Why you think your theories about education are right (and why you’re probably fooling yourself)

You’re WRONG

Ok, so hands up please, who felt ever so slightly annoyed when they read the title of this post? Sorry about that. It’s really not very nice to be told that your ideas are wrong. Much more fun is when you see a post or a tweet where someone tells you something like

“David’s post was just so spot on, it rang so many bells. What a pleasure to find a like-minded individual. This is so definitely the way to improve schools, I just don’t understand how some people can disagree?!”

Ok, nobody has actually written that about me, but even if you imagine that it was written about you I bet you can feel a rush of pleasure at the mere thought. To get all neurosciency on you, you’ve just experienced a rush of dopamine in a part of your brain.

Wasn’t that nice?! But why did it happen?

I recently read a truly superb book by Jonah Lehrer called “The Decisive Moment” (now re-released as How We Decide). In it he explains what is going on in your head, and I’m afraid it might not be such good news for you.


Your brain is a massive pattern-spotting machine. From a tiny baby we start assimilating every pattern of nervous impulses, decisions and senses that we experience. Each learned pattern turns in to something like a children’s toy:

children's shape/hole toyEvery new experience (the shape) is passed rapidly over all the memories (the holes) and you get little burst of dopamine released as it passes each hole – the better the fit the bigger the burst. The brain selects the hole which produces the greatest pleasure, and if the shape fits  it then ‘upgrades’ that hole a bit, so that it produces an even bigger burst next time. Decision made, learning strengthened. Hoorah.

Through trillions of these processes occurring as we develop, we gradually start to recognise things, to learn facts, to behave instinctively (e.g. walking, catching a ball etc.), and to develop our moral compass.

This process works amazingly well in so many ways. As we learn to walk, it learns to always compensate for overbalancing, for gravity, for bumps in the road. We avoid obstacles without consciously thinking, and so on.

A pattern too far

So this is all great, but what has it got to do with your chronic overconfidence? (Sorry, there I go again…)

Ok, find a convenient nearby 8 year old, and show them a video of someone throwing a coin. On the video this person will throw 6 heads in a row. What does the 8-year-old say?

But I know that it changes between heads and tails, and it hasn’t done for ages, so it must be about to change to to tails now?

Ok, you found a very literate 8-year-old, but you know why they said it. It’s rather like your Auntie Gertrude who scrutinizes the lottery numbers every week and is convinced that 35 and 43 occur more often on days where it rains, and has a great feeling about it this week. If you were a bit of a science geek like me, then it’s the feeling you got when someone told you about ionic and covalent bonding at school. We love patterns, and we love the dopamine response as we anticipate another example that satisfies us.

Now imagine the face of the 8-year-old when the next throw is another head. Next, think about how Dear Auntie Gertie feels when it rained all day but her numbers didn’t come up. Indeed, why not sympathise with the sinking feeling I had when someone told me that atoms might not actually have a fixed number of electrons in each shell.

Ouch. Disappointment. Brain doesn’t like it! “You must have fixed it – it’s a trick!” shouts the 8-year-old, searching for some other logic. Poor Auntie Gertie feels sad until she concludes that it must be because she didn’t write the numbers with her lucky pen (she tells you, searching for some logic). I shan’t even tell you what I said to my classmate when my chemical principles crumbled around my feet.

The New Panacea

So, let’s go back to your new education theory. Perhaps you’ve been persuaded that:

  • All online learning and new technology will improve everyone’s learning.
  • More rigorous application of business principles and testing will save education.
  • All testing and data is completely evil and wrong and bad for children, and only destroying it all will save education.
  • Twitter is the best way for all teachers to improve themselves.

Go on, admit it, at least one of them rings some bells. Or rather, it releases some dopamine. If a government minister stands up and present data that contradicts your pet theory you’re going to be angry, and you’ll search around for reasons why you’re still utterly right and they’re still utterly wrong. (And let’s face it, we’ve all seen a lot of that)

Why? Because being right is pleasant! People agreeing with you gives you actual physical pleasure. Disagreeing with you is painful, and unpleasant, as it breaks our pattern, and we never get our anticipated dopamine release.

Think of a cigarette smoke defending their habit. They produce some ridiculous excuses to convince themselves that their logic is sound. Think of the government minister insisting blindly that their new curriculum and testing arrangements are the magic way to improve your teaching. They don’t like listening, they don’t like admitting they’re wrong, and neither do you.

Now I’m not saying that it’s wrong to attack theories, to question things. Quite the opposite – you should always question things! Be brave, have courage, challenge your own beliefs. Don’t jump at the easy first answer but listen to criticism. Maybe that complete enemy may be speaking some truth?

If you know what I do,  you know I love data. I love new theories. I love passionate people. But do yourselves a favour. That wonderful new idea is just not going to be perfect for every student. How can it? Every teacher, and every student is a wonderful unique, chaotic, and random mixture of skills, talents, and weaknesses. One method cannot be equally deliver, and one size does not fit all.

There are many excellent ways to improve education.


There is no panacea.

(But feel free to contradict me, of course. I may well be wrong…)

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2 Replies to “Why you think your theories about education are right (and why you’re probably fooling yourself)”

  1. Have been thinking about your blog entry and two ideas strike me:

    1. Does the fact that we choose what “fits” to get that satisfactory rush make it harder to try something unfamiliar? Is this why we sometimes continue to do what might not actually work?

    2.It also solidifies my belief that data has a place here…

    a) Have I analyzed multiple data points to correctly identify teaching and learning needs and aligned those needs with that new theory I’m so taken with?

    b) Once I decide to put a new process in place, am I committed to systematically using data to inform what is and is not working, and make adjustments accordingly?

    You’re right–there are no panaceas. It’s all hard work. Thoughtful processes are required to pinpoint and understand need and then to assess outcomes against goals. Thanks for pushing our thinking with your interesting entry.

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