Educational Cargo Cults And The Bandwagon Effect

Everyone is susceptible to cognitive biases but without understanding how they influence our thoughts, teachers may not be aware of their own lack of objectivity in decision making.

Many of us unaware of our biases because our psychological defense mechanisms prevent us from looking at our thinking and motivations too closely. We must therefore expand our views and acknowledge that cognitive biases exist.

To create a culture of transparency and honesty we should start by recognising human imperfection in teaching. In a culture of collaboration there is open communication where we are able to support each other and highlight biases where we see them so they can be avoided in the future.

But this is no easy task because discussing biases means we have to get personal. This is why we have to have a culture of acceptance and recognise that mistakes, errors and wobbly thinking is there to be challenged but done in the spirit of teamwork. When we cultivate a culture that recognises human vulnerabilities then we can be more open to reflection and discussing biases in order to learn from our mistakes and create strategies to manage them.

One ‘classic’ bias is the bandwagon effect which is the tendency for people to believe and do certain things because many others are doing so. In other words, the tyranny of the majority.

Groupthink is an example and may have a disastrous impact on team decision making and strategies adopted in schools such as learning styles, Brain Gym and other fool’s gold ideas. If you see others do something them it makes you want to do it so that you are conforming with everyone else.

The term bandwagon was first introduced in American politics in 1848 when Dan Rice, a famous circus clown, used his bandwagon while playing music to gain public attention for his political campaign.

Bandwagons often have limited lifetimes and eventually run out of steam but some can be remarkably stubborn and people still keep jumping on them. The usual problem seems to be that someone, normally an edu-celeb, promotes an idea and then lots of people run with it and then many more go with the flow. Individual decision-making and critical reasoning are thrown out of the window and we pursue products and practices with insufficient scrutiny.

Hattie and Hamilton (2018) argue that if our inherent biases are left unchecked, then we are going to fall for education cargo cults which is why they advocate an approach to education that is built on reason.

Education cargo cults must die. Instead, we must privilege evidence of impact and we must use this evidence to ensure that every learner gets at least a year’s growth for a year’s input…..Evidence is the rich jam at the heart of the whole education enterprise: it is to be relished and spread far and wide.

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