I had vaguely heard of the concept “fundamental attribution error” in relation to schools in the past, but then my valued Accomplished California Teachers colleague David B. Cohen wrote about it yesterday (by the way, if you are not subscribing to his/our ACT blog, InterAct, I’d strongly encourage you to do so, even if you don’t live in California). The same day, David Brooks referred to it in his New York Times column highlighted it in his column and explained it meant “Don’t try to explain by character traits behavior that is better explained by context.”
Justin Baeder described it this way in his Education Week blog:
…the idea that we tend to erroneously conflate actions (and our interpretation of them) with personal characteristics. Instead of concluding that a teacher isn’t very good, perhaps we should look at how many different subjects the teacher has to prepare for, how much planning time they actually have, how many reforms and disruptions they have to deal with, and so on.
It seems to me it also connects a lot to the tendency by some school “reformers” to say that any mention of the role of poverty in education challenges is just an “excuse.” They place the lion’s share of responsibility for student achievement on teachers, instead of learning about the research listed on The Best Places To Learn What Impact A Teacher & Outside Factors Have On Student Achievement.
So, I thought I’d pull together a few useful resources.
Here are my choices for The Best Posts & Articles To Learn About “Fundamental Attribution Error” & Schools:
Fundamental Attribution Error by David B. Cohen
Collecting the Wrong Data: Fundamental Attribution Error in Teaching Quality by Justin Baeder at Ed Week.
Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality by Mary Kennedy.
The comment at Attribution Error and the Quest For Teacher Quality
And, for some useful thoughts on how we teachers can apply this concept to working with students, check-out The Construction Zone.
Larry Cuban has just wrote another nice piece on the concept headlined The Attribution Error and School Reform.
What is the fundamental attribution error? And why is it so fundamental? This #Choiceology episode features an interview w/ legendary social psychologist Richard Nisbett on why we attribute more to the person than the situation. https://t.co/xNGL8EHcQ0
— Katy Milkman (@katy_milkman) March 28, 2022
Feedback is welcome.
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Larry – thank you for the kind words, and the new reading list! It’s interesting how sometimes you hear about an idea and suddenly there’s this synchronicity around it from sources that don’t all seem to have been influenced by each other. I’ve had that experience with words, trivial facts, all sorts of things that seem to pop up all of the sudden when you become aware of them.
Thanks, Larry. I agree that there’s more to complex problems like the achievement gap than “bad teachers” and hope we can continue to unpack these complexities and figure out what it is in our systems that is contributing to the results we’re getting.
And you do a great job on your blog clarifying those key points. Thanks.