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Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.
A tidy definition from Science Daily.
Here’s what confirmation bias looks like in the real world:
- Assuming that learners would be unable to complete a very challenging task successfully, one well-intentioned teacher chooses not to offer it as a result. When asked to justify her reasoning, the teacher cited only those experts who spoke to the”developmental inappropriateness” of similar tasks and the certainty of increasing student frustration, thereby confirming her bias (by the way, this was me).
- After participating in a series of shoddy data reviews in her son’s local school district, one parent representative went on the hunt for those who had similarly horrible experiences across the state. Together, they began a grass-roots movement, fueled only by their personal experiences and those with similar stories to tell. They took to social media calling all parents to action with the assertion that all data “lie.”
- After participating in a series of regional conferences wherein vendors introduced educators to “Common Core aligned curricula”, many rushed backed to their school districts to mandate implementation with complete fidelity. After one year of implementation, some began sharing evidence that suggested a need for adaptation. Others responded by showcasing enthusiasts of the adopted curricula and addressing the concerns raised with a charge to stay the course, as perseverance would surely yield similar results.
- After one year of implementation, a team of teachers who tested new instructional approaches presented their findings to the Board of Education and interested members of the community. They used evidence gathered from their classroom experiences to define what worked and what adjustments they would make moving forward. A group of opponents followed the presentation by sharing findings from their research, which supported their position. The findings were drawn exclusively from experts in the field who tested the same curricula in a different country with a different population of learners using different tools.
If we’re ever going to serve learners well and heal the field of education, we’re all going to have to learn how to recognize and curb confirmation bias. Here are five questions I ask myself regularly, because this is something I struggle with. If confirmation bias is something you are sensitive to, you might consider asking yourself these questions. I think they’re important to share with students as well.
5 Questions That Help Curb Your Confirmation Bias
- Do I have particularly strong feelings or beliefs about the issue at hand? If so, I may want to invite those who are less passionate about this topic to share their thoughts with me before issuing any calls to action.
- Am I basing my conclusions on selective evidence? If so, I may want to seek out and listen carefully to those who oppose my views.
- Do I avoid, block, or even attack informed people who appropriately disagree with me? If so, I may want to reflect on what’s making me feel threatened and consider the possibility that I’m practicing belief perseverance.
- Am I placing more value on the first bits of information that I received or drawing inappropriate correlations between data points? If so, I may want to consider whether the cost of being wrong is beginning to compromise my analysis and my ability to serve others well as a result.
- Do I seek support by maintaining a judgmental stance and telling people what to do? If so, I may want to consider whether the support I’m garnering is truly authentic or whether I’m really inspiring people to act in response to fear or shame.
When it comes to practicing confirmation bias, questions like these have helped me become far more self-aware than I used to be. Like most passionate educators, I know I’m still a work in progress though.
Perfection isn’t my goal. Awareness is. To that end, I’m wondering what questions you might add to this list?
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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.