Podcast: How to Start Thinking Straight - Cognitive Biases for Teachers, Trainers & Managers (with Simon Galloway)

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Cognitive biases screw up our thinking. They make us make bad decisions, come to wrong conclusions and for the most part we're completely unaware of them. This week we speak with Trinity DipTESOL course Director Simon Galloway about cognitive biases for teachers, cognitive biases for trainers and cognitive biases for managers and how to avoid them and start thinking more clearly. 

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Ross, Tracy & Simon

How to Start Thinking Straight - Cognitive Biases for Teachers, Trainers & Managers (with Simon Galloway) Transcription

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Tracy: Welcome to the "TEFL Training Institute Podcast," the bite‑sized TEFL podcast for teachers, trainers, and managers.

Hello everyone.

Ross:  Hi everyone.

Tracy: Today we've got our special guest, Simon Galloway.

Simon: Hello everyone.

Tracy: Simon, do you want to...

Both: ...introduce yourself?

Simon: I'm mostly working with Trinity Diploma in TESOL, and Certificate in TESOL at the moment.

Ross:  You've done a bunch of other stuff before that, right? You were teaching in Japan, in China?

Simon: Yes. I taught in Japan. I taught in China for several years. I was a director of studies and production...

Ross:  Regional manager as well?

Simon: Regional manager for a while, yes.

Ross:  I remember years ago, Simon, watching you do a workshop for managers about how to do performance reviews. One of the things you spoke about was cognitive biases, right?

Simon: Yes. That was focused on performance management, and all the things that managers tend to overlook when they're gauging the performance of their teachers. They might think they're giving a completely objective viewpoint, but actually these cognitive biases affect the way that they think.

Ross:  They don't just screw up managers thinking, they screw up everybody's.

Simon: They screwed up everybody's thinking, yes.

Ross:  Screws up yours so much you brought a book about cognitive bias for your train journey on the way to Beijing.

Simon: I did. It was quite good. It's "The Art of Thinking Clearly," by Rolf Dobelli. It's an international best‑seller.


Simon: I guess many of the people listening have also read this.


Ross:  For those people that haven't heard of cognitive biases before, or don't have Rolf Dobelli's book, what's a cognitive bias?

Simon: This is something that affects the way that we think and prevents us from thinking clearly, but we're probably not aware of it. As soon as we became aware of it, we gain a power over, or a power to stop it. It's usually something that we're not so aware of.

Ross:  Awesome. I guess over the next, whatever it is, 13 and a half minutes, we're going to try and give everyone a bit more power over their own thinking by talking about three things. First of all, cognitive biases for teachers.

Tracy: Cognitive biases for trainers.

Simon: And cognitive biases for managers.

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Ross:  In terms of why cognitive biases are really incredibly important, here's a little quote from one of my favorite podcasts, which is Joe Rogan. He is interviewing, on this, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and they're talking about cognitive biases.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: There should be a course called "Cognitive Bias 101". Forget college. Every high school should have a course "Cognitive Bias." The entire course should be about all the ways we fool ourselves, if we are going to emerge as adults no longer susceptible to charlatans, going forward.

Joe: Yeah. We're thinking about just giving people facts instead of teaching them how to manage your mind.

Neil: Yeah. Your head is your vessel, into which you pour information. Nowhere, and at no time, are we trained how to turn a fact into knowledge, knowledge into wisdom, and wisdom into insight.

Ross:  An example of a cognitive bias, confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is when we have our assumptions about something.

Simon: Sure. Yeah.

Ross:  We ignore evidence to the contrary, and only listen to evidence that supports what we already think, right?

Simon: Yeah. I see this a lot with teachers reflecting on their lessons. You ask them at the end, "How do you feel about your lesson?" They'll say, "Yeah, I feel really good about it. I saw this and this and this."

As an observer, I'm like, "I didn't see any of that." Then I try to second‑guess myself, then. I'm like, "Maybe I missed something," but I think, really, a lot of this is that the teacher knows what they're looking for.

Ross:  And ignores what students didn't say.

Simon: Yeah, ignores what it didn't say, exactly. That's the key about confirmation bias, is that they only look for evidence that confirms their viewpoint. They don't look for any of the conflict in evidence.

Tracy: You know, they call hot or cold cognition or something? I think the hot one is definitely influenced by the people's emotion and motivation, and the cold one doesn't have much emotion involved in it.

Ross:  I wonder if this then affects you also in that same situation that Simon just mentioned, where just after a lesson it's more like hot cognition, so you still feel emotionally attached to the lesson, but maybe days or weeks afterward you feel less like that.

Simon: Somebody's TP journal should be more objective, right?

Tracy: Yeah, yeah.

Ross:  You'd think so, right?

Simon: You'd hope, wouldn't you?

Ross:  After you'd had time to...Another one I'd read about before, I think it's called fundamental attribution error, or fundamental attribution bias.

Simon: Attribution error, yes.

Ross:  This is where, if you make a mistake, you do something bad, you say it's because of the situation. But if you see other people doing the same thing, you put it down to their personality.

The classic example is, you're driving down the road and you're speeding because you're late for work and you go, "I'm only speeding because I'm late for work." Then you see someone else speeding past you the next day and you think, "Oh, that person is such a reckless driver," and you ignore the fact that maybe the reason that they're speeding is because they might also be late for work.

I thought this was applicable for teachers, because maybe you teach a class and it goes very well and you think, "Oh, I taught such an awesome class. That was fantastic. I'm such a legend."

Then you have the opposite experience doing a class and it was just utterly awful. You go, "Why? Well, the students weren't motivated, the students weren't interested in the topic, the students were at the wrong level." You make all these excuses about why it didn't go well, based on other people rather than based on yourself.

Simon: Yeah. You've got to look at it more objectively. You've got to realize that the environment has a much bigger effect than you might immediately think, right?

Ross:  Yeah.

Tracy: How can people realize that they are experiencing the cognitive bias? How can they prevent to have the bias?

Ross:  I think a part of it is just knowing that they exist, right?

Simon: Yeah, I think so. Just knowing that these are ways that we think is a big first step to fixing them.

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Ross:  Should we also talk about the trainers? What are some of the biases that you think we can fall prey to?

Simon: I was thinking here about trainers observing lessons. I thought of a few things here. The first one is regression to the mean and anchoring. Two different biases here, if we're actually formally assessing candidates or teachers.

With regression to the mean, it's this sense that, you can watch a teacher. Maybe they did a really bad lesson. You think, "I'm going to give a load of advice and all these tips." Then in the next lesson, they do much better. You think, "Well, I'm an amazing trainer."


Simon: "I've just changed their whole outlook on teaching. Really successful." Sometimes a teacher might do a really good lesson. You tell them, "That was amazing. That was really awesome."

Then the next lesson, they do much worse. You think, "Huh, praising obviously didn't help this candidate. Obviously, if I give too much praise, the candidate gets complacent and they do worse." But in reality, perhaps in both of these cases, they're just regressing to the mean.

Ross:  They're just going back towards the norm.

Simon: They're just going back towards the norm, right? Because there's a kind of a standard‑ish lesson, which might be just a pass, or that kind of thing. If the candidates are not amazingly proficient, or else not amazingly bad, they're going to tend to regress there, regardless of the trainer's feedback.

Then of course, based on a fundamental attribution bias, we tend to think, "Oh, we're the trainer. We're changing their lives. We are the big changing point."

Ross:  Right. Yeah. "I have this huge influence over this teacher."

Simon: "I can have a massive influence, a massive impact on these teachers," when in reality there's so many other factors affecting the quality of the lesson.

Ross:  Almost sounds like the over‑confidence bias, as well. Like my five minutes of feedback has completely affected this person for the next week.

Simon: Changed their lives, yeah.

Ross:  Then anchoring is where, for example, you have an expectation of where the limits are on something, and you don't want to go move too far beyond that, right?

Simon: Yeah. Sometimes in my experience, I've had cases where the trainer before me has observed a teacher and told me, "This teacher is amazing. See what you think about them." Or "Oh my goodness, that teacher was awful. See what you think about them."

Then when I go in to watch them, got that in my mind. I'm thinking "OK. This teacher, I don't think they're that good, but yeah, that was quite good," so I give them quite a high mark. I give them a higher mark than I would have otherwise. Or I think, "That teacher wasn't great. Yeah, OK, the last trainer was right," and I give them a lower mark. But actually...

Ross:  Are you really looking at it objectively?

Simon: Am I really looking at it objectively, right. If I hadn't had that piece of information from the other trainer, I may have given them a different mark, regardless.

Ross:  I'd read about this with Donald Trump speaking about, for example, immigrants to America and saying, "We're going to deport all illegal immigrants," and that's the sort of anchor for the conversation. The one extreme end.

Simon: Yeah. Pushing it to the very extreme, yeah.

Ross:  Yeah. You're then framing the conversation as, "That's how far I'm willing to go." Then things move back from there.

Simon: Yes, exactly. In that way, Trump changed the whole narrative of how things were talked about in America.

Ross:  Yeah.

Simon: Marine Le Pen did the same in France. With Trump, somehow, he actually managed to get into power, but say you were Marine Le Pen in France. Even though she didn't get into power, she changed the narrative in France towards a more right wing bias, through anchoring.

Tracy: I think there's something also related to the outcome bias. Another example, people probably got A for their TP lesson and they thought, "Everything I did for this lesson worked perfectly," and they kept using the same thing for the next TPs. But actually it didn't work very well for another group of learners.

They didn't really realize or identify what worked and what didn't work, and just go in depth and reflect on what exactly students reacted, to the materials and the teacher's behavior. They just looked at the outcome because "I got an A."

Ross:  There was another interesting example about cognitive bias in a book called "Black Box Thinking" that I read about, which is prisoners going up for parole. The main thing which decided whether they got parole or not was whether it was the morning or the afternoon.

Simon: Yeah, right.

Ross:  If it was after the judges had just eaten lunch, there was a high chance that prisoners will be allowed parole, and if it was in the morning when they didn't, then they wouldn't.

Simon: Yes.

Ross:  This relates to trainers because...

Simon: Yes, yes, absolutely. This is how we first got onto talking about the subject.

Ross:  Yeah.

Simon: I did quite a lot of analysis on trainer observations on a teacher‑training course. After doing quite a thorough analysis, it was quite clear that the trainers gave much better marks in the morning than they did in the afternoon.

It seems that the trainers were not taking a lot of time to eat lunch. They were often missing lunch, or they were just having a coffee for lunch, or this kind of thing. The result was that the afternoon lessons were 5 or 10 percent lower marks than the morning sessions.

Ross:  Yeah.

Simon: To the point where significantly more afternoon sessions were actually failing than the morning sessions.

Ross:  What I think is fascinating about this is obviously taking a class and passing or failing it in a teacher‑training course is much lower stakes than getting released from prison.

In those examples from capital punishment or from parole, no one was aware that those things were going on until someone actually collected the data. I suppose the takeaway here is, looking at the plain numbers and seeing what story numbers can tell us, as trainers.

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Ross:  I remember years ago having a new teacher who I was training. I think they came in late, and they were dressed too casually. They didn't impress me in training.

When I was talking to my boss about it, saying,"Should I pass on this feedback to this person's manager?" he said, "Beware of the self‑fulfilling prophecy," which is, you pass that information on and that the new manager hears that this teacher has turned up late and they wore the wrong clothes.

They then start to look out for all those attributes in that person, and it very quickly turns into that person ends up getting fired, but maybe they didn't actually have to.

Simon: There was a very interesting study done on this. They took a class of primary school students. They just took five students at complete random and said to the teacher, "Look, these students have been identified as very high potential." They took another five at random and said, "These five, you're going to have some problems with these students. Just find a way to deal with them."

They came back a year later they saw the students that they had chosen at random as high performers actually had much higher results.

Ross:  I thought the take away from that was...

Simon: Belief in those children can really make the big difference.

Ross:  Presumably, having higher expectations of the students is the key there. Tell us more about the performance management, and some of those biases for managers. How do those operate?

Simon: If you're rating teacher's performance, as a manager, you can be prone to a lot of different biases. I was doing this kind of performance appraisals for teachers for a long time, and I realized that I was quite prone to a lot of these biases.


Simon: A lot of new managers, and even experienced managers, will make the same mistakes. As I've said before, when you realize that you're doing it, that's the first step towards changing it.

On a rating of one to three for a lot of areas, you might just think, "Well, all right. They're not too terrible and they're not amazing at this, so I'll just give them a two." And you just give them twos.

Ross:  Two out of three is?

Simon: There's a one, a two, and a three. One is below expectations, two, meets expectations, and three, exceeds expectations. Then, what the teacher gets is just a whole lot of twos.

I've seen teachers also evaluate themselves this way. It's like, "Can you self‑evaluate?" I had a teacher before. I gave them some time to fill out their self evaluation. They took about 30 or 40 minutes all together. Finally, when they gave it to me, it was a line of twos, the whole way down.


Simon: There's that one. Then there's the other ones, where you can look at a halo bias, where you've got a teacher that you think, "This is my star teacher in my team. They're great," so you just give them a three for everything.

I had a center director before who did this. Every single teacher that she liked in the school, she would just give them all threes. Then there was a teacher that she didn't like, gave them all ones. It's like the opposite of that, saying that if somebody is good, then everything is good.

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Ross:  We talked a lot there about things that can go wrong. What could people do to get around those problems, to be less cognitively biased?

Simon: As I've said before, I think just by knowing what will happen, you can start to stop it. With all learning, you can start by noticing and then turn it into action. If you know what these biases are, you notice yourself doing them, kind of stop yourself.

Tracy: Thanks for listening everybody. Thanks, Simon, for coming to our podcast today.

Simon: My pleasure.

Tracy: Bye.

Ross:  Bye everyone.

Simon: Bye‑bye.

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Transcription by CastingWords