The Streetlight Effect

There is a classic story that I used to share in my CPD sessions as a metaphor for knowledge and ignorance.

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together.

After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”

The streetlight effect or ‘drunkards search’ refers to our propensity to look for whatever we are searching for in the easier places instead of in the places that we are most likely to find the truth.

This story is a brilliant example of observational bias and it points to exactly what’s wrong with the current mindset around educational research. It’s a point made by Mark Moritz, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Ohio State University.

Many of us can spend our time looking for answers where the light is better rather than where the truth is more likely to lie.

For example, so much educational research is done in schools and classrooms because it easier. The truth might be found elsewhere (where pupils live – their homes) but schools provide the big data. Researchers will study what is easy to study and the data they find isn’t necessarily what’s happening. We might be looking for the ‘answers’ in all the wrong places and so researchers need to push into the shadows and darkness.

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