Tag Archives: learning process

Teach don’t preach pt 2: Confirmation Bias & the unintented teacher preacher

Teachers, does your Confirmation Bias shut down student learning?

Having scolded teachers who politicize their classrooms in my post, “Teach Don’t Preach: politicizing the classroom is not just wrong, it’s bad teaching,” it begs the question of what to do with teachers who don’t know that they’re preaching not teaching and not just with politics.

As I noted,

Of course, curricular decisions are bound to teacher perspective. As History teacher, I value certain periods and concepts that other teachers may not care about. 

As lessons are inherently bound to the teacher’s knowledge and interests, the challenge for an effective teacher is how to make that limited perspective beneficial for students — and, most importantly, without limiting them to it.

Confirmation Bias and the Teacher Preacher

As they say, to a hammer everything is a nail.  Academics call it “Confirmation Bias,” a descriptor for the tendency of humans to see only what they’re looking for.

We all engage in Confirmation Bias on a regular if not daily basis. It often comes in the little things like searching for lost keys and finding something else you were looking for the week before. In this case, your “bias” to find the keys causes you to search out places or spaces that you didn’t think to look for when searching for that other object. You can also see how it works in this now-classic  “Awareness Test” video.

In the hard sciences, Confirmation Bias manifests as experiments or observations that limit or ignore contradictory evidence or results. In the social sciences, Confirmation Bias occurs when an observer ignores or dismisses evidence or logic that contradicts an existing belief.

In the courtroom, trial attorneys regularly manipulate witness testimony and jury decisions by developing in them a Confirmation Bias towards the desired verdict, with the classic leading question being ,”Did you see the broken glass” as opposed to “Did you see any broken glass?” Asking if there was “any broken glass” is a neutral question, whereas “the broken glass” implies that there was broken glass which may trick the witness into “remembering” what was possibly not there.  (Effective opposing counsel will object to such “leading questions.”)

A most prevalent form of Confirmation Bias comes, of course, in politics. Self-identity can be so wrapped around a political perspective or affiliation that simple facts become lies when they oppose our point of view. Even when we admit an inconvenient political truth, we easily get around it by diminishing it and convincing ourselves that it doesn’t matter for our guy because the other guy is worse, and so on.

If that makes any sense to you, please read my post  “Teach Don’t Preach: politicizing the classroom is not just wrong, it’s bad teaching,”

For today’s post, however, the point is that Confirmation Bias operates with equal power, if quietly, in other aspects of teaching than straight out imposing a political opinion upon students.

Missing the Dancing Bear & Other Opportunities

Confirmation bias is not inherently wrong, as insight can result from ignoring the “noise” that others, if weighing all evidence equally, may not be able to filter, seeing the forest and not the trees, as it were.  If you were too busy counting the number of basketball passes by the white team to see the dancing bear in the “Awareness Test” video, you may have missed out on bad moon walking technique while instead learning some cool passing moves. Your gain.

Because a narrow or overly broad perspective can be revealing in unique ways, I believe that one of the great benefits of Attention Deficit (ADD/ADHD) is precisely the lack of filters that can yield creativity and insight others may miss. The danger in only seeing things differently is that it becomes its own Confirmation Bias. Because my attention quickly goes to something else doesn’t excuse that I left the kitchen faucet on, it just means that my focus went elsewhere, for better or worse, and  sometimes that “better” means an insight others could never conceive.

The Power of Perspectives

If the point of classroom diversity is to bring in additional perspectives for common learning, then confirmation bias contradicts the very purpose of diversity. A homogenous classroom yields great focus on its common purpose or point of view. It does not, however, challenge that point of view and at the expense of learning.

In his 1644 in Areopagitica, the poet and philosopher John Milton defended freedom of expression under the theory that since the absolute truth is unobtainable, only by allowing competing, if incorrect, perspectives, can mankind approach the truth. Should wrong expressions be suppressed, truth is obscured.

Back to the Classroom

I place the teacher that demands one conclusion or perspective among the tyrants that Milton rejected. My concern is that these teachers don’t realize what they’re doing.

Whereas the Socratic Method itself requires confirmation bias in the teacher whose job it is to direct the student to a conclusion, at least the Method allows for student exploration of ideas. Teaching that places the conclusion first not only denies students a path towards comprehension, it short circuits student thought.

I’m not a math teacher, but I know from working with students in our A+ Club academic support service that while there may be a single answer to a math problem, there are multiple paths to it, and by insisting upon that single path the learning of both the conclusion and the desired path are lost. So when I hear a student complain that a math or science teacher “doesn’t explain it in a way I can understand it,” I’m not necessarily hearing that the student isn’t learning, I may be hearing that the teacher is not offering an additional perspective or method that the student can better comprehend.

If Confirmation Bias is at work in math and science, then we have serious trouble in the humanities where it can take hold of an entire curriculum. The worst of it comes in politicization of the classroom, but it can infect a classroom even if the disease is more subtle, such as from a teacher’s limited points of view or content knowledge.

Let’s say that an English teacher wants students to identify with a certain character in a Shakespeare play. A flat-out requirement that students focus on that sole character will destroy the learning for all but the most compliant of students. The ban on other characters destroys student exploration and development of the conclusions the teacher wants students to adopt. Learning opportunities are lost in such an imposition.

The emotional bond to a learning outcome can be overpowering to a teacher, blinding that teacher to the Confirmation Bias that drives the learning expectation. At that point, we are not teaching, we are preaching.

Expanding our Confirmation Biases

We cannot escape our Confirmation Biases. We act on and develop perspective on what we already know and the experiences that have created our self-conception. Additionally, we often face institutional restraints, such as a school-wide ban on certain behaviors or outcomes.  (I would suggest allowing classroom debate on such topics with the clear caveat that the school policy will not change regardless of student perspectives.) Still, we become better teachers, better mentors and guides for students when we can see past ourselves.

First, we have to listen. Next, we must never deliver conclusion before process.

We get there through active pursuit of new information, and when we as teachers can engage in a lively personal debate then we will become far more powerful teachers.

One of the worst kinds of Confirmation Bias comes from stagnation. When we stop learning we end up teaching the same thing over and over again and all we teach is only what we already know, which is inherently limited (see Milton). Worse, schools so often focus on pedagogy at the expense of content enrichment that teachers lose sight of developments in their own content areas that could otherwise expand and enrich their classrooms.

The solution is to place ourselves in a state of constant learning. If our consumption of information merely reinforces our existing Confirmation Biases, then we are learning — and teaching — nothing. It’s okay to read something you don’t agree with, and it will most likely affirm your own reasoned conclusions. But if we don’t expose ourselves to opposing or new ideas, we have no opportunity to grow intellectually and as teachers.

A Few Suggestions for Getting Past Preaching Not Teaching

  1. Consume the news not the headlines.
  2. Study your content not just its pedagogy.
  3. Avoid politics in your lessons and classroom (that does not mean that students should avoid politics, as that’s part of their growth which your job is to guide).
  4. Subscribe to content-oriented academic journals.
  5. Subscribe to general-interest journals
  6. Listen to podcasts on your way to and from work.
  7. Listen to your students.

My personal strategies include daily consumption of a printed newspaper, podcasts, and as many books as I can juggle at a time. Of course my choice of sources is biased according to my preferences, but I never stop consideration simply because I disagree.

This is all very time consuming. I had to drop my newspaper consumption from two papers plus a weekend third to a single daily and weekend paper, but even so every day I learn something new from that one newspaper that I can apply to my work with students and in my life in general. We must compromise for what’s possible, but we mustn’t ever let the undesirable guide the possible instead.

By becoming constant learners ourselves we will help our students to become owls not sheep — if only we ourselves are not the wolf in the sheep’s skin.

– Michael

Is your student an extrinsic or intrinsic learner? And how to bring out the best in each to overcome the other

So how can we bridge the gap between students who only do as they’re told and those who learn only what they find interesting?

As students rise through secondary schools, teacher expectations and demands can either tax or reward student learning and behavioral types, in this case, the extrinsically versus intrinsically motivated student:

Extrinsic learners strive to meet teacher expectations as explicitly as possible while intrinsic learners engage learning for its own sake. Continue reading

Teach don’t preach: politicizing the classroom is not just wrong, it’s bad teaching

Is it the role of a teacher to impart information or to empower students with the skills needed to find information on their own?

When a teacher professes a political position in a classroom, student learning suffers a short-circuit. Teachers have strong rights of expression, although courts will uphold teacher dismissal for indoctrination (see this pdf from Pearson: Teacher Freedom of Expression).

From my view, indoctrination isn’t the only problem, it’s the teaching itself that has gone wrong. With properly aligned teaching that aims to develop both core knowledge and independent student thought, there will be no indoctrination.

Education theory: content or skills?

Pedagogy can get all twisted around the seemingly opposite goals of developing student content knowledge or thinking skills. In their extremes, the one is pure fact-based learning and the other is all process without destination. Continue reading

How to know if your student is really learning: “If you can’t teach it you don’t know it”

We hear it all the time. Students say, “I get it when my teacher shows it to me, but I can’t do it on the test.” Then parents tell us that their child “doesn’t test well.”

When children say, “I get it when my teacher shows me,” what they’re really saying is that they didn’t learn it for themselves.

Turning New Knowledge into Prior Knowledge

The process of turning “New Knowledge” (NK) into “Prior Knowledge” (PK) is what I call “internalization.” When our brain receives new information, it looks to store it somewhere meaningful. If there is no related PK to connect it to, then the NK remains just that, unrelated, unconnected information that has no lasting memory.

However, when the NK finds a comfortable home, it is connected to meaningful PK and can now begin the process of internalization, that is going from NK to PK.

Kids get this. Continue reading

Five tips on how to “study better” for an exam: extending memorization for brain memory and recall

memoryWhen students say they don’t “test well” or that they “don’t know how to study,” parents and teachers often respond with suggestions — and criticism — to, well, just “study harder.” Great. But what does “study harder” actually mean?

We can see how “studying harder” might actually work if we divide learning into the two distinct parts of:

  • Factual Knowledge
  • Application of Knowledge

The first is straight memory, while the second requires its application, by which we mean extension through comparison, analysis, evaluation, and so on. Thereby “studying harder” requires development of first, factual knowledge, and, second, using it. Continue reading

A Successful Assessment pt 3: how to take a test (or, reading instructions & not running out of time)

Test Prep help from the A+ ClubWhen a parent of a middle or high school teen worries that “my student doesn’t test” well, what’s missing is a combination of goal setting, preparation and execution.

As discussed in the previous posts on “Successful Assessments,” testing success consists of:

  • Identifying teacher/ test expectations (“no surprises”)
  • Preparing effectively (learning v. cramming)
  • Executing on test day (test taking strategies)

Test prep above all else

“Easy” tests are those students have or are effectively prepared for: if the student knows what to expect and prepares for it, the results will be strong.

That said, there are still a few things a student can do to better results on the test day.

A couple do-nots on test day include: Continue reading

A Successful Assessment pt 2: how to prepare for a test (or learning all along not just cramming)

Successful Test Prep from the A+ ClubParents concerned about their teen’s middle and high school exam and test prep might consider that studying isn’t just a matter of reviewing notes and study guides. Successful testing requires ongoing learning.

Here are some strategies for parents to empower their student’s exam prep and overall academic success.

In our series on  Successful Assessment: how to prepare for a test (or why doesn’t my child test well?), we are reviewing the essential parts of successful testing:

  1. No Surprises (identified teacher expectations)
  2. Student Prepared (successful learning)
  3. Student had time to finish (successful test execution)

This post regards student preparation. It’s one thing to know what will be on a test (see Part 1: Identifying Expectations) and also to understand it . But can you perform it yourself? Continue reading

A Successful Assessment pt 1: how to know what will be on the test (or identifying teacher expectations)

Successful Testing from the A+ ClubFor successful testing, students need to know what will be on the test. Sounds obvious, but parents don’t want to hear from their teens that there were “surprises” on a test or that they studied for the wrong thing.

This edition of the Successful Assessment will review how to help your teenage student identify what will be on a test.

As outlined in the introductory post, How to approach a test (or why doesn’t my child test well?), at the A+ Club, we help middle, high school and college students succeed on formal assessments, what we usually call “quizzes” and “tests.”  Our quick measure of a successful assessment means:

  1. No Surprises (identified teacher expectations)
  2. Student Prepared (successful learning)
  3. Student had time to finish (successful test execution)

No surprises!

“No Surprises” on a test means the student knew what to expect, knew what to study, and was familiar with every part or aspect of the test. Continue reading

A Successful Assessment: how to approach a test (or why doesn’t my child test well?)

We often hear from parents that “my child doesn’t test well.”

Teens have lots of excuses for their grades, and blaming it on the test is one that parents fall for all the time.

In the A+ Club, we measure middle, high school and college student success on a test or major assessment in terms of 1) identifying teacher expectations; 2) student preparation;  and 3) successful execution on the test day. Continue reading

“I don’t test well” — or do you just not prepare enough?

Testing issues?

You understand it in class, but not when you have to do it on the test?

You do all your homework, but then the teacher pops a question you never saw before?

Actually, you test precisely as well as you learn.

Nice try, though.

We hear this from parents as much as from students:

“My daughter does all her homework but she just doesn’t test well.”

And then

“I think she has test anxiety.”

It’s almost comforting to know that your child doesn’t test well. One would want to sympathize with that, because it would seem to explain things. But it’s just not true.

Here are the components of “testing well”:

  1. Identify teacher expectations

  2. Internalize them through repetitive practice.

“Testing” is demonstration of learning in what we call a “formal assessment.” Certainly there are additional pressures and conditions to render a formal assessment more difficult than homework or classwork. There’s the time limit, there’s the formality of the situation, and the discomfort a teacher getting serious all of a sudden. But that doesn’t change the fact that none of those additional challenges do anything but emphasize preparedness — or lack thereof.

Guided v. Independent Practice

For students who simply do not engage the workflow that teachers expect, they will not “test well” unless they are exceptionally bright and can learn on the fly without studying. Their grades will still suffer, because middle and high school grades are usually no more than 30 or 40 percent from formal assessments.

So acing every test without doing any homework starts you off on a B or C, and maintaining even those grades requires 100% on tests and quizzes. Good luck with that.

For students who follow in the classroom, who understand teacher expectations, and who do the homework and studying that’s required of them — and still do not “test well,” it’s not a “testing” issue. It’s the learning.

A couple of things may be going on:

1. Compliance without learning:

What we call “overly compliant” students are more concerned with fulfilling the form of teacher (or parent) expectations without actually engaging its substance. When this happens, homework and studying happen without real learning. It shows up as high  homework (process) and low test (learning) grades.

2. Lack of lesson internalization:

Whether or not the student engages the expected workflow, if test scores are low, then the student is simply not studying enough. Experts will tell you how it takes 30 distinct acts of learning/practicing something to fully internalize, i.e., to full know it.

With school work, those 30 or whatever acts of learning start with the teacher’s first lesson, then continue through the “guided practice,” in which the teacher shows and leads the students in the lesson (setting expectations, engaging students, building relevancy and breaking it down for understanding — you know, all those things a good teacher does…) and on to enough “independent” practice through which the student has applied the teacher’s learning her or himself.

A quick way to measure “internalization” is to try to teach it to someone else. If you can’t explain it to someone who doesn’t already know it, then you don’t really know it. This is how a parent can engage a child in studying topics that the parent doesn’t know about: “explain it to me.” If the student can’t, then the student needs more learning, be it guided or independent practice or both.

But here’s the crutch: is it important enough to the student to apply him or herself to it fully?

Relevancy

So let’s add an additional component to “testing well”:

3. Making it important enough to study and practice enough (relevancy and commitment)

Overly compliant students do not engage lessons meaningfully, as do other sorts of underperformers who may procrastinate, lack  executive function and other secretarial skills and do not process and practice enough independently.

Just as we would ask the internally-motivated student who learns only topics of interest, the overly compliant, externally-motivated student must adopt that curiosity and drive to learn of the intrinsic learner in order to get past “I don’t test well.”

Both sets must apply themselves with adequate  preparation, practice, and purpose in order to raise those test grades, even in an unenjoyable class.

Heh, it’s only a grade — which actually matters.

So quit making excuses about “testing issues” and get to work really learning it so that when you do have to spit it back out on a test amidst formal, “sit-down and shut-up,” nerve-wracking settings, it’s actually easy — because you already and truly know it.

– Michael