems that making them well is the product of accumulated, focused, deliberate experience.

So, how can we use these insights to move beyond the emotional appeal of the PISA doom-and-gloomers?

The video below, produced by the American Federation of Teachers, offers one approach: take the PISA results and use them to reframe the issue in terms of several educational reforms that likely would make a positive difference if they were implemented: more early childhood education, funding equity, greater collaboration, teacher support, community partnerships, and high student expectations.8

ETC-J science editor Harry Keller offers a similar but shorter list for making US education “much better” in his reply to Part 2 of this series: an improved teacher education system (Finland), an improved funding mechanism (Canada), and a true commitment to making education truly equal for all students (Shanghai).9

As always, of course, the devil is in the details. An honest critique of the AFT approach would note how some of the examples they cite are cherry-picked. “Best” practices are difficult to translate from one country to another because education is so deeply cultural. Still, the agenda that AFT articulates in this video is crafted to go at it toe-to-toe with the prevailing educational reform agenda, so it will be interesting to watch how that battle transpires.

Still, my personal preference would be to move the discussion beyond treating PISA scores as a major driving force in determining educational policy and practice. The AFT video asserts that “maybe we’re not doing the right things,” which is a fine starting point, so long as the rest of the sentence is not “to make sure that the US is Number One on PISA scores.” The extent to which their agenda uses PISA as a departure point, as distinct from a way to define national educational policy goals, could have a positive influence.

Beyond assertions of what things we should do is a deeper question: Why don’t we care enough about education to build a system where everyone’s education truly matters? As I argued in my Seven Futures book, there are several reasons: to name two, a future where everyone’s education matters only makes sense in a society where everyone matters, which is antithetical to the current “winners and losers” structure of American society; and we don’t know how to reach the remaining 20-30% (depending on how one counts) of American children that the current system is unable to reach effectively.10 The beginning of an answer is to recognize that assertions of what we should do will never be enough, but this is a far more complex question for another, longer article.

1 Arne Duncan, The Threat of Educational Stagnation and Complacency, US Department of Education, 12/3/13.
2 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. (1995), p.291.
3 Goleman, p.292.
4 Goleman, p.294.
5 PISA Day: Learning Beyond the Rankings — http://www.pisaday.org/
6 Linda Elder, Critical Thinking and Emotional Intelligence, Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, Winter, 1996. Vol. XVI, No. 2.
7 Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking (2005), p.23.
8 Brandon Weber, Five Myths about Our Schools That Fall Apart When You Look Closer, Upworthy, 12/3/13.
9 Harry Keller, reply to PISA Days Are Here Again (Part 2): Time for a New Song?, 12/18/13.
10 John Sener, The Seven Futures of American Education (2012), pp.167-171.

One Response

  1. I like to think of PISA as a thermometer, one way of assessing health. Knowing your temperature may tell you something but not what’s wrong or what to do about it. You must have a number of readings even to determine whether anything at all is wrong.

    We have sufficient readings from PISA to suggest a problem even if not to prove a problem. So, we go and look at other indicators and find that we do have a problem, at least with our least advantaged students.

    John is exactly right. We must work hard to have a society where everyone matters, at least to the point of giving each and every child an equal start in life.

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