Gerry McGovern // New Thinking

Don’t trust your gut instinct

May 31, 2009 -- Gerry McGovern

In an age when computers can crunch numbers and do analysis on a vast scale, the deep flaws in our intuition and gut instinct are becoming more and more apparent.

Direct Instruction is a rigid, highly structured form of education. The teacher has very little control and must follow a series of scripts and formulas. When I first read about it I thought it must surely be an ineffective teaching tool.

Not so. Direct Instruction seems to have a very positive impact on student achievement in language, reading, mathematics, spelling, health and science. It also leads to better social skills and enhanced self esteem. That just doesn't make sense to me, but then I have learned that much of what my gut instinct tells me is not to be trusted.

The educational establishment does not like the Direct Instruction method. It is "wedded to its pet theories regardless of what the evidence says," Ian Ayres writes in his book, Super Crunchers. "We see the struggle of intuition, persona experience, and philosophical inclination waging war against the brute force of numbers."

"Decision makers don't choose a plan because they know it works," Siegried Engelmann, inventor of the Direct Instruction approach states. "They choose it because it's consistent with their vision of what they think kids should do." Engelmann goes on to state that "Intuition is perhaps your worst enemy."

John Henry was a great man with a hammer. He could hammer steel into the ground better than any other. But then the steam drill came along and no matter how strong John Henry was, no matter how hard he hammered down his 30 pound hammer, that steam drill was just bound to win. Paul Bunyan was a great man with an axe but ultimately the chainsaw was better.

Douglas Bowman recently left his position as top visual designer at Google. He believes Google is not very friendly to designers. Google is a company that makes decisions based on data. "Data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions," Bowman writes.

"We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel," Google's Marissa Mayer stated in a recent television interview.

Before the Web, content and graphic design was the domain of gut instinct and the craft-based approach. Borrowing heavily from the art world, people waited for a cool vision to rise from hot inspiration.

This is the age of evidence, of data, of analysis, of continuous improvement based on constant testing. As sure as Henry and Bunyan fell before the inexorable march of technological progress, so too will the writers and graphic designers who live in the old school.

The Web is the great laboratory of human behavior. The super crunching computers are throwing bright and brilliant light on so much that was mysterious about us. We need to develop new skills around data analysis and we need to test, test, test.

Of course, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. And then there is opinion.

Bookmark and Share