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The Adaptive Unconscious: You Never Get A Second Chance To Make A First Impression

173px-BlinkglaYesterday, I picked up a copy of Malcolm Gladwell‘s book Blink (purchase on Amazon). Dave Ramsey has been recommending his latest book Outliers (purchase on Amazon) on his radio show lately but when I got to Barnes & Noble, I realized Blink was available in paperback and so was therefore quite a bit less expensive. I’ve heard Dave recommend it before, so I decided to go with the less costly alternative.

I began reading it this afternoon and came across the following paragraph on pages 12-13:

Whenever we meet someone for the first time, whenever we interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, whenever we’re faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use that second part of our brain [the adaptive unconscious]. How long, for example, did it take you, when you were in college, to decide how good a teacher your professor was? A class? Two classes? A semester? The psychologist Nalini Ambady once gave students three ten-second videotapes of a teacher — with the sound turned off — and found they had no difficulty at all coming up with a rating of the teacher’s effectiveness. Then Ambady cut the clips back to five seconds, and the ratings were the same. They were remarkably consistent even when she showed the students just two seconds of videotape. Then Ambady compared those snap judgments of teacher effectiveness with evaluations of those same professors made by their students after a full semester of classes, and she found that they were also essentially the same. A person watching a silent two-second video clip of a teacher he or she has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who has sat in the teacher’s class for an entire semester. That’s the power of our adaptive unconscious.

Now while the focus of the book is more on the power of intuitive gut-based decision-making, the takeaway for educators is pretty amazing.

It follows pretty much the same logic as a comment I recently saw on The Yellow Board where one younger band director was complaining about his classes this year that are out of control. The response one reader gave was basically to begin class looking to send 5 kids to the office. The poster added that whenever he did that, he did not have any trouble with the class whatsoever.

I think I’m going to try that approach with my woodwind class of 65 on Monday!

“65 Students?” You might ask. Yes. Some would say that is a huge disadvantage for the students in that they don’t get much individual attention in class. I have actually found that to not really be the case. Malcom Gladwell agrees with me. We have after school sectionals, and while there are a few students who demand more attention than others, most of the kids in that class actually tell me it’s one of their absolute favorite classes. Even the ones who didn’t like band last year!

Joel Wagner
Joel Wagner (<strong><a href="">@sywtt</a></strong>) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. <strong><a href="">So You Want To Teach?</a></strong> is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

5 thoughts on “The Adaptive Unconscious: You Never Get A Second Chance To Make A First Impression

  1. HI, Joel, thanks for the recommendation for 'Blink'–I'll definitely check it out! I read 'Outliers' last year and found there were lots of meaningful implications for educators (you can read the review here:…).

    One question for you about the Yellow Board (I followed the link and couldn't find the comment): what did the person mean by starting class looking for 5 kids to send to the office? How does that work?

  2. The post was no longer on The Yellow Board. Basically, the idea is that when you go out there prepared to take care of misbehaving students, they see that you mean business and don't mess with you. We'll see what happens…

  3. I'm sure they'd see you mean business, and I'm all for keeping discipline in a class, but…..sending five kids to the office every day? Was the writer speaking hyperbolically? Because I feel like (a) my admin would get fed up with that right quick, (b) I'd just be showing the kids that I can't take care of my own discipline, which is not a great precedent, and (c) the kids would think I was a huge asshole and then wouldn't trust me. First impressions are certainly important, but those aren't impressions I'd want to make.

  4. Honestly, I'm not going to send anyone to the office. But I am going to go into classes prepared to make phone calls home and assign detention…

  5. That makes sense to me. We have a school-wide tardy detention that I don't feel is a particularly effective deterrent. So I make kids call home when they come tardy to my class, and I've only had two kids be tardy more than once, and those both only twice (and that not for quite a while). I'm all for showing them we're serious and they need to respond accordingly.

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