The road to poor teaching practice is paved with good intentions.

17 July 2018

“Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things… well, new things aren’t what they expect… In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds… Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.”
Lord Vetinari (Terry Pratchett)

Like you, I have always tried to develop my practice based on the pool of knowledge available to me. Early in my career, I lapped up all the advice I could get. The advice was often flavoured by a confident persona. The voice of experience fostered an Authority Bias: the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinions of authority figures. Like a sponge I soak up the prevailing ideas of the day. I was victim to the Bandwagon Effect. And so my beliefs were solidified. What’s more, I tended to hold on to these first impressions, even if new information refuted the original pervasive practice. Experience often trumped research. Why?

In a nut shell, bias. In particular, Confirmation Bias: a cognitive error that we make when we are only willing to accept new information that confirms what we already believe. We are susceptible to this trap because we tend to purposefully seek out evidence that supports our already solidified beliefs and purposefully reject any evidence that goes against those beliefs. (Nickerson 1998).

Teaching is an emotional profession and good intentions make for strong intuitive bonds. We want our students to make progress and are quick to share the brilliant tools that we have devised to enable this. If there are resources available that support a particularly practice, we will wear our fingers down to a nub downloading them, hoarding them and absorbing them into our practice. Unfortunately, this often entrenches misguided teaching practice. This form of bias is known as the Ikea Effect. The premise being that people have a tendency to place more importance on the things that they themselves create. Practice becomes belief and beliefs are very stubborn once established.

This is obviously not the full picture, but if you are striving for evidence based practice in your school or classroom, you probably agree wholeheartedly with what I just suggested. Confirmation Bias?

It’s fairer to suggest that some of the practices that permeated teaching over the last twenty or thirty years added very little to the quality of learning. However, the teaching profession has an excellent pedigree built on trial and improvement. A teachers intuition is a valuable tool, but only if we understand our tendency towards bias.

In general, when developing opinions on a topic, we primarily look for positive cases and resist negative cases. The more strongly a teacher holds to a belief and the more overconfident they are in that belief, the more likely they are to fall into Confirmation Bias. If you are a teacher (and given you’re reading this – you probably are) then you are affected by and subject to the impact of Confirmation Bias. Recognising and accepting this is the first step in learning to address it and understanding its impact on the behaviour of your colleagues. We must also recognise that in today’s teaching landscape, this can be further exacerbated by the echo chambers we create on social media platforms.

Even though I’m aware of Confirmation Bias, it does not mean that I’m immune to it. When reading the latest EEF evaluation reports, I was initially drawn towards the reports that might confirm what I believe. Isn’t Embedding Formative Assessment a sure thing? When reading the key findings, I attended to the positives over the negatives. Conversely, when reading reports that were not in line with my teaching beliefs, I attended to the negatives over the positives.

Evidence based practice is more than a simple application of theory. The Research Schools Network aims to bridge the gap between theory and practice with emphasis on practicalities of implementation. Another part of our remit is to provide inoculation that goes towards mitigating bias. Next time you are presented with a new idea, product or piece of research remember that we are all susceptible to bias of one kind or another.

Terry Pratchett (2000). The Truth: a novel of Discworld
Milgram, Stanley (July 1963). “Behavioral Study of obedience”. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67 (4).
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175-220.
Michael I. Norton, Daniel Mochon Dan Ariely (2014). The “IKEA Effect”: When Labor Leads to Love. Harvard Business School Working Paper.

Posted on 17 July 2018
Posted in: Blog

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