The Power of Assumptions in Classrooms

Dr Emad A. S. Abu-Ayyash

Few years ago, a colleague and I conducted a study on the impact of postgraduate students’ assumptions on their evaluation of their peers’ presentations. The study revealed that not only the participants had assumptions about the use of technology in presentations, but that these assumptions also impacted their reasonable judgment of these presentations. In this instance, we found that assumptions about technology impacted the objective evaluation of peer presentations.

In fact, I have seen assumptions at play all through my journey in schools and higher education institutions. When I was a teacher trainer, I always wondered why teachers’ acceptance of teaching innovations usually trailed my expectations. I remember that in one year, I conducted around 30 professional development workshops on new teaching and learning strategies. I modelled the activities in classrooms and I co-taught them with the teachers. However, when I visited classes, only occasionally did I see the methods I presented being implemented in the classroom. Many of the teachers didn’t even try them. I ask: why is this the case?

Among the many possible answers to this question, the most compelling one would be: the activities introduced in those workshops are not really effective as they are thought to be. This could be a valid point. However, it can be argued that the same activities were applied in other educational contexts, and they worked. While this is not a guarantee that they will also work in this context, “don’t kill it before you try it” should be the guiding principle. But this did not happen. I ask (again): why is this the case? Put differently, why did some teachers resist implementing ‘innovative’ teaching techniques when they offered improvements over the existing ones at the time? The answer can be found in an intricate web of possible causes, all of which may pour into the pool of assumptions.

I argue that innovative teaching methods often require teachers to go out of their comfort zone and to change their current practices. A corollary of this requirement is that teachers resort to their assumptions, whether these are genuine or intentionally made up, to justify their favouritism of the older methods. The assumption is: My way of doing this is way better than the suggested method.

Following suit of an older experiment, one may call this “the status-quo bias assumption”.

In a series of experiments done in 1988, William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser found that most real decisions have a status quo alternative, maintaining one’s current practice or behaviour. Similarly, some teachers tend to avoid change in teaching methods and are more often than not tempted to choose something that is familiar to them. They tend to have a strong affinity, or a hidden assumption, for the status quo.

So, how are these assumptions risky in classroom experience? It can be rightly argued that the ingrained preference for certain teaching methods keeps teachers from trying other methods, which may cause students to miss valuable learning opportunities. At the professional level, the status quo bias assumptions may hinder a teacher’s ability to adapt to new policies or programmes, which may eventually affect their career.

Educators need to understand the fact that the methods they prefer may actually be favoured not because they are better than other methods, but because they have become familiar with them. Therefore, they might need to develop an open mind set that embraces change and that helps them understand that sticking with what they do may not be as good as the other available alternatives.

Uncovering the status quo bias assumptions could be, or so it seems to me, the first inevitable step for teachers to implement new teaching methods. Otherwise, their choice will always go in the direction of the default option, the method they are familiar with. The losses are indescribable: failure of professional development programmes, stagnant, repetitive classrooms and change-resistant environments are only few.

Dear teachers, reflect on your own practices, uncover your status quo bias assumptions, open your minds to change and actually lead the change.



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