Evil Teaching Method: Using Confirmation Bias

I like messing with peoples’ minds.     Even before I became an instructor, it was one of my very favorite pastimes.    While I will say that I am a lifelong student of human nature (who isn’t, really?), I think ultimately it comes down to one thing:   I like pushing buttons.     The most interesting questions often begin with a “what if….”     Like what if I answer a phone with “Hi, is Bob there?”   Or what if I teach little kids the tongue-twister:   “I’m not a pheasant-plucker, I’m a pheasant-plucker’s mate. I’m only plucking pheasants, `cause the pheasant-plucker’s late.”   Or read Dr. Seuss books in the most sultry and suggestive way imaginable.   Or what if I stare at the ceiling as if there is something scary there. Or…

Messing with people is a public service.   Shaking up people’s expectations helps to break them out of a rut, it keeps people sharp… and it’s just  funny.

Most of the fun buttons to press in people stem from very common cognitive distortions or common logical fallacies.   These can be anything from in-group bias,  minimizing, or (one of my favorites) cognitive dissonance.    Knowing the kinds of thinking errors that people tend to make can help you stay ahead of behavior problems,  help to keep people motivated, or keep people from getting discouraged.

Using confirmation bias:   Convincing people that they’re actually good at math

Confirmation bias is the mother of biases.  Many different cognitive distortions can be linked back to it, including black and white thinking“should” guilt,  and both catastrophising and minimizing.    It is huge…. and you can let it work for you, or against you.     Especially when teaching a developmental class, students may already be in the mindset of “I can’t do this”   or “I’m bad at math”.    If students get used to telling themselves this, no amount of accomplishment will be enough to overcome this feeling, and pointing out their accomplishments won’t help because “they don’t count”.    But if they feel “I can do this”, or “I’m good at math”, then they will persevere.   Even if they have difficulties, they can discount failures and keep trying.    Here is what to do:

1)   Lay a foundation and start undoing past damage.   I put a great deal of thought into how I frame the class during the couple of class sessions, and I try to revisit these things later on.     First, I like to get people to thinking about their own expectations from a class.    One thing I ask frequently is “Do you feel like you should be able to get math just by looking at it?    How about…  German?    Do you also feel like you should be able to read German by looking at it?”   Disarming their negative expectations are crucial during the early stages of a class.

2)   Feed their image of being good at math.   If they don’t have an image of being good at math, then build one for them.   I like to take time to chat with my students before class, and one of the things I like to point out is how good people are at __________.   It doesn’t really matter what, but I can usually link it back to math.   Then I point out that they are good at math, and the basic math skills, but they just need the practice with formal math.    If nothing else, I point out that they can easily figure out how fast they can get away with speeding…

3)   Reinforce the positive, even if it isn’t about math.   I give a lot of praise in my classes.   I praise questions, I praise hard work, and I praise honest mistakes.     Also, I like to pitch out some easy questions from time to time.   Once they get in the habit of hearing encouragement, then they are more likely to give themselves encouragement, and to minimize the mistakes they make.

The good news is that once a student starts to believe that they are good at math and a good student, then it rapidly becomes a a self-fulfilling prophecy.    Just remember, you are pushing your students buttons for a greater good.

Don’t think of it as manipulation.    That just makes you seem like an evil teacher or something.


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