# What they're thinking

April 20, 2010

You know the problem with smart people? They’re smart.

They spend their lives figuring things out so they get used to thinking things through when sometimes the answer is right in front of them if only they knew how to ask the right question.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from Uri Treisman. Treisman helped lead the way at encouraging college math classes to use group work instead of straight lecture. He researched different groups of students to see what made them successful in post-secondary mathematics.

He had some theories going into his research but he kept an open mind and he measured everything. He looked at the amount of time that students spent studying math, he looked at their background, he looked at their parents ‘income level. And what he found out surprised him. Students who worked in groups did better than students who didn’t.

OK. He’d kept an open mind and found out what worked. Now he had to apply it in his classes. He tried all sorts of different strategies for dividing students into groups and designing work that was appropriate for groups.

He continued to measure the results. In one setting he had the students work together at tables that had been wired for sound. He recorded the students as the teachers and graduate assistants came around to the tables to work with the students.

Except he didn’t.

Through some sort of mixup they ended up recording the students when the teachers and graduate assistants *weren’t* at their table. Treisman said that the results were very illuminating. The students were working productively while the instructors were not at the table. He listened to them chat and pretend to work whenever they were unsupervised.

That was humbling and illuminating. It was completely counter to what Treisman and his colleagues thought they’d achieved.

What about you?

When the answer is right in front of you are you still asking and listening or are you certain that you know what the answer must be.

Tomorrow I’ll share a story I heard yesterday that changed my mind about the impact of a volcano spewing ash in Iceland.