Confirmation Bias and How it Detracts from Teachable Moments

This month’s newsletter focuses on those ever-present opportunities to build skills and promote development through teachable moments.  Skilled early childhood educators are on constant watch for teachable moments and recognize the value of these spontaneous learning events.  Unfortunately, it is common for adults to fall prey to a phenomenon that can actually decrease our ability to recognize teachable moments as they present themselves.

This phenomenon is called confirmation bias. 

Confirmation bias can be described as the inclination humans have to seek out information and evidence that aligns with their previously-established beliefs. In addition to being drawn to ideas that we agree with, confirmation bias also tends to reject or discount information that is counter to our beliefs.  In simple terms, confirmation bias is a tool we use to validate our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs.

In a learning environment, confirmation bias can present itself in several ways:

  • Teacher A doesn’t believe children can be trusted with tools. Teacher A focuses only on instances of children using tools improperly, rather than recognizing all of the instances of proper tool use.
  • Teacher B feels that toddlers are too young to participate in family-style dining. Teacher B reluctantly sets up family-style dining meals for the toddlers in her care because it is program policy. However, Teacher B only notices the messes children make during meals rather than observing the benefits of the learning experience.
  • Teacher C believes that outdoor play is not valuable and is too risky and dangerous for children. Every time a child gets hurt on the playground, Teacher C’s belief that outdoor play is dangerous and unnecessary is reinforced.
  • Teacher D believes that Johnny is a “bad” kid. Throughout the day, Teacher D (perhaps subconsciously) looks for evidence that proves the belief that Johnny is bad. This drive will likely prevent Teacher D from recognizing all the times that Johnny is engaged appropriately with toys and peers.

In each example, the teachers’ beliefs influence the observations they make. Research on confirmation bias shows that people are more likely to look for evidence that they are right than evidence that proves they are wrong.

This tendency can have a detrimental impact on a teacher’s ability to notice the teachable moments that emerge throughout the day, especially if they are strongly convinced of their beliefs.  Teachers might not notice an opportunity to show children the proper way to hold a tool or spoon if they don’t agree children should be doing so in the first place.  Teachers won’t engage children in exploring safe risks on the playground if they don’t believe that safe risk-taking is good for children. And teachers might not step in to coach Johnny through a conflict with a peer if they are already convinced that he is a “bad” kid who can’t learn appropriate ways to solve problems.

To combat confirmation bias, early childhood educators must reflect upon their practice regularly. They should ask questions about their beliefs about children and how children learn. They should challenge their preconceived notions about what children, families, and early learning should look like. They should look for their own teachable moments as strongly held beliefs and opinions arise.

You can read more about studies that have been conducted related to confirmation bias and why it exists here.