FAE stands for Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s a fallacious type of thinking in which we attribute other people’s actions or performance to their character but excuse our own actions or performance by attributing them to our situation.
It is entirely possible to commit FAEs within the same day, even within the same hour: cutting someone off in traffic because we are late to a meeting and then yelling “Jerk!” when someone else does the same thing to us. One study found that when something bad happened to someone else, subjects blamed the person’s behavior or personality 65% of the time. But when something bad happened to them, the subjects blamed situational factors and circumstances 66% of the time.
In education, the FAE is particularly troublesome. The less teachers and administrators are aware of this type of bias, the more likely they are to attribute failures and behaviors to a child’s character, downplaying situations and circumstances that may be affecting performance. Worse, sometimes a pattern emerges in which some kids are often cut some slack while others never seem to catch a break. This can be highly obvious in suspension rates when they are broken out by ethnicity and/or gender.
Less obvious is the effect context can have on high-stakes performance measures such as End of Course exams, ACT and SAT tests, state tests, and formative assessments. When students perform poorly in school and on tests, there is a subset of teachers that will blame that performance on the child’s character, ignoring other, external factors: she didn’t take it seriously, he didn’t put any effort into it, he messed around too much, she ignored my advice, he’s a slacker, she’s too busy being the class clown, he slept through class, she’s a troublemaker; the list goes on and on, sometimes arriving at the “Those Kids” station. As in, “those kids never do well” or “those kids just don’t care about school.” That may be the ultimate, and most dangerous, FAE.
Here’s a short list of external conditions that can affect performance:
- Family problems, such as separation, illness, death, or divorce. Children’s academic performance can often nosedive in the presence of these powerful emotional stressors.
- Lack of sleep. Children who come to school tired are not a new thing, but tiredness is one of those things that teachers tend to attribute to a character flaw rather than to a situation which might be beyond the child’s control.
- Hunger. This can be short term (didn’t get breakfast) or long term (persistent hunger due to lack of availability of food in the home). Both affect cognitive ability and therefore performance. Persistent lack of food also affects cognitive development, as in, the brain won’t grow properly because it doesn’t have the nutrition to do so. Twelve million children in the U.S. are food insecure. That’s 1 in 5 overall and rises to 1 in 3 among African-American and Latino children. If you think there’s no hunger in your school, you’re probably wrong.
- Fear. A school, classroom, or neighborhood climate that produces anxiety or fear affects cognitive ability. A brain on high-alert can’t learn. Note: fear is entirely subjective. Just because the teacher or other students aren’t experiencing fear doesn’t mean a particular student isn’t. Also, fear doesn’t have to be an explosive, violent thing: it can manifest as persistent, low-level anxiety.
- Distraction. Like fear, distraction is somewhat subjective. Sometimes there’s an underlying medical condition that exacerbates distraction (ADD/ADHD) and sometimes there are kids with sensory processing disorders that struggle. But occasionally there are classrooms which are empirically distracting. I once subbed in a school where the mode of maintaining order was for teachers to blow a whistle when students got too loud. In rowdy classes, the whistle went off every 5 minutes and whistles were audible in adjacent classrooms. Such an environment is going to mitigate against learning and ultimately against performance.
- Medical/Developmental conditions, such as ADD, Aspergers, diabetes, sensory processing issues, and dyslexia. Undiagnosed dyslexia may be occurring in as many as 1 in 5 children.
- Unfamiliar modes of assessment. Remember Thorndyke ?. Let’s say a class has been preparing for End of Course exams using paper and pencil multiple choice tests. When the exam arrives, it’s computerized or it utilizes dependent scoring (two part questions in which the student must get Part A correct in order to receive points for Part B even if they get the answer to Part B correct). Or, let’s say the exam arrives and it’s short answer and essay questions only. Or perhaps the students have practiced essay writing on paper but for the test their essay must be word processed. Or they’ve always been allowed all the time they want to complete the practices but the test is timed. Because the students have not practiced these particular modes of assessment, their performance is likely to suffer. The exception? High SES and educated parents bolster student performance in unfamiliar situations.
- Unfamiliar permutations of content. This blurs the line a bit between context, content and cognitive type, but the basic idea is that students are not given opportunities to practice the content as it appears on the test. For example, they might study literature in preparation for the PARCC test in grade 10, but when the test arrives it is found to contain passages of literature from the 19th century, with major differences in word choice and syntax than modern literary pieces. If students have not practiced with 19th century literary pieces, they will not perform as well on the test.
- Unfamiliar cognitive demand. This is when students are given practice with items that only require low cognitive demand and then are presented with test items that require higher order thinking skills. If they only ever do multiple choice tests, they are less likely to do well on a test asking for an extended essay. Again, higher levels of cultural capital ameliorate this for some kids. Sometimes this is driven by low-level state tests, in which case the school must make sure that the activity of the classroom exceeds the cognitive demands of the state test. Children who are taught to go high will always be able to go low; the reverse is not true.
Some of these things are beyond a school or teacher’s control: we can’t make sure every child goes to bed at a reasonable time or prevent divorces or other family stress. But some things are attainable: Texas now offers free breakfast and lunch to all students, which makes hunger a far less likely circumstance, at least during school hours. One thing we absolutely can control is making sure that the activities children encounter in the classroom parallel or exceed what they will find on assessments, particularly on demanding assessments like the PARCC, Smarter Balanced and ACT/SAT tests. And we can remind ourselves that how we interpret behavior and performance depends greatly on which side of the desk we’re sitting.
If you would like help aligning the work of your classrooms to the demands of the state or other external tests, or if you’d like help designing curriculum that offers students the kind of higher-order thinking skills that will benefit them in assessment situations, Contact Us! We would love to help your school or district improve learning for all students.