Thursday, October 08, 2009

High Five

Dialogue, I've claimed before, is exponentially more powerful than monologue in making assessments, or heck, just communicating. More about that here. Combine that idea with the powerful force of natural selection working over time on language, and we have conditions where the current state of language can tell us about what collections of ideas have similar meanings.

Language relates to the real world through the sloppy everyday empiricism we use to get by, and we abbreviate and share the most important parts in our speech. Communication theory plays a role, for example by creating economic reasons to keep the most common words short. That's probably why we say "yes" and "no" rather than "affirmative" and "negative" unless we're trying to impress someone. There is a whole archeology of ideas hidden in our everyday speech.

As an example of this hidden order, consider that farm animals have short names: dog, cat, cow, horse, mule, ox, and so on. If aliens landed from Alpha Centuri to study our linguistics, they would probably conclude that we had spend a lot of time thinking about and using those words, leading to the conclusion that farm animals were an integral part of life way back when. If we could "reboot" the language and create the vocabulary from a tabula rasa, I'm guessing farm animals would have two or three syllable names. Maybe "Chicken McNuggets" would end up with a one-syllable denomination: "gah" or something.
Note: another fun fact for cocktail parties is that the names of the animals stayed Olde Englishe (cow = Kuh, Germanic), whereas the names of the dishes prepared from said animals tend to be French, like beef = bœuf. One might guess that at some point in the past there was a successful French invasion...
It's good to keep this idea in mind when we talk about complicated fuzzy human traits, like intelligence. Yes, you can create rubrics and definitions and tests and correlations, but the actual meaning of the word is not yours to manipulate--it has become what it is in the public linguistic space because the idea has some meaning already. It isn't precise, but it doesn't need to be precise to be useful.

When we did the core skills survey of thinking and communications skills (the Assessing the Elephant schtick), I didn't insist on a common rubric--in fact encouraged the definition of "creative thinking" and the rest to be customized to the course content--nor did we do any work to try to get raters to "agree to agree" about what ratings should be. Reliability had to be whatever was the latent worth of the words in natural language. The advantage of this is that you don't have to spend much time on validity--the results are as valid as everyday speech, which is ultimately what all the complicated psychometric tests have to be judged against anyway. We got about 50% agreement on ratings on a four-point scale. This is far higher than chance, implying that there is meaning to the ratings.

With all this as background, you'll see why I was very happy to stumble upon research I should have known about but didn't: The Big Five personality traits, based on something called the Lexical Hypothesis. From Wikipedia:
This is the idea that the most salient and socially relevant personality differences in people’s lives will eventually become encoded into language. The hypothesis further suggests that by sampling language, it is possible to derive a comprehensive taxonomy of human personality traits.
This is such a cool idea. Wow. It's worth reading the short history of the research here. The result is that there are now considered to be five main dimensions that emerge from this lexical analysis. The claim is that these are stable across demographic and cultural lines.

The five traits are listed below, straight from the Wike article. They have obvious relevance to anyone seeking to use noncognitives to improve quality of student experience and outcomes. Quote:
I don't know if there's similar research on cognigitive functions. Are there emergent dimensions to concepts like intelligence, cleverness, smartness, brilliance, creativity, etc.? Note that this methodology is the polar opposite of defining intelligence to be something and then trying to validate it on the back end.

And here, also courtesy of copyright-free Wikipedia, is the (very) high five I promised in the title. It made me happy.
Image source: Wikipedia.

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