Which cognitive biases prevail in teaching?


Yesterday, I started a series of three posts on cognitive biases in our thinking about education.  *Confirmation bias* (failing to seek out disconfirming evidence for our own ideas), *introspection illusion* (becoming convinced our own beliefs are right), *single cause fallacy* (looking for the one key cause for a problem) and *cherry-picking* (choosing only examples that work for our ideas, and ignoring those examples that don’t): these affect us all in education – and they especially affect this blog.

Today, I want to suggest some pitfalls that we fall into in thinking about our teaching practice. Decades of research into cognitive psychology has given us a map of our systematic thinking errors. Here are some of the most prevalent biases I see affecting us as teachers:



  1. *Future fallacy*: why we take on too much
  2. *Effort Justification*: no pain, no gain
  3. * The Paradox of Choice*: less is more
  4. *Decision Fatigue*: decide less, decide better


1. *Future fallacy: Why we take on too much


‘Why do we continue to think the same impossible, unachieved workload is doable? Wishful thinking: just as our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. We overlook outside influences and unexpected eventualities.’


I am always taking on new projects and commitments, some of which compromise existing projects, which then start to fall by the wayside.

I see colleagues biting off far more than they can chew.

It’s very hard to learn to say ‘no’ when asked to get involved new, exciting ideas.

Avoidance: ‘Shift your focus to external factors. Imagine a catastrophe a year from now – this could tell you how things might turn out.’


2. *Effort Justification: no pain, no gain


‘Research shows that the harder the entrance exam is to pass, the greater the subsequent pride and value people attach to membership. MBA’s deem the qualification essential for their careers, partly because it was so demanding.’


I am constantly justifying to myself that 1000-2000 word blogposts are necessary because the ideas are important; but most people don’t have time to read over 1000 words, and would prefer more concise chunks.

Many Teach First teachers I know convince themselves that the harder they work, and the more time they put into resource preparation, the better they’ll teach. While laudable, it can result in burnout, when they’d be better off evaluating the impact of their high-effort resources and teaching strategies, getting a good night’s sleep, and cutting insane workloads over time.

I’m sure Tessa Matthews won’t mind me referencing her recent blogpost about working a 75 hour week with 24-hour deadlines after inordinate pressure from her SLT: and it seems like the *guilt trip* is as common a phenomenon amongst hardworking teachers and senior leaders, if Ross Morrison McGill (@teachertoolkit)’s post on guilt, Guilty As Charged, and Educating Yorkshire’s Michael Steer is anything to go by. We retrospectively justify insane workloads to ourselves with the thought we’re doing it for the kids; but burnout benefits no one.

Avoidance: Try this out – whenever you have invested a lot of time and effort, stand back and examine the result – only the result.

3. *The Paradox of Choice: less is more


A surfeit of choices can lead to poorer decisions. A flood of possibilities can overwhelm.


I find this happens a lot in supermarkets, but also with activities in teaching. There are so many, many possibilities: Paul Ginnis’ Teacher Toolkit promises 50 different activities. Ross Morrison McGill himself has published a book with ‘100 new ideas’. Resources like ‘100 starters’, ‘200 top plenaries’ or ‘500 tools for AfL’ proliferating on the TES, only exacerbate this. The education market is flooded with whizzy, jazzy and flashy options to spice up the variety in your lessons. But kids already get a huge amount of variety in the ten or more subjects they do at school. Such a dizzying array of choices is downright confusing – for teachers and pupils.

Avoidance: ‘Think carefully about what you want before making choices. Write down the criteria and stick to them.’

4. *Decision Fatigue: decide less, decide better


‘Making decisions is exhausting; intensive decision-making drains willpower. Decision fatigue makes us more susceptible to making errors on impulse.’

Examples: While most jobs require people to make around 30 decisions a day, in teaching, we make 300 or more. Perhaps that’s what makes teaching so exhausting and draining, especially when we first start. To survive, we quickly make decisions on instinct and autopilot, but this leads to the well-established teaching plateau, where it’s very hard to change engrained habits.

Avoidance: rest, relax, recharge, replenish and revitalise: this allows us to maintain vital willpower. Perhaps that’s why we always feel like we need school holidays so badly!


I find it fascinating how scientific research into the mind can give us clues as how to improve the way we work. A good starting point is to work out which of the traps we end up falling into most often.

Do I take on too much – and could I learn to politely say no to new commitments that blur my focus? Do I retrospectively justify all my efforts and resourcing of lessons, without discriminating between which efforts and resources had the most impact? Could I be doing less of what’s good, to make time for what’s best for my pupils’ learning? Am I overwhelmed by the dizzying array of choice of activities that I could teach, when careful focus on high-impact, low-effort strategies might save me time and improve my impact? Am I making too many decisions that deplete my ability to choose the best options, or making suboptimal decisions on autopilot?

It seems to me well worth asking these questions. That way, we can work out how to avoid the most prevalent pitfalls in thinking about our teaching practice.

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
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10 Responses to Which cognitive biases prevail in teaching?

  1. Pingback: Which cognitive traps do we fall into? | Pragmatic Education

  2. Lots of food for thought here. Really good questions to ask ourselves when we’re feeling overworked and under pressure.

  3. rolat2 says:

    Thank you for opening up our minds and reflecting on our over decisions and work load choices. As today wanting to blog to reflect on my learning from my students as well as completing progress reports.

  4. wendymaria says:

    A lot to think about here and very sensible ideas. Half term is a good time to give this some quality thought time and make some changes to benefit me for a change

  5. Roderick Ball says:

    Hi Joe
    I gave secondary school teaching 20+ yrs ago. Realised that the bright kids didn’t need me; the silent, average majority were those that really did. I realised I wasn’t good enough for the latter, so moved on into the corporate world, medical communications and Wave.

    I saw your father at Chelsea the other day (I had your ticket) who updated me on what yr up to. Good for you! Loved the blog – wish it had been around back in my day….

    Good luck, Rod

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