Children are natural born liars. And so are the adults around them.
Everyone lies. It’s in or DNA to tell pork pies.
But do some people lie more than others and what does this mean for the classroom?
A new study by John Jerrim et al (2019) lets us know that it is boy who bullshit more than girls. Pardon my French as it were but the name of the study is ‘Bullshitters. Who are they and what do we know about their lives?’
They define a bullshitter as “someone who makes such claims on a regular basis; i.e. a person who consistently exaggerates their prowess and/or frequently tells untruths.”
Along with Nikki Shure, and Phil Parker, Jerrim analysed data gathered by the OECD to assess how well 40,000 15-year-olds in Anglophone regions around the world have mastered key academic subjects. They found
Boys are bigger bullshitters than girls, children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds tend to bullshit more than those from lower ones, and North Americans bullshit the most.
What did they do? Well, they asked students about their knowledge of some key concepts, including concepts that don’t actually exist. Would people lie about stuff they didn’t know? You bet right. Here’s an example: one of the questions focused on 16 different mathematical concepts which included three fakes – proper numbers, subjective scaling and declarative functions.
What Jerrim et al did was to take what they students said in relation to the fake concepts to draw up a “bullshit scale”. Of course, what they found was that students blagged knowing about things that weren’t real and ‘overclaimed’. No one want to be look stupid or silly so better to bullshit than draw a blank or say “I don’t know”.
When asked about their problem-solving skills, bullshitters are around 20 percentage points more likely to say that they ‘can handle a lot of information’, ‘can easily link facts together’, ‘are quick to understand things’ and ‘like to solve complex problems’.
The research is interesting because it teaches us a lot about what happens on a daily basis in every school and most classrooms all the time: bullshit is rife.
In all the CPD sessions I have led, I will always encounter teachers who feel compelled to overclaim and do so with plenty of confidence too. They’d rather not be seen by their colleagues as not knowing something so they put on a pretty convincing act that they know all about x and y. Until you start to probe and redness across the neck and cheeks appears. Bullshit baffles brains but only on occasions.
Children are always bullshitting and that’s perfectly understandable. They are surrounded by loads of other kids and are often required to reveal what they think in front of everyone. Sometimes the best route is to nod and say you understand something when in reality you don’t have the slightest clue. Sometimes just sounding confident can hoodwink others into thinking you know your onions.
But it’s not like this everywhere. A classroom that welcomes mistake-making proves to be the sort of environment where bullshitting is made to feel unwelcome. In a classroom that is psychologically safe then children and adults don’t need to lie, they just need to hold their hands up and say “I don’t know” or “I don’t get it” without any fear of what others might think. In the classroom, honesty is always the best policy.
So, watch out for overclaiming and overconfidence in your classroom and pay particular attention to the boys – they are more likely than girls to attempt pulling the wool over your eyes.
I think it’s worth pausing and recognising that effective teachers make their classrooms the sort of place where everyone can come clean and reveal what they know, don’t know and partly know without embarrassment.
Jerrim, J.; Parker, P. and Shure, N. 2019. Bullshitters. Who are they and what do we know about their lives? Bullshit_WP