Teacher heuristics

Like the stinking bloom of titan arum, the rarely flowering giant plant that stinks of rotting human flesh, the garish rosettes of election season have reappeared. My knowledge of American politics is currently far better than my understanding of the British scene and it’s interesting to see how much of last year’s elect-u-geddon tactics from across the pond get repeated by our own politicians. The race is on to plant the seeds early in people’s minds, letting the memes flourish and spread like the red weed, until come election time all that will be required is the mere glimpse of a politician to cause people to spurt out “That Theresa May, she’s so strong and stable in her leadership, I’ve always said so, said it years ago, strong and stable I said.” Ho hum.

One of the (many) disturbing things to come from the US was how many people appeared to base their vote not in terms of what they wanted but in order to cause perceived damage to the ‘other side’. Commentators [citation needed…] made the comparison with sports, where the delight in the opposition’s downfall and misery becomes the primary motivation, even over one’s own self-interest. American floors were strewn with self-inflicted nose amputations. Some voters chose harm above self-interest. All of this is interesting from the perspective of decision making and influence, yet this is a blog that tenuously holds on to an educational slant, so what’s the thread I’m trying to weave?

I’m interested in why people make particular decisions. I’ve written before about the affect on option choices, but of course students are constantly making decisions with less long lasting importance, such as behavioural and social choices in lessons. These decisions are based absolutely on their prior experiences and biases. And once the tide of hormones, peer pressure and snapchat has breached the walls of Year 8, the decisions become infinitely more complex. Students are forced to rely on their newly formed heuristics, the mental shortcuts needed to make rapid choices in the everyday world to save ourselves from spending too long evaluating the best course of action. Unsurprisingly, part of the learning process of fine tuning these heuristics into something useful involves a lot of mistakes along the way. Unfortunately for teachers, these mistakes have a habit of manifesting during the penultimate lesson of a full-dayer. So it goes.

It strikes me how many times students will define themselves not by what they are, but what they are not. This is no revelation; the familiar push-back of young people in order to find their own personalities is familiar to any teacher who has asked for a student for the thirteenth time in two minutes to tuck their shirt in, put shoes on that they ‘forgot’ to change back into after lunch or not to lean back on their chairs (4,129 students broke their necks in British schools last year after leaning too far back on their chairs, possibly). The active rejection of cultures and acceptance of others helps develop personalities. If the rejection is one of school culture in general you may have some problems. One solution is to make sure you only select students who already buy into the culture so there is less chance of push-back. You will have your own opinions on the rights and wrongs of that particular issue. But there is another issue in the school: the staff. If you are in any position that seeks to change staff practice or opinions you are in the same position as politicians seeking influence and dealing with the same issues that affect students. The shortcut here involves a top down approach of regulation and ‘selecting out’ staff who do not fit with the culture. You’ll doubtless have an opinion on that too. Yet teachers have their own heuristics and biases that are in play, constantly influencing their decisions not only in the classroom but at strategic levels right to the very top of Government and Ofsted. Perhaps we need to start looking at picking the scab of how much our own decision making processes.

Many people are familiar with the idea of confirmation bias, the tendency to only look for information that confirms what we (think) we already know and favour that information. But there is a counter bias too, disconfirmation bias, where more time is spent attacking and resisting an unfavourable position rather than examining the benefits of your own. Ideas do not float around in an ethereal haze waiting to flourish in a receptive mind, they are hugely influenced, if not formed entirely from, our emotional responses. The ideas we hold to or reject are far more heavily dependent on our positive or negative feelings towards them than we may like to accept.

Take the example of the current progressive/traditional argument. Ignoring for the moment people who are not particularly bothered either way, the more vocal proponents on either side not only have a preference for one side, they have an active dislike for the other side. This isn’t to say either side is necessarily wrong, just that the methods used to approve or dismiss a viewpoint may be more influenced by an emotional response for or against than by a dispassionate response. The phonics ‘discussion’ bleeds raw with this; each side seems to perceive the other in terms of the damage that they will do to students rather than starting from the perspective that both sides do actually want the best for students but differ in the methods of achieving that aim. Even accepting that as a starting point I doubt the opposing sides would come to a conclusion. Cards on the table, as essentially an empiricist I’d prefer the use of evidence though I accept it’s not always applicable, but you could argue that’s due to my positive feelings towards the scientific method. Am I biased towards certain outcomes? Are at least some of my heuristics faulty? Can I be convinced that ideas or right or wrong based on duff information? Most probably, yeah. There will be ideas and positions I hold that would benefit from a closer look and some recalibration. It’s just not always easy to detect your own biases and to be sure that decisions are not based on rejection rather than a clear positive affect. My views are definitely influenced by my educational background in science; it influences so many of my perspectives on pedagogy. As much as I respect science that doesn’t necessarily mean I will always make optimal decisions based on it, particularly if I’m overly influenced by personal preferences, or more uncomfortably, what I reject. None of us are completely rational decision makers (sorry, neo-liberal capitalists…no wait I’m not sorry, screw ‘em). If you genuinely want to change a person’s perspective, whether student, teacher or voter, you’re going to have start accepting that we can all approach the same situation with personal heuristics that we’re already pretty attached to.

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Author: Mr Whellan's science

Nomadic science teacher

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