The following sequence of numbers was written on the board:
“This string of numbers represents a rule,” I explained to the teachers. “Who would like to guess another string of numbers that might fit the rule?”
“8, 10, 12,” guessed one teacher.
“Yes, that string of numbers fits the rule,” I responded. “Who has another guess?”
“26, 28, 30,” offered another teacher.
“That string also fits the rule,” I responded.
A new guess was made, “100, 102, 104.”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “What do you think the rule is?”
Many hands went up. The teacher called on stated confidently, “Your rule is three consecutive even numbers.” Heads nodded and there was a buzz of agreement.
“No, that is not my rule,” I informed the teachers. Their expressions revealed puzzlement. I asked, “Based on the data you’ve collected so far, what do you know for certain about the rule?” The question helped the teachers move from confusion to focused thinking. They verbalized theories and then made guesses to test out their ideas. Soon the group had determined the rule: three numbers that increase in value, not necessarily even or even consecutive (e.g., 2, 4, 9 or 6, 256, 500).
This exercise was originally used in Peter Chatcart Wason’s study of confirmation bias described by Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed. Wason’s and other researchers have shown that people tend to develop beliefs about situations very quickly and, once these beliefs are established, individuals typically fail to look for information which might call these beliefs into question. We often see this phenomenon in children’s computational errors, when incorrect procedures are applied mechanically without consideration of the meaning of the numbers or the operations. Confirmation bias is also present when teachers adopt teaching practices they experienced in elementary and secondary school, or fall back on ineffective teaching techniques which have become habit. It is not easy for any of us to step outside our perceived reality and actively question the effectiveness of our current practices.
This is one of the reasons that instructional change is so hard. In the busy world of teaching, operating on autopilot is often a survival skill. Coaching helps teachers step out of autopilot mode by encouraging them to examine the unconscious beliefs which are shaping their decisions and actions. Here are some ways that coaches can support teachers in examining their assumptions.
|Coaches can help teachers look inward at the assumptions they are operating from: So an assumption you have is that some students are not participating in the class discussion because they lack confidence when talking in front of a group.Besides careless errors, what other reasons might there be for the mistakes made on these fractions problems?|
|Coaches can help teachers consider whether their assumptions are based in evidence: What portion of the class shared ideas or asked questions during the class discussion? Which students did not participate?Looking at this student’s work, what are some of the things he appears to understand about fractional numbers? What might he be confused about?|
|As teachers examine their assumptions, new questions surface which can be explored in partnership with the coach through data gathering and action research. What scaffolding might we provide for students to support them in sharing their ideas during class discussions? How might we gather more information about reasons some students are not currently participating? What questions could we ask this student to identify his misconceptions about fractional numbers?|
Faulty assumptions prevent us from seeing the full picture of student learning and become barriers to instructional improvement. As teachers plan for instruction, make in-the-moment decisions during teaching, and assess student learning, it is helpful to have a supportive partner nearby to help uncover blind spots and begin to focus on unseen data.
Questions for discussion or reflection:
- What are some ways that you support teachers in examining their assumptions?
- Teachers can feel judged when asked to look closely at their personal beliefs. What are some ways you create a feeling of safety in conversations where assumptions are being discussed?
- Can you think of an assumption you are currently operating from which possibly should be re-examined? It could be an assumption you hold about yourself, about someone else, or about what is possible or impossible.
- What are some ways you remember to check your own assumptions, especially when you know you are walking into a stressful or emotionally-charged situation?
Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.