I just read a fascinating article on this very subject: How Obvious: personal reflections on the database of educational psychology and effective teaching research by Gregory Yates in which he outlines several reasons for this feeling. Through the topic of teacher effectiveness, he demonstrates that while people often respond to the findings of research into teacher effectiveness by claiming it is obvious, this is illogical as 'if such findings are obvious, why should such variance exist?' He explains it further by adding 'the teacher effectiveness findings...represent phenomena which cannot be mapped by an individual observer. As such, it becomes logically nonsensical to describe them as obvious'.
His first line of defence is to point out while outcome and relationships may seem obvious to people, 'it still takes research to expose the magnitude of relationships, or to map the complexities and interactions that exist. For example, although TV viewing is unhealthy in terms of child development indices, less than an hour a day viewing may not appear to produce negative effects. Such knowledge can come only from research into putatively obvious relationships'.
He goes on to argue that the feeling that such research findings are obvious demonstrates a basic mental default that others construe life in more or less the same way as oneself, a bias which can lead to faulty assessments and decisions.
He explains such responses as examples of some specific effects:
1. The hindsight bias effect
Hindsight bias is the tendency for people with outcome knowledge to believe that they would have predicted the outcome. After learning of the occurrence of an event, people exaggerate the extent to which they had, or could have, foreseen the likelihood of its occurrence. This is caused either by ego-protection or the process of automatic memory updating - people are generally unaware of how their information got there, and so presume automatically that it was known all along
2. The knowledge projection hypothesis
While accessing prior-knowledge as a base from which to build new knowledge is in itself a sound learning technique, it has some liabilities. Stanovich (2003) refers to the collection of such liabilities as the fundamental computational bias. This bias is accounted for by the failure to disengage prior knowledge within a context wherein it leads to poor decision-making. The specific liabilities identified by Stanovich are: (a) the tendency to contextualise a problem when the problem calls for abstract and context-free rule applications; (b) the tendency to socialise a problem when it ought not implicate interpersonal or social cues; (c) the tendency to see deliberative patterns within random events; and (d) the tendency to use narrative modes of thought (such as idiosyncratic stories) rather than abstract paradigms or statistical information.
These sound scarily familiar!
Yates argues that educational research, therefore, is valuable for several reasons and demonstrates how research in the area of teacher effectiveness can be used:
- The value of the research lies in its use as a basis for serious personal reflection, for recognising the importance of key variables, and for the rethinking of pedagogical goals.
- Besides personal development applications, teacher effectiveness research can be respected for its value in staff development and in teacher education.
- Such analyses provide important and fundamental knowledge for the beginning teacher.
- It is impossible for any one unaided human observer to assay functional relationships that exist over time within complex environments. Necessarily, individual perceptions are limited. Our world view is narrow, and not a universal one. It is virtually axiomatic within modern psychology to note that we perceive patterns because we believe they are there, rather than because they exist.
He's developed this response to deal with the issue of obviousness whenever it surfaces after seminars on effective teaching:
OK, but there is a parallel between obviousness and common sense. And what did Voltaire note about common sense? The problem with common sense, he said, is that it is not so common.