Saturday, March 1, 2014

Fifty + Shades of Educational Grey

Post by Kelly Ager: Kelly has been teaching for 12 years. She has taught AP Psychology for the last 9 years at Bettendorf High School. You can follow her on twitter @KellyAger

Identifying Cognitive Errors and Developing New Habits of Mind

At our core, educators are human.  Our humanity is one of our greatest strengths - it is what allows us to relate to our students as people, not just "learners."  Our ability to form relationships with our students can make us powerful forces in their lives for positive change, learning, and growth.  Our humanity, however, can sometimes make us vulnerable to distorted and maladaptive ways of thinking.  We can fall victim to making what cognitive psychologists like Aaron Beck (1975) refer to as cognitive distortions.  In our personal lives, these illogical ways of thinking can lead to stress, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other dysfunctional behavior patterns.  Lately I have found myself noticing how these same thinking errors can hamper our effectiveness as educators, making us harsh critics of ourselves and our colleagues, ultimately preventing us from reaching our full potential.

    Beck and other cognitive psychologists developed cognitive therapies based on the premise that, if we can identify when we are making these cognitive distortions, we can dispute them, come up with an interpretation that more closely matches "reality", and thus prevent ourselves from letting them cause distress or other dysfunctional thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  In Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapy and The Feeling Good Handbook (1999), Beck's student, David Burns outlined ten specific cognitive distortions people make that I believe can also be applied to the way educators sometimes think.  These errors can become habitual, and cause us to beat ourselves up unnecessarily, be harsher critics of our colleagues and students, and be less effective and satisfied with ourselves as educators.  Although this kind of thinking can become very ingrained, research in cognitive therapy and positive psychology  (e.g., see Shawn Achor's TED Talk)shows us that we can become aware of our dysfunctional thinking patterns and practice new, more logical and positive ways of thinking about ourselves and the things that happen to us. The following are some examples of how Burns' ten cognitive distortions might be dragging us down as educators.  If we can learn to recognize when our thinking is maladaptive in these ways, we can begin to develop more positive habits of disputing these negative thoughts and replacing them with more rational and affirming ones.

1.  Black-and-White (all-or-nothing) Thinking
     This type of thinking involves looking at things in terms of absolutes (e.g., "always", "never", "all", "every", "perfect", "failure", "best".)  We tend to see things as either black or white, but we do not look at all of the possible shades of grey in between.  Things in life and education are rarely, if ever, all one way or the other.  Teachers, students, parents, administrators, strategies, and tools cannot be lumped into categories at the extremes, and yet we find ourselves doing just that. We demonize or exalt many of these things (or people) at times, and we forget that nothing is 100% good or bad.  As a result, I believe there are many things in education that we disparage unnecessarily as well as any educators who may use those techniques.  We also have a tendency to exalt, glorify, or jump on a bandwagon prematurely and elevate seemingly promising techniques.  Educators can tend to miss the shades of grey and see things as all good or all bad.  For example:     
  •  Worksheet  has become a dirty word in education.  As the saying goes, "Friends don't let friends give worksheets."   I think it probably started out as an understandable backlash against tasks that only required students to reach the lowest levels on Bloom's (1956) taxonomy (i.e, knowledge and understanding) and never challenged students to develop higher abilities such as analysis, evaluation, and synthesis (now creation; Airasian et al, 2000) We do want our students to reach those higher levels, but that does not mean we should abandon some of the techniques that may help students master information at the lower levels.  We cannot leapfrog over knowledge, comprehension and application and expect students will have success at those higher levels.  Although they are not sufficient, the lower-level abilities are necessary for learners to truly be able to reach those higher levels.  Judicious use of the much-maligned worksheet to reinforce concepts, guide reading, or give needed practice can help students achieve a certain degree of mastery over the concepts they will need to analyze, evaluate, and create.
  • Lecture (also direct instruction, or anything that is teacher-led) has become an educational boogeyman.  The term "direct instruction" seems to have cropped up as a euphemism for "lecture", which has come to have very negative connotations.  This seems to have carried over to just about anything that is teacher led, such as discussion.  This tendency to lump all teacher-led activities together does a disservice to them.  Here again, I think the original intent behind this criticism was a legitimate critique on teachers who spend all their time talking at their students.  But who does that?  No teacher I know. Think of some of the teachers you've have over the years.  I'll bet some of the best ones you've had, and from whom you learned the most, would be considered by many in education today as more of a "sage on the stage" than a "coach on the sidelines".  Lumping all teacher-led techniques may also be an outcropping of our legitimate recognition that we need to let students interact with each other more than traditional education allowed and be active in directing their own learning.  Many kinds of teaching can be effective.  Exclusive use of any one technique is unwise, and the personality and strengths of the individual teacher mean that some teachers will be better at certain techniques than others.  There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for a teaching style or set of strategies that will work for all teachers or students.   Let's stop pretending there is some holy grail of "best practices" that we can discover and to which every teacher should adhere.  We can all learn from each other and add new techniques to our skill sets, and we should encourage and help each other to do just that.  However, what works for another teacher, may not work for me. I may not be able to pull off an activity that works beautifully for my colleague, and vice versa.  Seeing the educational shades of grey means that we need to appreciate the varieties of strategies that can be useful and support each other in our efforts to broaden our skill sets while not automatically demonizing and disparaging others.  We do need to push ourselves outside our comfort zones to grow as teachers, but then we cannot beat ourselves up for what we perceive to be shortcomings.  Expecting perfection of ourselves or others can only lead to disappointment.
  • Textbooks  have become another dirty word in education.  No one could legitimately defend the exclusive use of textbooks as a student resource.  However, textbooks can have a place in education.  They offer an synthesized, organized, logical progression through specific content, often with primary sources, visuals, and examples that help students encode information in meaningful ways (if used correctly, of course, with active reading, not just skimming or use of glossaries which removes all context and hampers understanding.)  They can be a springboard to other types of learning, investigation, and resources or a way for absent students to try to stay caught up with their class or for parents to be able to help their students study and review at home.  However, because they can contain inaccuracies, biases, unnecessary extras, etc., because students will often try to circumvent using them as they are intended, because technology has led to a proliferation of online resources, and because of their cost, textbooks have come under fire. (For a wonderful look at inaccuracies and biases in texts I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen.  For a user-friendly way to create your own textbook, take a look at CK-12 online.  It is rich with already-created open source texts in the STEM areas, while other areas are lagging behind but progressing.)  Textbooks are not 100% good or bad.  Textbooks can offer some very valuable ancillary materials that allow teachers to save time, discover new activities, and easily create tests in multiple and modified versions.  There are some excellent standards-based texts out there written by experts in their fields that help students acquire important thinking skills, including higher order ones. They do not deserve to be automatically lumped in with poor and mediocre ones and dismissed.  We cannot assume that online resources painstakingly cobbled together by teachers to replace them are going to be of superior quality.
  • Multiple Choice is not our enemy.  When used in combination with other forms of assessment, multiple choice questions can be an efficient and effective way to assess student's abilities. Objective assessment formats like multiple choice allow us sample understanding and higher order skills when we do not possibly have the time to assess all of the content and skills in our curricula.   There are bad ways to write a multiple choice question so that we end up allowing too many other factors besides mastery of the skills and concepts determine whether a student gets it right.  Too much noise in the data mean we are not assessing what we really want (i.e., our assessments are invalid.)  However, a well-written multiple choice question can accurately and efficiently assess student performance, and not solely in lower levels of thinking.
  • Memorization is another pariah in education.  Memorized knowledge is on the lowest rung of Bloom's cognitive taxonomy, and, because it is lowest in rank order, it has come to be disparaged, mostly because some teaching did not go very far beyond it.  However, that does not mean it is bad or unnecessary, yet some educators have a tendency to want to throw the baby out with the bath water.  We think that in this online, information age that there is no reason for students to commit content knowledge to memory because they can always "look it up" if they need that information in the future.  So why bother asking them to know it now?  This extreme position is has led to a decrease in students being asked to commit things to memory such as basic arithmetic facts or spelling (with calculators and spell check, who needs them?)  This decrease in drill and practice has been recognized as part of why American students have fallen behind in areas like math and spelling and can hamper students' math fluency and ability to reason mathematically at higher levels.  (See Joanne Lipman's 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Why Tough Teachers Get Results for an interesting discussion including this viewpoint).
  • PD Professional Development can mean many different things to educators.  It can be viewed as invaluable or a waste of time.  Usually the reality is somewhere in between, and it can depend on our attitude at the outset.  We prepare activities for our students knowing that what they get out of it is directly related to the effort they put into it.  We can lead them to the experience but we cannot make them maximize their effort.  It is the same with professional development.  I am fortunate to be in a high school where our administrators value our time and ask for our input when planning professional development opportunities for us, which has resulted in exposing me to valuable resources and skills that are directly useful in my teaching.  However, we do not need to think of PD simply as something that is handed to us.  We can seek out our own personalized PD opportunities to help us grow as educators and develop networks of colleagues outside our own buildings.  For the past several years I have been spending a week of my summer in Kansas City helping College Board score AP Psychology exams.  It has been a great way to become a stronger teacher and build a network and exchange ideas with a group of excellent teachers.  Each year I look forward to this "summer camp for psychology geeks" and the opportunities it provides.  Many other opportunities are out there for us in the form of conferences or online networking through Twitter or other social media.  We need to be willing to reach out to help ourselves become better educators.
  • Flash over Substance Sometimes we get too excited about the newest great thing in education and can sometimes mistake flash for substance or overestimate its value without support from valid research.  For example, technology can be a wonderful way to improve education by providing opportunities that we wouldn't otherwise have.  We just need to be careful we don't automatically assume that something that is really cool due to the technology is also leading to more or higher levels of learning than a low-tech approach.  We also know that active learning is better than passive, however, we should guard against mistaking physical movement in a lesson or activity for higher levels of mental activity.  Similarly, having students create a video or other product does not mean they have reached the Create level of cognitive activity on Bloom's taxonomy.  We can also differentiate instruction to try to reach students through many different modes, however, we need to guard against believing that students will learn more if we present material to them in their preferred "learning style." Research shows that, while students may express a preference for learning things a certain way, they do not actually perform better when we match the instruction to their preference. (For an excellent examination of this topic, I recommend cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School?)
Why I Hate School But Love Education

 As educators, we need to try to catch ourselves when we are viewing things as the best or the worst and try to remember to look for the grey areas.  Many things we do can be effective when used in moderation.  Exclusive adherence to extremes hurts our ability to be flexible and achieve some kind of balance.  We can be open-minded yet also maintain a healthy dose of scientific skepticism and examine the evidence before making conclusions.

2.  Overgeneralization
    People can have a tendency to see a single negative incident as a never-ending pattern of defeat.  As educators, we can have a negative experience with a student and overgeneralize to the point that we give up on being able to reach that student.  He is late - he is a slacker.  She doesn't turn in her assignments - she is not conscientious. He does poorly on a test - he has low ability.  If we telegraph these overgeneralizations to the students, they may start to believe them, too, or it may contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  One bad experience with a new technique, tech tool, or activity and we may abandon it all together.  One poor interaction with a parent, administrator, or colleague may lead us to expect the same in the future, so we miss out on opportunities to connect with them, learn from them, and become partners.

3.  Mental Filter
    Do you ever catch yourself dwelling on the negatives to the point that you do not even notice the positives?  If so, you are using a mental filter - one that can lead you to disparage yourself or others unnecessarily.  I know I can be overly self-conscious.  I don't like being watched when I teach, which is something I know I have to get over.  I think one of the reasons I hate being watched is that I tend to dwell on the negatives.  My lesson may go very well, yet I will fixate on the one (or more) part(s) that need improvement.  Because I am overly critical of myself, it seems I cannot help but think that others will be as well.  I know this is not logical, yet I cannot help it.  Psychological researchers have a name for a related phenomenon, the spotlight effect, which is a type of social anxiety that includes the tendency to overestimate the extent to which others around us notice our behavior and appearance.  What we need to keep in mind is that others around us are not judging us nearly as harshly as we think they are (or as we are judging ourselves).  Mental filters can be equally devastating when we apply them to students or other educators.  Research in positive psychology and cognitive therapy shows how effective it can be to keep journals of positive things and how we contribute to them as well as gratitude we feel toward others.  It has been shown that, in as little as three weeks, we can retrain our brains to seek out the positive in ourselves and others. (See Shawn Achor's TED talk for examples of this.)

4.  Discounting the Positives
     Sometimes we insist that our accomplishments or positive qualities just "don't count."  
We are so caught up in negativity, that we cannot acknowledge the great things we are doing or have done in the past.  We cannot accept a compliment with a simple "thank you" because it would mean accepting evidence that does not fit with our harsh view of ourselves.  Take an inventory of all the positive things you've been doing as a teacher. Keep a file of the nice notes of gratitude that your students have sent you over the years.  I had a colleague who called this her "nursing home" file as she planned to look at all the wonderful things in it in during her golden years.  What a great idea!  I have a couple of these - one is a low-tech manila folder in my file cabinet labelled "happy happy joy joy", the other a file on my computer labeled "smiles".  Sometimes, at our lowest, it is nice to remind ourselves of the positive effect we have had on our students.

5.  Jumping to Conclusions
Sometimes we tend to jump to negative conclusions without any evidence.  This happens in a couple of ways.
  • Mind reading  happens when we assume people are reacting negatively to us even though we have no evidence that they are doing this. Those of us who are self-conscious can find ourselves assuming that students, teachers or administrators are reacting negatively to us when we have no evidence of this.  Sometimes students can have what seems to me to be a blank expression on their face.  I catch myself assuming that they are bored or judging me or my teaching in some other negative way.  Some of my quietest and least expressive students have been the ones that surprise me later with a nice thank you note that shows me I was reaching them in a way of which I was completely oblivious at the time.  I've been to graduation parties where the parent will make my day by telling me about some of the things their student said about me or something they learned in my class that they were excited to apply to their own lives.  Apparently a blank face can mean a lot of things.  We have to remind ourselves that it is not necessarily a bad thing.
  • Fortune telling happens when we arbitrarily predict that something will turn out badly.  As educators who want to push ourselves to be the best we can be, it is a killer if we let fortune telling get in the way of trying new things.  We may even rationalize this by thinking that if it ain't broke, it don't need fixing.  We need to be able to ask ourselves, "What's the worst that could happen, really?"   It is also helpful to do an experiment to test the validity of your negative thought.  Try something new.  It doesn't have to be a huge change of an entire system or unit.  It can be something small or a single activity.  Chances are, your thinking will be challenged and you will find out something valuable, even if the activity does not work out as you'd hoped.
6.  Magnification or Minimization
     Do you sometimes find yourself blowing things way out of proportion?  Or perhaps you inappropriately understate or shrink their importance?  When we maximize the positives and minimize the negatives about others, it can distort our assessment of ourselves in a negative way. As educators, we need to learn to celebrate the accomplishments of others without comparing ourselves to them in a negative way and becoming defensive.  How is it that we can see the good and ignore the bad in others, yet we tend to be much harsher in our self assessments of our teaching (maximizing our negatives while minimizing our positives)?  I am lucky to work in a great school surrounded by others who have very high standards and abilities to match.  It can sometimes be intimidating to hear them discuss some of the great things they are doing with their students.  I can find myself doubting my own ability to come up with such creative, innovative, or impactful lessons or activities.  It helps when I remind myself that others have struggled along the way to get to this point - it may seem to me that it is effortless or easy for them, but they are human and have probably had their share of setbacks and frustrations to get where they are.  I know I can learn a lot from them, but that does not take away from my own positive accomplishments and qualities.  
    One specific type of maximization is called catastrophizing, which happens when we focus on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely it might be to actually happen, and think that it will be unbearable or impossible.  Although that outcome will likely be unpleasant, it is a distortion to think that it is something we just can't stand.  We need to train ourselves to look to for the silver lining and the "teachable moment" in even the most uncomfortable aspects of our profession, including dealing with cheating students, having difficult conversations with parents, and respectfully disagreeing with our colleagues or supervisors.  If not, there are way too many situations that we will dread without good reason.

7.  Emotional Reasoning
     Sometimes we reason with our feelings instead of using objective reality or logic.  I feel like a failure, therefore, I am.  I don't feel like doing this, so I will put it off (e.g., like finishing this blog post, rewriting a test so students can have an opportunity to retake it, or setting the alarm a couple hours earlier than usual to finish grading assignments so they can be returned sooner).  If we routinely give into these feelings, we are abandoning our cerebral cortex's ability to logically weigh alternatives in favor of letting the more emotional but primitive parts of our brain (e.g., the amygdala) rule our behavior.  In the long run, we become very reactive to negative situations rather than proactively trying to ensure they do not happen in the first place or at least minimizing their dysfunctional consequences.  We need to catch ourselves when we start to reason emotionally and interrupt with logical challenges.  We need to see our emotions as something we can control by cognitively re-framing the situation, looking at it in a different way.

8.  Should Statements/Guilt
   We can criticize ourselves or others with "should", "shouldn't", "must", "can't", "ought", or "have to" statements.  Concentrating on what should be rather than what really is will lead to distress and cause guilt or anger.  Students should appreciate the hard work we do for them and find our lessons and activities as interesting as we do, parents should be supportive at home and keep tabs on their student's progress in our classes, fellow teachers should agree with our opinions, support us, and act professionally, administrators should trust us rather that restrict us all for the transgressions of a few.  I should get these assignments or tests back to my students the next day (despite the fact that it means giving up family time, exercise, a healthy meal, sleep, friends, and/or my own mental health.)  Woe is me!  We get caught up in an ideal world rather than the real world, which leads to negative and destructive feelings.  Burns recommends the semantic method for combating "should" statements.  Substitute less colorful and emotionally loaded language in your thinking.  Instead of saying, "I should have these tests back to them the next day," say to yourself, "it would be better if I have these back the next day."  It would be better if I hadn't made that mistake.  Combat the distortion by asking, "What's the rule that says I have to _____?", "What would happen if I didn't _____?"  

9.  Labeling/Mislabeling
     This happens when we mistake behavior for identity.  Instead of saying, "I made a mistake," you tell yourself, "I'm a loser."  Instead of, "he made fun of me," it's, "he's a jerk."  Instead of, "they complained," it's, "they're whiners."  Once we label people, including ourselves, we tend to see them one-dimensionally and view everything they do within that mental framework.  It makes us less likely to treat others with respect as individuals.  Labeling ourselves and others can also make us more vulnerable to thinking in terms of "us" versus "them", what social psychologists have termed the ingroup and the outgroup.  Research shows that even randomly putting people into a group by the toss of a coin leads to an ingroup bias, where people favor their own group and may also lead to outgroup negativity. As educators, we need to recognize that this can be a powerful factor in our beliefs and behaviors and guard against its toxic effects.  We need to think of ourselves as educators with the same purpose, not teachers vs. administrators.

10.  Personalization and Blame
     We often find ourselves taking responsibility for things that are not entirely our fault.  Conversely, we may may blame others while overlooking our own contribution to the problem.  Not everything is personal.  In education, if we start to take everything personally, we are in for a career of misery.  Students or parents may say harsh or untrue things about you.  Colleagues may gossip about you.  Students may try to cheat in your class.  When these things happen, it is often difficult to not take it personally and blame ourselves in some way, beating ourselves up about it.  It feels like such a violation of the trust you have worked so hard to foster in those relationships .  Although it is difficult, we need to be able to step back and see these behaviors for what they really are and not assume that it us 100% about us.  Human behaviors have so many determinants that it is not logical to think that the blame for any given behavior can be solely placed on one person.  That same logic means that sometimes we are part of the problem.  Maybe we are being passive aggressive rather than direct with others.  Maybe we could have done a better job in communicating.  Maybe we could have been more prepared.  Maybe we could be more supportive of our colleagues or administrators.  Try to analyze situations in a non-defensive way, and take responsibility for your part in any negative ones.  Apologize when appropriate and move on rather than dwelling on it.  I have found that students appreciate your willingness to say, "I'm sorry", and it models that behavior of taking responsibility to them as well.  We want our students to be able to take chances in their educational experiences so that they can learn from their mistakes.  If they are always defensive and afraid to mess up, they will not get as much out of their education.  We can show them that people are bound to screw up, but, if they own up to it, nothing bad will happen, relationships can be strengthened, and, most importantly, they can learn from it.

Challenging our irrational negative thoughts is easier said than done.  It is about trying to consistently learn to recognize when we are thinking in these dysfunctional ways and then finding ways to change those maladaptive thought processes.  It takes time to develop these new habits of mind, so don't beat yourself up in the meanwhile.  Eventually we can break free of the bondage of our self-imposed chains. 


  • Achor, Shawn.  (2011)  The happy secret to better work TEDTalk
  • Airasian, Peter W.; Cruikshank, Kathleen A.; Mayer, Richard E.:Pintrich, Paul. R.;  Raths, James; Wittrock, Merlin C. (2000). Anderson, Lorin W.; Krathwohl, D. R.,  eds. A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. Allyn and Bacon.
  • Beck, Aaron T. (1972). Depression; Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press..
  • Beck, Aaron.T. (1975). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc.
  • Burns, David D. (1999). The Feeling Good Handbook: Using the New Mood Therapy in Everyday Life. New York: W. Morrow. 


  1. Kelly, great work here! You have made several key points which have caused me to reflect on some of my own thoughts revolving around some of these topics. You are right, nothing is ever all good or all bad. We tend to quickly generalize our thoughts and opinions when it comes to practices such as worksheets, lecturing,textbooks, etc. Great teachers do all of these things and much, much more when differentiating instruction. Like the best coaches, the best teachers get to know their students on a personal level in order to learn their interests, style of learning, etc. in order to get the most out of them. I am proud of you for taking a risk and putting your thoughts out there for the world to see. I am sure you caused many to pause and reflect today. Well done! - jimmy

  2. Thank you Kelly for a great blog. I especially appreciated #10. It took me a long time to not take things personal! I shared your post with the UNI School Counseling Practicum students that I work with and anticipate a great discussion when we meet!