Assessing Common Sense: An Overview of Intelligent Opinions
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor & Departmental Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Blogmaster’s Note: Educational practitioners speak at times of the notion of COMMON SENSE. Yet, what is “common sense,” really? How is it defined? Doctoral students from Evansville, Indiana, recently offered Associate Professor & Departmental Chairperson Dr. Steve Gruenert, at his suggestion, their thoughts and opinions on this oft-quoted concept. Dr. Gruenert has compiled their definitions, streamlining for readership interest and scholarly learning. Some are quotes students have cited, thus apologies to those original authors for not citing as such. Many of you are enjoying a reprieve from your professional building responsibilities this week and can, thus, take a bit more time for a “deeper read.” Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!
“…if you have ever purchased a self-help book on making common sense decisions, you lack common sense.” -- Evansville Doctoral Student
Considerations for Common Sense Assessment via Continuum
Assessment is a term that determines a current position in relation to a desired position. Whereas the term evaluation simply gives something a value, assessment tells us how far we are from where we hope to be. To assess common sense, there needs to be an ideal established, and from that point all other possible positions need to be identified. We shall assume the ideal to be theoretical, that is, not truly to exist within any one person. Given this approach, no real definition of common sense is necessary as we simply find a way to measure the distance between where we are and where we hope to be. We’ll try to avoid defining the phrase, because of its lack of precision.
To assess common sense, we also need someone to do something. A type of observable action – which implies a decision was made to inform that action – will serve as that which is measured. It cannot be a thought, a preference, an opinion, an idea, or emotion. While these concepts may influence a decision, we are assessing actual decisions, not the factors that impact those decisions, despite the belief that emotions plus logic create common sense. Common sense guides the individual to use reason, driven by reason, regardless of the emotion that may be attempting to drive intuition.
Here is one way to assess common sense: By comparing the initial reaction to the reaction you would have had, had you been given time to think things through, then determining the relationship between the two reactions. We can assess the “distance” between what we did and (in retrospect) what we should have done. Perhaps we could devise a scale or continuum upon which to plot this distance, ultimately providing a sense of how much is necessary to maintain status within the window of common sense.
Uncommon(ineffective) Common Uncommon(effective)
-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
As found in the above figure, we might be able to create a window of common sense, perhaps most might situate this window between -1 and +1.
There is strong argument for the notion that common sense is not defined by the user but by the consumer of the actions of the common sense. Thus, this distance should be assessed by an observer, not the actor -- which puts us in the dilemma of one person accusing another of not having “enough common sense to come in out of the rain,” while another may respond life is about taking opportunities to “dance in the rain.”
This forces us to recognize common sense not as a tangible entity held by a person; it seems to be an attribute that members of a community project on one another; a collection of traditions that a community has developed; a way of behaving which is reinforced through a recurring pattern of reactions to statements and events -- in essence, to act in ways that make sense to the relevant community. A person’s common sense standard is related to the area in which the person uses the common sense. Thus, a bit of knowledge in that area may be necessary.
The areas that may inform common sense could include, but not be limited to: (a) safety, (b) courtesy, (c) logistics, (d) behavior, (e) discipline, (f) communication, (g) social skills, (h) personnel management, (i) leadership, (j) finance, (k) relationships, (l) situational awareness, (m) optimizing, and (o)flexibility. Additional notions include thinking sensibly while (p) remaining calm; the (q) ability to survey the social and professional scene and carefully decide on next steps that preserve important relationships but insure that important actions are taken. Each area might be scored on the same continuum.
Uncommon(ineffective) Common Uncommon(effective)
-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5
(a) (l)(g) (c) (i) (n) (m) (p) (q) (b)(d) (f) (e) (h)(j) (k) (g) (o)
The overall pattern or predominance of indicators could provide a means to determine whether a preponderance of common sense exists, or not. In the above figure, scoring indicates 8 out of 18 criteria in the common sense range. This is 44%. Most might find this person to be lacking common sense. It is important to state that this process does not assess effectiveness.
Once this process has been refined, we might be able to develop a hierarchy of performers. Those possessing the most common sense would be studied further to determine their secrets to success while the rest of us aspire to their abilities. Anyone with uncommon amounts of common sense would be granted special status. They could help us further define common sense as their actions in the future would be regarding as exemplary (see Animal Farm). This may be viewed as an attempt to project one’s own beliefs on the population at-large. A handbook on common sense could be created. Yet how much sense would it make to those who needed it? Perhaps those who do not show adequate yearly progress toward increasing their common sense could experience an intervention from the state?
To digress, many believe common sense is not measurable. To some, common sense is considered the “mean” of the shared culture, which everyone seems to know--yet to which no one can assign a value. Common sense is in the eye of the beholder; therefore, depending upon who is measuring, one might or might not display common sense.
Yet, others find it measurable by determining when it is not present. The negative space, or lack of data, still tells us something. Lacking common sense can be an action that is assumed to be in opposition to popular opinion, and thus, that action leads to a less than desirable result. If others in the culture respond by labeling those individuals as lacking common sense, then perhaps a predominant score located to the left of common sense (on the continuum) can be defended.
Common Sense as Prelude to Effectiveness
A person has never had to be highly effective in academic performance if they were able to apply common sense. Common sense absolutely comes from learning from our mistakes and those of others. Experience and common sense can keep you from doing stupid things. Common sense is using practical knowledge with limited, specialized knowledge. Therefore, we might surmise a correlation between the two concepts, but not causality.
The more common the sense is, the more successful the administrator will be in the eyes of the community. It is literally knowing what to do and when to do it, and that all depends on whom the players are in the arena. If the goal of a leader is to maintain an acceptable reputation for having common sense, he/she must be in tune to the expectations of the community. The community defines common sense.
Common sense also relies heavily on the experiences of an individual. Experiences or background knowledge, not necessarily formal education, enables leaders to predict consequences more accurately. The mistakes leaders make when faced with new cultures are often attributed to lacking common sense. “What were they thinking?” is a frequently asked question. Yet, to improve common sense, one should experience more surprises in life so that those can be used in the future as common sense lessons.
If we don’t think and react as the status quo of “regular-minded” people, then we are lacking common sense. Some amount of experience is required for common sense. Therefore, new professionals may make several mistakes and live with the consequences (unless they are pilots) before learning what not to repeat. The bridge between common sense and effectiveness is fun to imagine. Becoming effective could be perceived as a matter of cataloging mistakes – knowing what was outside of the common sense range, yet knowing which of those were okay. Common sense is something to be learned and hopefully increased over the course of on-the-job experiences and extensive human interaction.
If you can keep the common sense label, and therefore your job, you cannot move forward without bringing the understanding of the community with you, a very slow boat. While common sense is not very effective in strategic decision making, it seems to provide a comfort among folks needing to make tough decisions. In the end, the choice to balance common sense with science is made, and the process continues. Loss aversion and status quo bias serve as two reasons why we can’t rely on common sense. Difficulty can be anticipated when what makes the most sense may not be the “common” sense. Having experience in knowing the expected decision may be the essence of common sense.
The common sense verdict of the majority of ordinary people throughout history is much more likely to be accurate than the latest fashionably brilliant insight of the ruling elite. Reliance on our past experience alone can lead to predictability and prevent us from exploring new ways of thinking. Common sense is usually the default, but it can be a trap.
As you continue your trek toward the Ph.D., someone wrote: One who becomes more intelligent will begin to display less common sense. Perhaps the best measure is having enough common sense to know when to keep your mouth shut. Intelligence is teaching others with your mouth shut…well, at least it should not be open as much as the learner.
Dr. Steve Gruenert encourages your thoughts, comments, and reactions, as well as your contributions to these notions of Common Sense, and can be reached at email@example.com.