How-tos, Explainers, Practical Applications
How-tos, Explainers, Practical Applications
Let’s imagine that one of your most knowledgeable, trustworthy friends came up to you and said: “I just read a bunch of reputable research that said eating vegetables isn’t healthy. In fact, these studies say that broccoli and carrots are harmful and we need to eat more chocolate!”
Even if your friend showed you the studies, the graphs, the testimonials from former veggie-lovers who had seen the light; you’d probably still believe vegetables are healthy. After all, if you could have been eating chocolate all this time, why did you waste years on salads? In fact, you’d be likely to dig in your heels and chomp on even more veggies than before.
This is because, when we are devoted to a certain truth, we tend to ignore contradictory evidence and seek out confirming evidence. We become more committed to our beliefs, which is known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is why arguing with your grandma about politics is futile, even when you have the facts on your side.
Sometimes, though, confirmation bias can have higher stakes than hurt feelings at granny’s. When evidence tells us that we should rethink our teaching practices, we educators can be more stubborn than your Uncle Leo repeating talking points he got from Sean Hannity. Even if -- especially if -- evidence might suggest we could have been doing better for our students all along, we’ll argue that what we’ve been doing is “best practice.”
I’ve been thinking about the difficulty of changing practice a lot lately, because the past few weeks have seen a series of earthquakes in the literacy-teaching world. With the release of Natalie Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap, and Emily Hanford’s audio documentary, At a Loss For Words, it could feel like everything we’ve been taught about teaching reading is wrong. That’s when our confirmation bias protects us by screaming that we should go read something that supports our past practices. After all, change is hard. It might not be favored by our bosses, might need resources or knowledge we don’t have.
But the deepest reason not to change? It feels terrible to think we could have been doing better by the students in our charge.
But if we’re truly committed to providing the best education possible, we have to change as we learn. A the saying goes, “know better, do better.” So, how do we overcome our confirmation bias? How do we start to change, even when it hurts? Below, I share a few tips that have helped me and others (with a few insights into my own biases and mistakes along the way).
1. Seek out perspectives other than your own.
Brooke Gladstone, of NPR, puts it this way: “You have to vary your media diet a little bit, like read something that you just wouldn’t be inclined to read.... And keep taking in their perspective. It’s incredibly helpful to just know what’s going on in the world.”
This process, she admits, can be painful. However, it can be necessary in expanding our awareness. For years, I admit I’ve had a bias against private school vouchers. Studies have shown that my bias was reasonable. However, listening to parent education advocates explain the reasons they want vouchers has made me more aware of my bias and more open to considering other perspectives.
2. Take a cue from Marie Kondo.
De-cluttering expert Marie Kondo suggests that it can help us let go of unwanted clutter by thanking items before we discard them. When it’s time to let go of teaching practices we’ve learned are less effective, we can be grateful for their utility when they were the best we knew. Reading Wexler’s book, there have been several times when she has presented research that counters something I did in my own classroom (or even -- yikes! -- shared with other teachers as good practice.) Yes, it can make me feel guilty. I move past that by telling myself: “It was the most effective thing I knew to do at the time, and now I can do something even more effective.” Staying in the guilt of our past doesn’t help our students, nor does ignoring new evidence.
3. Change your thought pattern.
Cognitive therapists help people overcome challenges by reframing their self-talk. Making small changes in the way you think can change your practices in big ways. For example, although I’m a believer in phonics, when I became exasperated with a student’s attempts to sound out a word, I would sometimes ask them to look at the picture to figure out the word -- even though I had learned this was ineffective, even counter-productive. So I changed my thinking with a short phrase. Whenever I was tempted to encourage a student to guess, I said to myself, “We don’t guess. We say the sounds.” By picking a short, positively-framed phrase I could repeat to remind myself of the change I wanted to make, I altered my self-concept to that of someone who wouldn’t resort to a shortcut.
Change can be painful, and our brains want to protect us from that pain with confirmation bias. For our students, however, shifting our thinking is critical to helping them succeed.
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Catlin Goodrow, M.A.T