Consider the torrent of information that gushes through your brain every waking moment. Even as you read this article, you’re deciphering sound-letter symbols, weighing the meaning of the authors’ words in light of your knowledge and personal experience, and perhaps splitting your attention with the next activity on your hectic calendar or a problem awaiting you back home.
It’s widely thought that the number of daily decisions and data points that a classroom teacher simultaneously manages is comparable to what an air traffic controller deals with—something that certainly feels true to those of us who have spent time teaching. To address the challenge of information overload, our brain—that dynamic, complex, amazing organ that keeps us alive and makes human beings a uniquely capable species—takes some mental shortcuts. Many of these leaps are functional: They allow the brain to efficiently sort out a convoluted environment. However, the brain can also short-circuit thinking that demands careful contemplation and objectivity.
In other words, powers of reasoning can be hampered by jumping to dubious conclusions, a phenomenon that psychologists call cognitive biases. For a school leader, cognitive biases impair collaborative problem-solving and exacerbate conflict. They tend to fragment groups into us-versus-them divisions and sharply narrow the range of solutions that a person considers.
Biases That School Leaders Face
Confirmation bias: This is the propensity to accept only information that affirms one’s original beliefs, while neglecting or rejecting contrary data. Today’s debate between “balanced literacy” and the “science of reading” presents many illustrations of confirmation bias, with advocates on one side often discounting inconvenient, yet plausible, evidence on the other. Rigid thinking like this skews understanding of multifaceted issues that schools face and limits problem-solving alternatives.
The false choice fallacy: This one is related to confirmation bias because both curtail the brain’s data inputs. Also known as the binary bias, the false choice fallacy limits decision-making to either/or alternatives. The solution must be A or B, not A and B. In the case of balanced literacy versus science of reading, there’s an assumption that one or the other is valid, not both, or facets of both, simultaneously. The false choice fallacy explains why educational controversies tend to generate us-versus-them schisms under the questionable pretext that there are only two mutually exclusive alternatives.
Fundamental attribution error: This is another product of oversimplification. Blame is laid on a person, rather than systemic, situational, or contextual causes. We believe No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top in the early years of the 21st century faulted individual educators and schools for substandard outcomes, a reflection of the “Accountability Movement.” The fundamental attribution error’s deficiency is its failure to recognize systemic factors endemic to the school environment. When the problem is defined as a matter of individual teacher competence, measured by standardized assessment scores, basic issues such as school funding and income inequality remained unaddressed.
Hostile attribution error and in-group bias: These are particularly relevant today, given the divisive tenor of our times. Hostile attribution error leads to the conviction that those who disagree harbor bad intent. It’s not enough for you and I to disagree on literacy pedagogy, but we’re inclined to disparage each other’s motives, competence, and moral fiber. In-group bias favors agreement with people who belong to the same social group. Both of these biases deepen divisions and handcuff true collaborative problem-solving.
There are dozens of other cognitive biases that we explore in our book From Conflict to Collaboration: A School Leader’s Guide to Unleashing Conflict’s Problem-Solving Power: the normalcy bias, the anchoring effect, and the Dunning-Kruger effect, to name just a few. The important thing as a school leader is to recognize these biases and consider how to overcome them in the work you do.
overcoming cognitive biases
Cultivate a brain-friendly environment: The brain takes shortcuts often because it’s under stress, emotionally fragile, and short on time. When the social climate feels trusting and nonthreatening, differences of perspective are accepted, and the brain is less apt to short-circuit cognitive processes. Taking time to study a problem by thoroughly gathering relevant information creates conditions conducive to unfettered thought.
Returning to the balanced literacy versus science of reading debate, a school leader might begin by forming a curriculum committee composed of teachers aligned with both approaches and building a trusting rapport before committing to an in-depth exploration of each perspective’s possible benefits and deficits.
The uncertainty principle: We recommend that educators adapt their own version of what physicists call the uncertainty principle to acknowledge that our brains, under the influence of cognitive biases, might lead us astray. A school leader chairing the literacy study committee might engage in protocols such as a 15-minute period limited to posing genuine questions for each practice and assigning each side to make a fair-minded presentation of the opposite viewpoint.
Professional development: Training staff to be cognizant of the propensity to use cognitive biases has implications in classrooms, parent-teacher conferences, curriculum committees, and faculty meetings. By becoming fluent in the language of cognitive biases, everyone in an educational community is able to examine their core beliefs. Once identified, real outside-of-the-box thinking, unencumbered by preexisting conclusions, becomes more feasible. Unbound thinking first requires a realization of the boxes we all live and work inside.
Designate a bias buster: Borrowing from cooperative learning practices, assign someone in a group the role of cognitive bias buster. It’s this person’s task to identify and politely note biases. The bias buster poses probing questions like “What are we assuming?” “What are alternative ways of perceiving the problem or the solution?” “What might be some unintended consequences? “What are we not considering?” The literacy committee’s bias buster might regularly urge members to consider whether there is a third way, in a creative effort to expand the alternatives beyond a two-pronged choice.
At its core, the rejection of cognitive biases engenders new ways of thinking and seeing the challenges we face in schools. It’s as if the glasses we’re wearing, resting right on our noses, need changing to gain fresh insight. By thinking about our own thinking, individually and collectively, we can free school improvement efforts from misleading, limiting, and divisive assumptions.