5 Cognitive Biases That Screw Up Every Teacher's Thinking (And What You Can Do About Them)

Cognitive biases screw up everyone’s thinking. They make us more afraid of flying than driving. They stop the U.S. enacting universal health care. And they convinced Tony Blair and George W. Bush that the Iraq War was a great idea, even when we knew it wasn’t. In short, cognitive biases make us less logical, less rational and less efficient decision makers. Here are five cognitive biases that screw up your thinking in the classroom, why they stop you from being a better teacher and what you can do about them.

1.     Fundamental attribution error. It’s strange: when you observe another teacher’s class you can’t help noticing all the things the teacher does wrong. But when you teach a lesson, you only notice all the things the students do wrong. This is fundamental attribution error. Fundamental attribution error stops us from learning by blaming our problems on the environment (students, technology, not enough time, etc.) rather than with our own shortcomings.

2.     Planning fallacy. Have you ever put off planning your classes until the day before? Thought you had enough time and then didn’t? The planning fallacy makes us underestimate how much time long or complex tasks will take to complete. This often results in hurriedly prepared lesson plans and hastily written report cards.

3.     Overconfidence bias. You teach a lesson for an hour, see the progress the students have made at the end and wow, aren't you a great teacher. But are you really that great, or did overconfidence bias make you think your actions had a much bigger effect than they really did? Maybe the students already knew most of the material before the class. Maybe you’re not the most entertaining teacher in the world, your students were just in a good mood after lunch. Overconfidence bias makes us overestimate how much control we have and prevents us from predicting problems.

4.     Outcome bias. Have you ever used an activity, found it worked well and kept using similar activities since then? If so, you might have fallen prey to outcome bias. Just because something worked well in one class, doesn’t mean that it’ll work will in other classes. Outcome bias stops us from learning by focusing on the results rather than the process.

5.     Cognitive dissonance. If you’ve read this far and think that none of this applies to you, you’re probably being affected by cognitive dissonance. The more that people tell you you’re wrong, the more you believe that you’re right. Like when someone observes your lesson and gives you feedback, you dig your heels in because you’re sure the observer is wrong. Or when you read about new teaching techniques and activities and think “nah, that wouldn’t work with my students.” Cognitive dissonance stops us from learning by convincing us that we’re right.

So what can you now I’ve persuaded you that you’re as deluded as Tony Blair justifying invading Iraq? Next time you’re planning, teaching or reflecting, think about these biases. The more aware you are, the better you’ll be at avoiding their affects.

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