Monday, December 27, 2010

Thoughts on environment and context

            One of the many things I love about vacation is the fact that I get to spend time reading and relaxing. For a very long time, I have been meaning to read one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but for some reason it just never happened.  I finally knocked one out this winter break and I was not disappointed. His work is much- hyped and I can see why. He challenges conventional wisdom through enjoyable prose and though-provoking analysis. His book, The Tipping Point, seeks to break down social epidemics; be it fads, disease, or behavior. I wanted to mention one idea he mentions as I think it is extremely relevant to education and educators.

              In the middle of the book Gladwell mentions the Fundamental Attribution Error. He explains the concept much better than myself, so I will quote his writing on the topic:

“… the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a
fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting
other people’s behavior, human beings invariably
make the mistake of overestimating the importance
of fundamental character traits and underestimating
the importance of situation and context “ (160)

He goes on to give the example of people shooting basketballs.  One person was shooting in a well-lighted gym, while another was shooting in a badly lighted gym. Without fail the person shooting in the well-lighted gym was considered superior by observers (160). While it is no doubt possible that the person could have been better, the observers ignored the context of the shots. Lighting has a big effect on one’s ability to make baskets.

            I am sure you don’t need me to illustrate how this relates to the classroom, but I will share some of my thoughts. This really makes one look at the classroom culture and environment a teacher sets up. For example, we are quick to point out that he/she is an unmotivated person. But are they really an unmotivated person or are they unmotivated within the context of your class? We bemoan that fact that our students are disorganized and incapable of directing their own learning but what are we doing to set up a context in which they will be successful. When a student is a behavior problem do we automatically think he/she is a bad kid? Really what this shows is that students are capable of anything (negative and positive) and teachers should look to peers and environment for information for transforming learning and behavior. 

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