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NOTE: This is one of a series of ten blog posts on cognitive biases that have applications in education.

Over the last year I have become extremely interested in learning about how aspects of behavioral economics and psychology affect our ability to be effective educators.  Specifically, humans’ ability to make sense of the world is sometimes inhibited by quirks, called cognitive biases, that may prevent us from making the choices we would like. I want to share what I’ve learned using a series of blog posts that describe a cognitive bias and the implications it has in terms of working with teachers and students.

I’ll begin with one of the most common biases in education…

 

Implications for working with other teachers
Pluralistic ignorance causes groups to publicly appear to believe something that privately each person may not actually agree with. This is primarily because few to no group members are willing to share their views, leading each person to believe that they are in the minority. Perhaps the clearest example of this cognitive bias comes from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. In this story the Emperor walks around the kingdom naked because some con artists have led him to believe that that his beautiful new clothes can only be seen by intelligent people. Everyone realizes that he is naked but they fear that they might be the only one who notices. So, they keep their thoughts to themself until a young child goes up to the emperor and asks him why he’s naked. At that point the villagers realize that they are not the only one to feel that way and rush to the emperor to agree with the child and explain that they noticed the same thing.

Throughout my career pluralistic ignorance has been a problem for me. Graduating from UCLA with a degree in mathematics, I did not yet realize how superficially I understood mathematics. Early in my teaching career I received professional development that helped me make connections between concepts and think more deeply. I came to realize that I had been more of a math robot who could solve problems yet didn’t really understand how or why it worked. I thought that perhaps I was the only one who felt that way and alternated between feeling too embarrassed to admit it and confused as to whether understanding why math worked even mattered. What I certainly didn’t realize until some time later was that almost every teacher feels insecure about something they teach. Keeping my thoughts and fears to myself wasn’t going to help anybody.

 

Implications for working with students
The best way to begin to address this issue is to acknowledge the elephant in the room: everyone has strengths and weakness in their skill set whether it’s in content knowledge, pedagogy, classroom management, building relationships with children, etc. It may not be comfortable to admit it, but while you might believe you are alone, you are certainly not.

For example, dividing fractions is a math concept people often have a superficial procedural understanding of. Most frequently, teachers instruct students to change the division to multiplication and use the reciprocal of the fraction on the right, often referred to as “invert and multiply.” How many can explain why invert and multiply works or provide a context for why 2/3 divided by 1/6 is 4? I certainly couldn’t when I had graduated from college and it didn’t even occur to me that I should be able to. However, now that I do understand, I realize how it strengthens my ability to make sense of mathematics. The reality is that many teachers have similar gaps in their understandings, yet they don’t get help. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one may be that they don’t want to be the one to tell the emperor about his clothes, just in case they are the only one who can’t see the clothing.

When you work with teachers, lead by example and be upfront about areas where you have weaknesses. I’ll go first. I was shocked when I learned, after graduating from college, that there was a reason for the variety of area and volume formulas. It may sound like I’m joking, but it never occurred to me that there was a reason for them. It was as if I believed that a magical math fairy came and bestowed formulas upon each shape. Then one day someone showed me that you can find the formula for the surface area of a cylinder by taking a regular piece of paper and turning it into a tube. It blew my mind to see how simple it was: the tube has a circle on each end and a big rectangle (the tube unraveled) which has the dimensions of the height by the circumference. Hence, the formula is simply the area of the two circles plus the rectangle. I don’t know if I was more surprised by the fact that there was a reason for the formula or that I was a grown man by the time I realized it. Again, you are not the only one who has weaknesses, and you are never going to make progress without acknowledging that and working to improve them. Your colleagues will appreciate you being brave and taking the first step towards making this a conversation people feel more comfortable having.

 

Implications for working with students
What are we really expecting from students when we ask them, “Does everyone understand?” or “Any questions?” There were probably many times I asked those questions where my students would have loved to collectively state, “Yeah, actually we are totally lost and need you to explain that to us in another way.” The reality though is that few of the students want to be the one to raise their hand and state that they don’t understand. They likely view themselves in the minority, even when they are not. Instances of pluralistic ignorance such as this impede learning.

To address this concern, consider being brave again and take the lead. State up front that there are going to be times in this class that despite all you are trying to do to make learning easy for students, they are still going to be confused. Tell them that you would rather them learn than have everyone pretend that everything is alright. I remember my high school science teacher who did this by telling us that whenever we have a question, at least a few other people probably have that same question, so you are helping others when you ask questions.

Keep in mind an important test that will happen in this process. Students may feel liberated by this policy and ask more questions than you are used to. Be careful as your emotions and body language may convey feelings that you may not realize. If you ask for questions but show frustration, you won’t get very far.

 

What other examples of pluralistic ignorance have you seen in education?  What other strategies are there for dealing with this?


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15 Comments

  1. I see it also among teachers when discussing school/curriculum decisions. For example, we just adopted a new math curriculum. No one wanted to say in the meeting, “Is this developmentally appropriate? Is it ‘less helpful’? I don’t agree with timed math facts.” I’ll admit that I didn’t say much either because I had not fully researched it before the meeting with the saleswoman so didn’t want to appear ignorant and didn’t want to stir anything up. I’m learning more and more to speak up. I have a second grader in my class that will say, “I don’t get it” in a heart beat and a couple others are getting brave and doing the same thing. I think it’s important to let kids know it is ok to not “get it” the first time (or second time) or to ask for things to get explained a different way.

    • Hi Christy,

      Yes, definitely challenging to find the sweet spot between wanting to address important issues while simultaneously not being perceived like a troublemaker. I have REALLY loved the book Crucial Conversations in terms of getting better at that. It is probably one of the most important books I have ever read for the goal you are hoping to achieve. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. I have not had time to read all of this, but for my generation, 60s, not speaking up had grave implications for many of us. To see the intelligent think tanks that could not figure out how to a. keep us out of Vietnam in the 50s, and b. how to get us out in the 60s and 70s is mind numbing.

    Teaching our students to be critical thinkers is paramount. I have used many of your videos, plus some of my own to put the problem out there and see how they might solve it instead of spoon feeding them an method.

    “What other examples of pluralistic ignorance have you seen in education? What other strategies are there for dealing with this?” …taking away “play time…recess” in the name of improving academics is rampant right now…as is cutting art…music…but god forbid cutting a sport.

    Tomorrow we are using the Russian bungee jumping in a missile silo to start our unit on cylinders with a dash of percent thrown to design an adventure business.

    Please keep up the good work.

    • Thanks John,

      Yes, clearly pluralistic ignorance is not a new idea. I think that the more we are all aware of its existence and effect on our actions, the more likely we will be able to take it into account.

  3. Robert,
    Lots here to think about, and I look forward to the series. I’d like to pick out one sentence that really resonates with me:
    “When you work with teachers, lead by example and be upfront about areas where you have weaknesses.”
    This is really important. I try my best to model this by being upfront about my own battle with math anxiety, and by going to my supervisor when I’m having trouble understanding math concepts. One example here: http://exit10a.blogspot.com/2015/04/between-6-and-8.html
    I make sure the teachers I work with know that this is something I do, and that they should not be afraid to come to me if they have uncertainties. After all, it’s something we want our students to do! I believe it’s actually a sign of strength, not weakness. But for this to happen there has to be a trusting relationship, and that doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not always easy to build. But for me, even more than the mathematics, it’s what makes the work fulfilling.

    • Thanks Joe. Yes, I think that it’s an interesting thought process in regards to how we acknowledge our weaknesses. We all have them, whether we are aware of them or are willing to admit that we have them. Some people choose to hide them. In the short term, it may be a smart move as it may give you more credibility in that people think you know more. However I think it is not the best move in the long run as you lose an opportunity for authenticity and relatability. By acknowledging the weakness and how you have overcome it or plan to do so, you can actually turn it into a multiplying strength.

  4. Thanks for your post.

    I’m curious if you will address the design and structure of the environment created by the teacher, facilitator, etc.

    My curiosity stems from that I believe risk-taking and questioning are similarly related and that we are more inclined to take risks and/or ask questions if we feel comfortable in our environment (classroom).

    That said, I’m specifically curious what a teacher/facilitator can do to scaffold the act of questioning. In other words, what steps can the teacher take to help students see the importance of asking questions, the importance of being curious. When I mention scaffolding, I think in terms of having questions that start in the private (internal) space and make their way to the more public space.

    For example, I might have a question as a student inside my head. I’m afraid to raise my hand. When a teacher announces, “at least a few other people probably have that same question.” the intentions are good, but I’m still skeptical as a student. Make me believe you. Show me. Don’t just make this claim.

    Have me first turn to a neighbor and we compare questions (if any). I’ve made my question slightly more public. Now share my question with another neighbor or a small group of students. Organize the class questions. As the teacher, it’s on me to organize student questions and possibly group common questions in the class. There’s my proof. But don’t do it once. It could have been a coincidence that another classmate share my question.

    This all sounds good and simple. I believe we (as teachers/facilitators) have to capitalize early on the environment we allow/create/foster/expect and if questioning is a priority, then that structure needs to be thoughtfully designed, maintained, and enhanced over time.

    • Thanks Andrew. First off, your points should be a larger priority in education. More work needs to be done to create the right type of classroom culture to foster student learning.

      The honest answer to your question though is that my series on behavioral economics is more about defining the problems than solving them. I want to get people talking about these issues because I think they are not being sufficiently acknowledged and I believe that collectively we will come up with better solutions than I can on my own.

      Clearly volumes of information can be and has been written on these topics and I look forward to reading about any other ideas you have on it. I think a lot of work can be spent on WHY the classroom culture is important in addition to the WHAT and HOW.

  5. I love that part where you mention finding the surface area of the cylinder. I once had a great discussion with my 7th grade class about that. They were then super motivated (and even asked) to prove the pyramid and cone formulas when we got to those too… as one student said, “Wow, I can’t believe we discovered what the textbook said.”

    • What a great and memorable moment it is for kids when they make “discover[ies]” like that. Many teachers haven’t had those opportunities themselves. If they feel like they are in the minority and instead keep it to themselves, they won’t be able to address it and will continue the cycle of pluralistic ignorance.

  6. Did you read any books, articles, journals, blogs, etc to inspire you to write this series? Are there any works that you can recommend or cite as sources for the the definitions and/or explanations behind these behaviors?

  7. Among educators, this is similar to Imposter Syndrome: holding back sharing a thought or opinion or declining an opportunity to lead out of fear that it will expose you as an imposter who is not qualified to have an opinion or a leadership role. It is important that we foster collegial environments where we can feel open and honest and supportive of one another. But we also have to be able and willing to teach and learn from each other.
    If you were having a discussion on how to teach area and volume and another teacher scoffed at your ignorance of deriving the formulas and you went home and cried and quit the teaching profession, that would be bad. If instead you hid your ignorance out of fear of ridicule, you would remain a lesser instructor because you missed out on an opportunity to learn yourself. Also bad. There is a third possibility that I see increasingly often these days (though probably not from people reading blogs like this): a self-preservationary reaction to Imposter Syndrome in which a teacher decides that because they consider themselves to be a good teacher, such knowledge must not be necessary to be a good teacher. This reaction of awareness of one’s own shortcomings and a flippant refusal to do anything about them is a real and growing problem.
    And for every faculty member unwilling to share a thought in a meeting out of fear of ridicule is another who is all too willing to share an ill-formed or uninformed thought. We must encourage the first and discourage (or know how to ignore) the second.

    • Ric, thanks for this thoughtful reply. I had never heard of the Imposter Syndrome before but I can easily see how you would make the connection. Yes, we must certainly look for more opportunities to break these walls down, make vulnerability less scary, and collaborate.

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