Are these 5 things ruining your teaching?

We all suffer from cognitive biases, and in the classroom they can be particularly damaging, argues Laura Tsabet

Laura Tsabet

cognitive bias

Working in schools can often be chaotic, and to deal with this teachers’ brains will be making continuous unconscious decisions to cope.

These mental shortcuts can be positive – they ensure things happen quickly, efficiently and sometimes seamlessly.

But where there are often disadvantageous outcomes is in our decision-making. And that is because we all have biases.

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Cognitive bias, as defined by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, refers to our tendency to give unnecessary weight to something or to think in a certain way. Kahneman argues that these biases can lead to lapses in rational judgement.

So what, as a teacher, do you need to look out for? Are you guilty of any of the following?

1. The bandwagon effect

Essentially, this is where the probability of an individual doing something increases as the number of people who are already doing it increases, regardless of the individual’s likes, preferences or values.

So you may have had no intention of watching Love Island, it goes against all your values, but…everyone is now talking about it, so you are sat in front of your telly at 9pm and have considered downloading the app.

In schools, this could take the form of changing your teaching to incorporate strategies used by other members of staff or that you have read about on blogs, just because there is a buzz around it and it feels like everyone else is doing it.

This can lead to fads and gimmicks that are not always conducive to learning in all disciplines and settings.

2. Status quo bias

Not the band, but it’s a useful comparison: Status Quo are often mocked for being a little…samey. Likewise, status quo bias is all about preferring the current state of affairs and any deviation from that being negative, no matter how compelling that alternative might be.

When discussions are being had about updating curriculum plans for the following academic year or where senior leaders are trying to implement new whole-school policies, a teacher’s preference for maintaining the status quo (with its added benefit of recycling lessons and reducing workload) could mean that better, more suitable alternatives are not always given adequate consideration.

3. Appeal to novelty fallacy

This fallacy relies on the idea that something is better purely because it is new.

This bias can lead to teachers not giving current teaching strategies or policies their due and instead assuming new ideas are superior without fully investigating their usefulness in the classroom.

Similarly to the bandwagon effect, this bias can lead to fads infiltrating the classroom. It can also lead to workload pressures on teachers who have been asked to create lessons from scratch incorporating these new ideas.

4. Mere exposure effect

We all like a bit of familiarity, and that can lead to us preferring something because we just "know" it more.

For example, certain texts have become the most popular choices for GCSE English literature. This has resulted in a vast wealth of resources created for these texts and infinitely more discussions concerning their themes and ideas.

As a result, teachers who are exposed to these through social media or emails from resource companies are more likely to feel a familiarity with the texts and favour them, and not necessarily adequately explore whether other options might be more suitable for their cohorts.

5. Curse of knowledge bias

This is where someone takes for granted that the people they are communicating with have the necessary background knowledge to understand what is being said.

This can affect teachers when communicating new information to their classes. Where students lack the cultural literacy needed to engage with a topic or explanation, they will be unable to fully access the learning.

Educators must not allow the curse of knowledge bias to affect them in making assumptions about their students’ knowledge; instead, they must assess how much prior knowledge students do have and adapt lessons and curriculum plans to address any gaps.

Laura Tsabet is lead practitioner of teaching and learning at a school in Bournemouth

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