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Do you suffer from cognitive biases?


The image above was shared on Twitter/X the other day and I thought it might be worth sharing some thoughts on the subject of cognitive bias and how it affects language teachers. I'm going to take four examples from the list above. But first, to be clear, what is cognitive bias? 

Here is what the site Simply Psychology says:

Cognitive bias is a systematic error in thinking, affecting how we process information, perceive others, and make decisions. It can lead to irrational thoughts or judgments and is often based on our perceptions, memories, or individual and societal beliefs.

Biases are unconscious and automatic processes designed to make decision-making quicker and more efficient. Cognitive biases can be caused by many things, such as heuristics (mental shortcuts), social pressures, and emotions.

Broadly speaking, bias is a tendency to lean in favor of or against a person, group, idea, or thing, usually in an unfair way. Biases are natural — they are a product of human nature — and they don’t simply exist in a vacuum or in our minds — they affect the way we make decisions and act.

In psychology, there are two main branches of biases: conscious and unconscious. Conscious or explicit bias is intentional — you are aware of your attitudes and the behaviors resulting from them.

So I like to think of cognitive bias as something which may stop you, as a teacher, evaluating objectively what you do, for example your choice of pedagogy, your management of pupil behaviour or your choice of resources.

Let's take those four examples from above then.

1. Authority bias

Perhaps you let yourself be over-influenced by what a government, subject association or perceived expert says about language teaching. This may occur when you are less experienced and have less knowledge on which to objectively evaluate your practice. 

In England, you might accept uncritically what the Ofsted Research Review or the TSC Review tells you about reearch and language teaching. You might accept uncritically what a subject advisor or Head of Department tells you about classroom practice. 

You might have been told that explicit teaching of grammar leads to strong foundations and greater proficiency, but observe that our class does not seem to respond well to grammar and you cannot see it improving their comprehension or fluency. 

You might have been urged to do regular vocab tests, but you are not sure that this is the best use of time, especially when your students don't seem to take the tests seriously enough.

Or else, you may have been told that a good way to organise your teaching is around purposeful tasks, and that any formal grammar or drill-like exercises are futile, yet you feel your class is engaged, but confused.

You may have been told that you should use 90% target language, but you find this is not working and your class is getting restless. Is it wrong to use the first language and to use translation?

To counter the risk of authority bias, you would be wise to get informed from a variety of sources and keep in mind what is unfolding in front of you as you run a lesson. Most teachers change their approach in small or large ways during a career and become more confident in their ability to evaluate information from official sources or gurus.

2. Bandwagon effect

It's only natural to want to latch on the to the latest shiny toy or new approach, especially if you are unsatisfied with your current practice - and many teachers are. Perhaps it's a new pedagogy or a new technology which grabs your attention. Should you be making more use of tablets, computers, tablets or AI? 

A few years ago, there was definitely a bandwagon effect associated with tablets in the classroom. A lot of money was spent and, to my knowledge, it is not clear that student outcomes or motivation were improved. No doubt sometimes they were, sometimes they were not. That's not an argument per se against tablets or computers, but clearly the choice to use tech needs to be justified by pedagogy and not based on following the herd or doing the 'latest thing'.

I recall about thirty years ago following the bandwagon of learning styles. I did form-time activities to find out students' preferred learning style without really critically engaging with the theory. Research over recent decades has not shown that matching activities to learning preferences improves outcomes or motivation. On more mature reflection, and with more reading, I've concluded that learning preferences exist (they clearly do), but that learning styles theory is unproven and probably discredited.

Once again, the antidote to this type of cognitive bias is knowledge, reading and having an open mind. (Having an open mind may, of course, to take on a new idea with good reason.)

3. Endowment effect

Do you ever find that you teach a lesson better when you have designed the resource yourself? I sometimes had this feeling, and frequently preferred my own resources to the ones in the textbook. Perhaps I was right to think they were better, but it's possible they were not. Teachers may spend (waste?) a great deal of time designing their own resources when there are already perfectly good ones (and in all likelihood better ones) already out there.

I would not argue for never writing your own stuff. It's a great skill to have, one which helps you evaluate other resources too. You may simply enjoy it - I do. Home-made resources are also precisely tailored to your own class. Your ownership of the resource and lesson plan may help you deliver the lesson with greater belief and skill.

Sharing resources in a department can be very productive and time-saving and helps deliver a more consistent curriculum to the students. A good text book may suit your classes very well.

4. Illusory correlation

Your class may be performing at a high level and showing great motivation. You put this down to your thorough teaching and practice of grammatical structure and your weekly vocabulary tests. But how do you know that the students' progress was not just the exposure to and interaction with lots of target language they understand - the famous 'comprehensible input'?

When I observed my high-flying, highly motivated advanced level students, I asked myself what it was that led to their incredible proficiency after just six or seven years, with a few lessons a week, a school exchange and homework. Were those grammar lessons and question-answer drills worthwhile? Or was it just about the input and communication?

The truth is I don't know for sure, but my own cognitive bias, along with a good deal of reading and experience, suggests to me that the input was a lot more important than  the skill-building. I could be suffering from confirmation bias though!

5. Sunk-cost fallacy

You spent a lot of money on that set of textbooks or that interactive whiteboard. So you keep using both, even though you are not keen on the book and doubt the usefulness of the IWB.

Back in around 1985, my Head of Department bought a set of textbooks published in France, breaking with the tradition of buying the latest British-published course from Longman or Oxford. I used them with my Year 8 class for a very short time, before realisng that I was much more comfortable using the old Longman Audio-Visual French course. The French book was not designed specifically for young Britons and seemed to have no grammatical progression. It also lacked back-up exercises for its texts. It was all a bit thin and lacked repetition. I knew I needed lots of recycling and repetition in a textbook.

Even though I was a young teacher, I was already keen on theory and methods, and about to start my MA, so I felt that I could evaluate critically this new book which had been foisted on us. Fortunately, my Head of Department did not keep close tabs on us, or, more generously, preferred to let us use our own judgment.

Clearly, if you have invested time and effort into something, you want it to succeed, but when you see that results are disappointing you have to change tack.

So there we are. I think we all are victims of cognitive biases, but being aware of them may help us be more objective and more effective.


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