You’re so much better at comparing than any other kind of judgement

Learning from contrasts and change

You don’t feel speed, you feel acceleration.

Putting your foot down in your car pushes you back in your seat, but zooming along at a steady 70 miles per hour feels relatively similar to standing still. We’re all moving unimaginably fast even when we are standing ‘still’ thanks to the spin and orbit of the Earth. We don’t feel it though because it’s constant, it isn’t changing.

Often you hardly notice movement. What you notice is changes in direction or speed.

I’m fascinated by how inattentive we can be to things unless we have that change and contrast. So quickly what we are used to becomes normal and fades from our attention.

When there is a contrast, something comes to our attention that is different and allows some comparison, we tend to notice a lot more.

There’s some science behind this. We are much better at making judgements about things in comparison than in isolation.

A while ago I became really interested in comparative judgement in education. It’s been shown that teachers find it very difficult to be consistent in assessing students work when they just look at one piece in isolation and try to grade it. This even happens if they have a set of criteria they are looking for in order to decide the grade. Different teachers come up with very different results. Sometimes the same teacher comes up with different results at different times.

Ask them to compare one students work with another, repeat these comparisons until they have looked at enough pairs to form a ranking, and most will come up with the same ranking. This even works when they have no criteria for making the judgement. Just showing them attempts to solve a maths problem and asking ‘which student did it best’ and this still follows1.

We’re way better at making judgements of two things side by side than we are at ‘objectively’ judging a single thing in isolation.

As many of you know, I changed jobs recently. Having been in my previous organisation a relatively long 6 years I had seen a lot of change. However, it’s fascinating me at the moment how much I am reflecting and learning about previous jobs, situations I have been in, and myself in general from having the stark contrast of moving to a completely different organisation.

Given that we are so much better at seeing things through contrasts, I often wonder whether deliberately seeking them out more often is the way to go. Many of us do this to a certain extent by discussing our work with friends, sharing our situations and seeing where they are similar and different.

I’ve been wondering what I might to differently if I was to internalise the knowledge that contrasts and changes are the best way of making judgements about situations.


Specifically I found the practical implementation of this in the system ‘No More Marking’ to be fascinating. I did some experiments with it and met with one of their founders when I was working at Nesta. The challenge I found is it’s so different to what educators normally do, and counterintuitive enough it’s hard to get adoption from others.






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