Could This Be the End of Fatalistic Classroom Psychometric Tests?

15/04/2016 14:56

Classrooms and lecture theatres have long been awash with psychometric tests, with pupils and students undertaking countless surveys about their preferences and behaviour which pigeon hole them into certain "types".

Do you sense, rather than intuit? Do you tend to think, rather than feel? Depending on your responses, you are then put in a certain bucket and labelled with a cold acronym - ENTJ, ESTP - or, sometimes, this is sugar-coated with a likeness to an animal or a Harry Potter character (Harry is ISTJ, apparently).

I've personally seen this psychometric testing used to terrible effect while undertaking an MBA several years ago. At the start, barely a week went by without a test or two being undertaken. It was like you couldn't know your fellow colleagues on the course unless you knew whether they were an "Implementer" or a "Resource Investigator". The idea that was pushed was that you didn't even know yourself well, unless you had done the tests and internalised the results.

My stomach churned when I heard a course leader tell an aspiring young manager in his early thirties that he should abandon any aspirations of becoming a CEO because his "type" suggested he was likely to be far better suited to being a right-hand man lending support to business leaders instead. This one multiple-choice quiz had a major impact on the careers advice he was given throughout much of the rest of the course.

Such a fatalistic approach can be deeply concerning - not least given the increasing usage of such tests in the classroom on young people who are less likely to dismiss these exercises as snake-oil.

It is for this reason I was heartened to hear about the rise of MyCognition in classrooms. A far cry from the fatalism of "types", the initiative emphasises the ability to develop cognitive behaviour, in the same way that you can train physical behaviour. Yes, you may have certain tendencies - but, crucially, you can train yourself to overcome them.

This is different in kind to other psychometric tests, as founder Keiron Sparrowhawk explained to me, because, "most psychometric tests are based upon beliefs, which tend to be unshakable".

A neuroscientist by training, Keiron developed the idea for MyCognition after spending years working with patients with Alzheimer's and Schizophrenia. He noted that drugs offered were "never quite there" and often had severe side-effects. A Eureka moment for him came when seeing footage of an MRI scan of the brain of a video-game player. The game was causing different areas of the brain to light up on the scanner. But this was an unintentional side effect of the game. "If this happened accidentally" Keiron thought, "what would happen if I directed it?"

His thoughts returned again and again to that footage and - working closely with collaborators, internationally-renowned cognition expert Professor John Harrison and applied gaming strategist Jurriaan van Rijswijk, Keiron launched MyCognition in 2011. He initially focused on the mental health sector to use gaming technology to "detect deficits", measuring and training five cognitive domains.

From the outset, Keiron sought to differentiate MyCognition from the "brain training" fad through ensuring its development was undertaken in close consultation with academic researchers from Cambridge University, alongside those working in medical institutions such as the Royal Free Hospital and the Amsterdam Medical Centre. Clinical trials are continually undertaken to demonstrate efficacy.

Then he was approached by a headteacher in Amsterdam asking whether a version of the software could be used in classrooms to accelerate learning. Believing the principles of MyCognition to be universal, Keiron began undertaking a series of experiments and found the approach taken did indeed have an impact. It is now used in hundreds of schools in the Netherlands, and rapidly expanding in the UK too.

Keiron gives the example of Jim, a "normal kid" but who struggled with maths. Jim described that he "felt like he was drowning" when in maths classes. Usually the solution, he says, is to force people to do ever more maths to help them improve. Instead, Keiron's gamified approach allows the likes of Jim to identify why he is struggling and to develop the mental ability to grasp mathematical concepts, often without even realising they are doing so. "We believe we are giving kids life chances," Keiron tells me.

Keiron's approach of emphasising the ability of pupils and adults alike to transcend the results of psychometric tests, rather than encouraging them to internalise and fatalistically accept their conclusions is a refreshing alternative to the determinism that typically abounds. While, doubtless, healthy academic debate will continue about exactly how best to develop areas of the brain - and whether the "five cognitive domains" are universal, this optimistic approach sounds like a step in the right direction.