The availability heuristic and students who call out.

‘OK year ten, so this is your title, and you’ve got thirty minutes to write about a page.  Off you go.’  Depending on the school, the students then may set to work with a will, or one of them might pull a face, or many of them might pull faces, or one of them might call out, ‘This is boring,’ or many of them might call out ‘this is boring’. 

This might lead a teacher to think something like, ‘these students do not enjoy long writing tasks.  They find them boring.’  The teacher may even be disinclined to set writing tasks based on this.  This is an example of something called the availability heuristic, the same psychological trick that makes people think they might be attacked by a shark or win the lottery.  Basically, you hear loads about people who win the lottery.  You hear nothing about people who don’t win.  This causes you to think winning the lottery is more likely than it is.  Similarly, shark attacks are extremely well-publicised, tricking the brain into thinking you could well be attacked by a shark.

Apply this to when two out of a class of thirty are sulky because they have to write for half an hour.  This is about 7% of the class.  The availability heuristic could well lead you down the garden path and make you think that all of your students hate this part of the lesson.  I have worried about this more than once, which is why I am writing this.  A student will groan, and I will say something half-apologetic like ‘sorry guys, I know it’s boring, but you’ve got to do it’.  What do I actually know?  One student has groaned.  The other twenty-nine might be thinking ‘Ah, excellent, Sir is giving us the opportunity to practice and apply some of what we’ve learned.’  Beware worrying about student enjoyment based on one or two called out comments.

Disclaimer: this post does not endorse the idea that teachers should agonise over student enjoyment of their lessons – they should be concerned with how much students are learning – but I think most teachers probably do think about it all the same.

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