Which cognitive traps do we fall into?


Since the 1960s, scientists have been examining our thinking, decisions and actions empirically. One of the discoveries is irrationality: our thinking is not rational, but prone to error, and this affects everyone. In the last decade, Rolf Dobelli, PhD in economic philosophy, has been devouring articles and books by cognitive scientists on systematic biases in thinking, and visiting their labs. Over his career, he has compiled a list from cognitive psychology of these systematic thinking errors. His hope is that this book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, might help us to learn to recognise and avoid the frequent irrational pitfalls we fall into.

Reading this book, I’ve been reflecting on the flaws and blind spots in my own thinking on education. After the challenges that flooded in on my controversial blogpost on Sir Ken’s Robinson’s ideas, some humility is definitely in order: perhaps it’s time to take a dose of my own medicine, and attack the assumptions that underpin the educational ideas and beliefs I hold. As Laura McInerney has challenged us to ask, what if everything I thought about education was wrong?

Realising the flaws in our thinking may be useful as we think about  education. I’ve chunked my ideas on this into a series of three blogposts: first on education blogging, next on teaching practice, and finally on the education system. If, as headteacher John Tomsett suggested at the Labour Teachmeet, ‘we are creating a civilisation of the mind in cyberspace’, it may be worth looking at some of the traps our minds fall into. So I’ve listed the cognitive biases that I reckon we often fall into in edublogs:


  1. *Confirmation Bias*: kill your darlings
  2. *Introspection Illusion*: be your own heretic
  3. *Single Cause Fallacy*: the stone-age hunt for scapegoats
  4. *Cherry Picking*: drawing the bulls’ eye round the arrow

 I’ll try and apply each bias, which Dobelli applies mainly to finance, to education, and come up with some examples.


1. *Confirmation Bias: kill your darlings


‘We establish beliefs about the world underpinned by lots of assumptions. We find daily proof to support the case, filtering out disconfirming evidence to the contrary. In books and blogs, readers seeking disconfirming evidence do so in vain. Online divergent opinions vanish from the radar. We stick to communities of like-minded people, reinforcing our convictions.


This blog is a victim of this: looking for evidence that confirms my ideas, rather than evidence that disconfirms them.

Twitter can become an echo chamber, where like-minded groups follow each other, retweeting and echoing each others’ opinions: the tongue-in-cheek metablog that has collated over 1000 blogposts (mainly by teachers) in the last 6 months, The Echo Chamber, self-consciously plays up to this.

Avoidance: ‘Try writing down your beliefs, and set out to find disconfirming evidence. Axeing beliefs that feel like old friends is hard work, but imperative’.

2. *Introspection Illusion: Be your own heretic


‘Nothing is more convincing than your own beliefs.’


In this blog, I am beginning to build up a manifesto of ideas on what I think is most problematic in education (graded observations, national levels, inconsistent inspections, flashy gimmicks, snake oil, ineffective CPD) and what some of the solutions might be: a rigorous curriculum, mastery assessment, explicit instruction and practical CPD, based on cognitive science. Other education blogs, far ahead of me, have built up coherent manifestos of their own: for instance, Old Andrew and headteacher Tom Sherrington.

Avoidance: ‘Be all the more critical with yourself. Regard your internal observations with the same scepticism as claims from others. Become your own toughest critic.’

3. *Single Cause fallacy: the wrong question


‘As Leo Tolstoy said, “when an apple falls, what makes it fall? Gravity? The withered stem? The sun drying it out? The apple growing heavier? The wind shaking the tree? The tree flexed by the boy beneath? No one thing is the cause.” This is one of the most common of all mental errors: asking the wrong question, “what’s the one root cause?”’


In this blogpost, I asked ‘what is great teaching?’ and tried to simplify it down into the ‘one deep controlling insight or organising principle that underpins sustained success, the greatest possible impact over the longest period of time.’ What I came up with was this: ‘great teaching is effective instruction plus continuous improvement’. Of course, this begs the question, ‘what is effective instruction?’ which I also tried to answer, but it revealed circular logic and is very, very far from capturing everything great teachers do.

Avoidance: Avoid searching for single solutions and asking questions that oversimplify.


4. *Cherry Picking: drawing the bulls’ eye round the arrow


‘We select the examples that work for us, and fail to mention those that don’t.’


In this blog, I admit to having cherry-picked a few schools that are applying the ideas of mastery assessment, such as ARK schools King Soloman and Burlington Danes. But they by no means shows a national trend. Nor have I looked into schools where mastery assessment has not worked.

In publishing a series of ebooks for new Teach First participants, we aimed for 50% of the 1000 trainees to get the books. Now that fewer than 40% have, it is tempting to shift the goalposts and say that is what we intended all along.

Avoidance: ‘Ask about the leftover cherries, failed projects and missed goals. You learn more from these than successes. Seldom are such questions asked. Double-check targets. Over time, original goals fade, replaced, quietly, with always attainable goals.’

The first two imperatives for avoiding cognitive bias seem especially useful for challenging my own ideas in education with a healthy dose of scepticism: ‘kill your darlings’ and ‘be your own heretic.’ So here are a couple of ideas that I hold particularly dear on the curriculum:

  • A rigorous, sequenced, interleaved, knowledge-led curriculum full of challenging, enduring texts and complex, enduring ideas is desirable for all children, regardless of background, but especially for disadvantaged pupils, as they lack such advantages at home: as Willingham and Engelmann say, it’s the curriculum that counts.
  • Enduring mastery of complex academic content is feasible for the vast, vast majority of our pupils.

And here is a great challenge to that from a commenter on this blog:

On a rigorous, sequenced, interleaved, knowledge-led curriculum, PedagogInTheMachine (@_FreeEducation) says:

“ 1) nobody would argue that this shouldn’t happen; and 2) nobody could really argue that this doesn’t happen already, at least to a significant extent.

“Like Willingham you say that critical thinking skills require knowledge… from this I assume you accept that critical thinking skills constitute some sort of desirable end game for education, or at least a set of “higher order processes” than merely learning pre-ordained knowledge. So let’s turn the debate on its head for a moment: how have critical thinking skills in the current or past curriculum been adequately addressed?

“I think the reality is that you overstate the case that skills agenda has taken over the asylum. Robinson and Claxton are influential yes but they are not central players – and if 200 schools are running Opening Minds that leaves thousands that aren’t… is it possibly the case that you too are generalising from the particular?” …

“If Dan Willingham and Joe and others agree that critical thinking skills form a desirable educational aim – and indeed that we should teach knowledge as a prerequisite for higher order critical thinking skills – then what is the problem with these skills being assessed? My point is, skills are present yes but I think they have often been ill-conceived, taught poorly, and assessed haphazardly. This doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause – we just need to do it better.”

If skills have been taught and assessed badly, the idea that we need to improve the way we teach and assess them seems sensible. This is a strong challenge, and one I will keep thinking about.

Am I prepared to kill my ideas on a knowledge-led curriculum? Not quite, but I am prepared to examine and test the assumptions underpinning them. Does sequencing and consolidating knowledge really help disadvantaged pupils succeed? Does mastery assessment help teachers increase these pupils’ academic achievement? Is there a way of optimising (or at least improving) the interleaving of the curriculum sequence? Perhaps we can start by seeking out both confirming and disconfirming evidence to refute these initial hypotheses.

I’m very grateful to those who have taken the time to challenge my ideas on the blogosphere. It is helping me to recognise my own biases, and reminding me how important humility is, in such a complex field as prone to cognitive bias as education.


In the next post on cognitive biases in thinking about teaching practice, I’ll look into *effort justification*, *the paradox of choice* and *decision fatigue*. In the final post in the series on cognitive biases in thinking about education systems, I’ll look into *authority bias*, *forecast illusion* and the *novelty effect*. It’s a very exciting avenue of research.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Which cognitive traps do we fall into?

  1. debrakidd says:

    There is a lesson for us all here Joe – really thought-provoking blog – thank you! Am about to start writing a blog about the Hattie book – need to do it in chunks – it’s such a beast, but I’ve been having similar thoughts as I’ve read through that. Trying to take care not to simply be guided to the bits I like while also retaining a healthy critical distance. It’s not an easy path to tread! This is a really timely post.

  2. manyanaed says:

    Oh no!!! No I can’t even believe in what I believe. I have to believe it, kill it, and then…

  3. Glad to be of service! I think it is fairly easy to conceive of curriculum units that require students firstly to pursue and develop mastery over a body of knowledge, and then to bring that knowledge to life through the application of higher order critical thinking skills. For example I’ve just taught a unit on evolution in which students firstly had to learn by heart the definitions of a number of key ideas and phrases – inheritance, genetic variation, environmental variation, genetic mutation, competition, adaptation, habitat, survival of the fittest, natural selection etc – and to give examples of each. And then they were required to combine these ideas in an essay “My science teacher tells me I am related to all living things. But how can this be?” – which they pulled off remarkably well over the course of 3 drafts – whole class, paired and finally individual construction. Next they learnt about various strands of evidence for evolution – the fossil record, anatomical homologies, biogeography, genetics etc – as well as arguments against it – intelligent design etc (I think I might be alone in thinking intelligent design should absolutely be discussed alongside evolution in science lessons). They then engage in a debate about the evidence for and against evolution, using their knowledge of the fossil record, DNA evidence etc – combined with their pre-existing knowledge – and also to make informed predictions about what might happen next in terms of human evolution. Needless to say I went off-piste with this unit – evolution is supposed to take only 2 lessons(!) – and now need to catch up. But I will return to it throughout the year, through homeworks and whenever we find ourselves ahead – until students are able to think in evolutionary terms, for example to explain human behaviours (dancing in nightclubs as a mating ritual… fighting outside nightclubs as a show of dominance / an attempt to see off competitors… neighbour wars over parking spaces as territory wars etc) – with the aim of making it so that the principles of evolutionary logic become alive to them, so that they can apply them to novel situations. I know none of this is new – it’s basically Blooms from bottom to top – but in terms of curriculum design I haven’t yet encountered it before really.

  4. While we’re on the subject of evolution and skills, I might draw your attention to an article published recently by my PhD supervisor, which outlines an evolutionary basis for collaborative learning, among other things… It’s a remarkable piece of original / pan-disciplinary thinking in my view, which ties in nicely with ideas around language-based pedagogy… I think any attempt at curriculum design should emphasise the central role of language acquisition both in building the initial knowledge base and in mediating the relationship between that knowledge and the sorts higher order thinking skills I mentioned above… in some academic subjects at least. Not sure how much use it would be in Maths for example. Anyway I’d be interested to hear your thoughts – it’s behind a paywall unfortunately but I’d be happy to cough cough email rhubarb if you’re interested =)


  5. Lucy Crehan says:

    Really interesting post Joe. This is something I’ve been thinking/worrying about recently, and it’s great to have a framework to address tese issues in my own thinking/blogging. Looking forward to the next two. L

  6. bt0558 says:

    Excellent post thank you. So good I bought the book.

    I am just hoping that I am not completely wrong on everything

  7. This is a very good blog on many levels….and very encouraging given the very polarised nature of debate (not just in the field of education…). There are many different influences on us as individuals which effect how we see things (evidence..?) and how we integrate them into our world view. Consequently, it is very important to realise that there is a reasonable chance that we are wrong about something (or many things) and will have to change our views over time. Equally, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much if we do find that we were wrong – apologise and move on….

  8. Steve Horsch says:

    Great blog!

    Motivated reasoning is another reasoning pitfall I am trying to avoid in all aspects of my life.

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