Representativeness Restraint And Teacher Assessment

Do you see what you want to see?

The cornerstone of high-quality teaching, learning and assessment is the accuracy, efficacy, and expediency of decision making.

Teachers are required to make a huge number of decisions in the course of their day and decision density is typically high. Getting things right can create stress and tension for teachers, which may compromise their decision making.

Ideally, the decisions we make should be made objectively and should be consistent from child to the next but in reality we develop both positive and negative feelings toward pupils which may impact on decision quality.

There’s something else which gets in the way of us making fair and accurate assessment of children’s ability and development and that’s representativeness restraint.

Like it or not, we may make judgments based on mental prototypes and our decision-making can mirror the medical maxim:

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.

Just because a child reverses letters doesn’t make that pupil dyslexic but it fits so quack, quack. Some children with dyslexia have trouble with it, but many don’t. Backwards writing and reversals of letters and words are common in the early stages of writing development among dyslexic and non-dyslexic children alike.

If someone presents with some of the signs of dyscalculia then we can soon veer away from other important information. What would you do if a child presented with some of the following?

  • learning to count
  • poor working memory
  • counting backwards and reversing a sequence
  • understanding place value
  • recognising number symbols
  • mental arithmetic
  • connecting a number to a real-life situation, e.g. knowing that ‘5’ can apply to any group that has three things in it – 5 sweets, 5 teddies etc.
  • remembering numbers and number sequences
  • recognising patterns and sorting items by size, shape or colour
  • writing numbers clearly or placing them in the correct order or appropriate column
  • understanding maths vocabulary such as ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’
  • learning and recalling number facts
  • using rules and procedures, e.g. they may know that 9 + 3 = 12 but not realise that 3 + 9 = 12
  • connecting numbers and symbols, e.g. seeing that the words ten, hundred and thousand and equate to 10, 100 and 1000
  • understanding measures such as telling the time, handling money, reading scales (temperature, mass, speed)
  • telling left from right and has a poor sense of direction
  • identifying symbols such as +, -, x, ÷ and using them correctly
  • grasping information shown on graphs and charts

Dyscalculia isn’t just one thing but represents a spectrum of difficulties yet it could be that you isolate a few of these traits as representative and commit to labelling a child as dyscaluliaic.

You might rely on some tests to help you get to that decision but do you question and assess in the same way? Is a test result  ‘abnormal’ or not? If it is then is it acceptable, or does it require an intervention?

Representativeness strongly influences a number of different aspects of our decision making and it is a powerful heuristic. We can base our decision about whether or not something belongs to a particular category by how well it matches the characteristics of members of that category.

The representativeness heuristic can play a major role in many real-life situations. For example, members of a jury might determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence based on what the accused looks like and their mental picture of what a criminal is supposed to represent.

It walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck - what if I told you it was donkey.

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