People often incorrectly place blame for problems in education without realizing it. Two examples of incorrectly placing blame are:

  • teachers are lazy because they haven’t read and understood their grade level standards
  • students are apathetic and space out instead of learning.

Unfortunately, we are too often satisfied with superficial rationale rather than digging deeper to find the true problem. Part of why this happens is due to a cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error.


Fundamental Attribution Error
To explain what I mean, I’ll share a short version of an interesting story. At one hospital, children (9 and younger) who needed MRIs done were often terrified of the machines and almost 100% of children needed to be medically sedated to complete the procedure. Here’s what the machines looked like:

However, when the hospital decorated the machines and developed themes like space voyages, jungle exploration, or cable car adventures, kids were excited to participate and sedation rates dropped to less than 27%.

What we need to realize is that from the perspective of the people who designed the MRI machine, it was a beautiful tool that would save lives. Young children saw it differently, however, and were unable to cope. It would be easy to blame the children for not cooperating, but in reality it wasn’t their fault.

The real problem was that the tool was not designed for them. It was designed for adults who could better manager their fear. So, when the design was changed, it met their needs much better and became a success. This is an example of the fundamental attribution error: it would be easy to blame the children when they were never the real problem… and the same thing happens in education.


Application to Education
It’s easy to blame teachers for the low percentage that have actually read and understood their standards. However, they are not the problem. The problem is certainly that the standards are unreadable. I’ve shared this example in a couple of blog posts, but again, I challenge you to read this one sentence from Math Practice 2 and make sense of it the first (or second or third) time you read it.

They bring two complementary abilities to bear on problems involving quantitative relationships: the ability to decontextualize—to abstract a given situation and represent it symbolically and manipulate the representing symbols as if they have a life of their own, without necessarily attending to their referents—and the ability to contextualize, to pause as needed during the manipulation process in order to probe into the referents for the symbols involved.

I’m sure you see what I mean now. No reasonable person should expect that sentence to be understood by educators (and obviously not parents or students either). Shoot, I got my Bachelors of Science in Mathematics from UCLA and I had to read it at least a dozen times to understand it. So, blaming math teachers for not reading their standards is an example of the fundamental attribution error because it’s not their fault, but rather the problem is a lack of understandable standards. It’s also why I wrote my own “readable” version of the Math Practices, so I could see if I could do any better.

Another example of the fundamental attribution error is that students are disengaged and lazy when it comes to mathematics. News flash! No one likes doing boring mathematics that lacks context and makes you feel like a math robot repeating formulas with no purpose. It’s an example of the fundamental attribution error to blame students for disengaging from out of touch curriculum that would put anyone to sleep. That’s why I believe so strongly in my problem-based lessons and higher Depth of Knowledge problems that help students stay interested and engaged in math class.


I hope this post provides perspective as to why we need to look past superficial reasons if we want to have a chance of solving important problems. If you agree, you’re probably going to love my blog post where I apply Toyota’s 5 Whys practice to education. The 5 Whys practice is fantastic at facilitating conversations that find root problems.

I’m curious what you think though. What do you agree with me on? Where am I missing the mark? What are other examples of the fundamental attribution error in education? Please let me know in the comments.


  1. In my opinion, as a math educator with 18 years experience, a significant reason that students disengage is that they do not feel competent to attempt math tasks which are too far above their functional level of ability. If they perceive that the risk of failure is too great, they refuse to engage at all. This is natural. After all, we adults sometimes do the same thing. I’m out hiking. I see a high hilltop and think, “Wow, I bet the view is great from up there. But man, that’s too difficult to hike all the way up there and the path is really rocky and dangerous looking. Besides that, my sprained ankle is really hurting me today. I wish there was an easier trail.”

    Your “low floor high ceiling” problems are one way of addressing this, but not everything in the math curriculum can be translated into that type of problem format. I believe a key element which we must strive to reinforce is students’ mathematical confidence. They need practice, challenges and experience that is within what used to be known as the “Zone of Proximal Development”, and we need to stop forcing students into class placements that they are often woefully unprepared for, all the name of “equity”.

    • Yeah, trying to find just the right level of engagement for students and teachers is challenging. Your comment reminds me of MAYA (Most Advanced, Yet Accessible). How do we do things so that they challenge people but are doable?

  2. agree. We must get admin to work with us to simplify the standards and engage our students for meaningful learning to occur.

  3. I’m sorry I’ve been a teacher for 29 years and I am not lazy!!!!Teachers Worked very hard for little pay why don’t you become a teacher and see what it’s like I’m retired and not only can I not go on vacation I have to shop at the $.99 only store just to make ends meet I really don’t appreciate your sarcasm!!Why don’t you become a teacher??Also I want you to know as a teacher I had to pay a lot of my stuff for the kids in my classroom and special ed it’s about time people appreciate teachers I hope the schools stay closed for two more years so the parents can start appreciating the teachers

    • I actually was not saying that teachers are lazy. Instead this whole blog post is about why they are not lazy and what might be causing the misunderstanding. For example, the first line is: “People often incorrectly place blame for problems in education without realizing it.”

      If you get a chance to read the blog post, let me know what you think.

  4. I’m an Instructional Coach in a non CCSS state. My job is to help teachers decipher the state standards. It does require lesson study, but there are multiple free resources available through the state and state contracts as well as district provided unit maps to support the process. I have walked the teachers I work with through the process multiple times, observed their independent lesson study processes, and time and again, I find that it easier in their mind to use what they have always done regardless of the results. In our case and from my observations, it is not laziness that causes this. 1. Teachers have more than lesson planning on their plates. The multitude of “other duties” that have been assigned to them during a time of teacher and substitute shortages along with the myriad meetings they must attend is overwhelming. 2. Some teachers struggle with self reflection. The data protocols they complete always end with a finger pointed at students — They don’t try; They have “unfinished learning” due to COVID; They are SPED, etc. In the end, a plain language curriculum would be helpful, but there is more that needs to be addressed before teachers can become masters of their grade level standards.

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