Thursday, July 02, 2015

Going Against Type

I keep a reading list of books and articles on learning and/or leadership that appeal to me in some way.  It is an eclectic list reflecting my own explorations.  I started the list when it seemed likely that I'd teach a course on the subject.  That didn't pan out.  But I've added to the list since then with a few titles that seemed appropriate to me. Some things I've read I've left off the list though others might think they are relevant.  So, for example, Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do is not on the list because it is not evident that students should yet care about the teacher perspective, while his more recent book What the Best College Students Do is not on the list because I found it too preachy and I thought the methodology Bain adopted involved a lot of cherry picking in establishing his results.

There is one book on the list that I haven't read, so far.  I'm in the process of remedying that now.  The book is Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type by Isabel Briggs Myers.  I learned about the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) when attending the Frye Leadership Institute back in 2003.  The primary purpose of the session was to help us attendees appreciate that we are different in the ways we go about things and just because others approach things differently doesn't mean you are right and they are wrong nor does it mean vice versa.  Different just means different, without ranking the approaches.  Further the session showed us that how these differences manifest in predictable ways if the person's MBTI is known in advance.  During the session two groups were selected to work through a task.  I was a member of the second group.  The first group made a list.  My group didn't.  Most of the time I hate making lists.  (The reading list is the exception that proves the rule.)  I like producing a narrative instead.  I also like to trust my memory for things like shopping.  It turns out that members of my type (I'm an INTP) are like one another in this way.  At the time, I found that observation fascinating.

I returned to my reading list a couple of days ago and encountered the listing for Gifts Differing.  The book really was there as a place holder.  The topic is important.  I needed the place holder but I had guilt feelings that I maintained an item on the list which I hadn't read.  The guilt feelings got the better of me so I downloaded the book onto my Kindle.  I've now read the first three chapters and have gotten stuck.  As I'm prone to write a blog post when I'm stuck on something, that's what I'm doing here.  I'll briefly describe what I've garnered about personality typing so far before getting to what I'm stuck on.

First, MBTI is based on the work of Carl Jung and should be taken as a refinement on the Jungian approach to personality.  Four pairs of antipodes make up the MBTI.  Within each pair a person chooses one to be dominant and then develops along the path dictated by that dominance.  However, the subordinate among the antipodes is not neglected entirely.  A healthy person achieves balance between the dominant trait and the auxiliary one.  Much of contribution of Briggs and Myers is to focus on this balance rather than on the pure types.  Absent this balance the person will become fearful in any activity that requires use of the dominated trait.

The pairs are claimed to be orthogonal, though that claim was more assertion than anything else.  Also, I found the the discussion of what constituted a pair of antipodes too tautological for my taste.  It would have helped me to see consideration of other candidates for antipodes and why such candidates would not be suitable for reasons that would help in understanding why one should trust MBTI.

Let me illustrate.  One biggie is whether individuals get their focus from sensing the external world or if instead the focus comes mainly from inner reflection of the mind.  The former are extroverts while the latter are introverts.  I'm an introvert.  But does it matter in some crucial way whether one is drawn toward the dominant trait for affirming reasons or repelled from the dominated trait as a consequence of some bad experiences?  I know when I was a young kid I was early to wear glasses, but there may have been a few years before I got glasses where things seemed blurry to me that were clear to my peers.  I also know I had poor fine motor skills at that age.  These two deficiencies may have been related, of that I'm not sure.  In any event, might they have pushed me toward introversion?  Alternatively, a preschool report card said I had good ability to concentrate.  (I'm guessing this was in a setting where we were read a story by the teacher.)  I was four or five then.  I got glasses when I was eight.  If I had glasses in preschool, would I still have had such good powers of concentration?  If not, might I be an extrovert now?

In the theory of evolutionary biology and in the theory of markets that operate under increasing returns, see Stephen Jay Gould's Bully for Bronosaurus, chance has a very important role to play in picking winners.  The winners can't be predicted in advance but once the game has been underway for a while, early advantages which are attributable to the luck of draw, nothing more, then get parlayed into insurmountable leads and the once viable competitors die off.  Is that the way it is for personality type in any given individual?  Or is there complete predetermination as specified by the person's genetic makeup. 

Likewise, it seems to me that introverts tend to prefer to learn from reading (or watching challenging movies) while extroverts tend to prefer to learn from direct experience - traveling, meeting new people, going on adventures.  If there are these differences in preferred ways to learn why aren't those fundamental and then introversion or extroversion derivative from the preferred way to learn?  I'd have liked that and some other related questions explained.  It wasn't.

I'll move onto where I'm stuck.  Chapter 3 is about the distribution of personality types in the overall population and various sub-populations.  (All the data reported on this was collected in the 1950s and 1960s.)  On the one hand, it is argued that certain vocations and areas of study are more suitable for corresponding personality types and less suitable for others.  So MBTI can be used by guidance counselors and those working in career services to assist students with making choices that suit their temperament.  This seems sensible and is consistent with viewing no type as better than any other type.  Different is just different.  But then, on the other hand, evidence is provided that high achievers academically, National Merit Scholars are specifically mentioned, tend to be disproportionately NT types.  Achievement in school as measured by GPA, for example, is a vertical measure of student performance.  If those sort of measures correlate strongly with certain personality types, how is it possible to claim that we really believe no one type is better than any other?

Further, and this is the part that is really eating at me, since many students play the game of paper chase at school, and a good chunk of those don't have the personality that would make playing such a game a nurturing activity for the person, aren't we inviting pathologies to develop in those students for whom the activity doesn't really match their personalities? 

Sir Ken Robinson in this delightful and provocative Ted Talk called Do schools kill creativity? says that professors are unlike their students in that the professors live in their minds while their students live in the real world.  (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?)  Professors tend to teach the subject matter and not individualize their content depending on the student's personality type.  In so doing, are they actually targeting their own personality type (which is very likely to be NT)?  If so, what of the poor students who are unlucky enough to take the course though they are SFs? 

Some years ago I started to write a book on my philosophy of teaching and learning.  It was called Guessing Games and was meant to be a collection of stand alone essays that in aggregate would paint a complete picture of the desired approach.  I stopped not because I wasn't convinced of the argument I was making, but rather because I found I was giving a lecture in the writing when I came to the tough part of the argument rather than telling an entertaining story, as Ken Robinson does in that video.  People don't want to be lectured at.  Looking back at the theme in the essays I did complete, it sure looks like I'm admonishing everyone to become an NT.  After all, the title Guessing Games is about what people play when they use their intuitions.

I've just gone through the table of contents for Gifts Differing and it may be that what is bothering me now eventually does get addressed in the book.  Will I have the patience to read through the rest of the book to find that out?  We'll see.  In the meantime I'm going to fret some about how many students I've screwed up because I didn't understand their personalities so couldn't attend to their learning needs. 

A little knowledge (about personality type) can be a dangerous thing. 

No comments: