Cause and effect aren’t always clearly and correctly paired in America’s classrooms.

Teachers don’t always have the time, energy, or awareness to properly attribute underperformance.

  • Is a disengaged student sleeping at his or her desk being lazy or suffering from lack of sleep?
  • Is disruptive behavior the reflection of student boredom or a cover for not understanding the material?
  • Is a sudden drop in academic performance really indicative of intelligence or simply a need for reading glasses?
  • Are poor test scores more a reflection on the teacher’s failings or a lack of support and encouragement for students at home?

Fundamental Attribution Error: School Edition

The gap of understanding in the classroom can be compared to how road rage incidents get escalated.

Suppose you fail to notice a light turning green at an intersection. You might explain your negligence in any number of ways — you were caught up in a song playing on the radio, you were monitoring the progress of a pedestrian nearby, you were investigating the car behind you via rearview mirror — all of which emphasize external factors, rather than individual failings.

Now suppose you were behind a car that wasn’t moving after the light turned green. Same situation, same outcome, but many people would instinctively blame that driver in more intrinsic ways — the driver was being stupid, careless, selfish, etc.

This is the essence of fundamental attribution error: we look outside ourselves to explain behavior, but focus on internal factors to explain the behavior of others.

We see a similarly challenged dynamic in dating and romantic relationships. In the absence of good communication, each member of a couple is prone to developing his or her own narrative to explain behaviors, perceived emotions, and even the successes and failures of a couple. When he comes home at night, is he being dismissive and distant because something is wrong with the relationship, or simply because he hasn’t stopped worrying about a bad day at work? Is she struggling to come up with a diner destination because she doesn’t know what she wants, or is she being purposefully passive-aggressive?

When applied to academic settings, the same fallacy is apparent. Both students and teachers are accused of not caring enough to try harder or perform better. A national preoccupation with educational outcomes — the effect we look for from our schools — has exacerbated a lack of understanding about the inputs, or causes.

Looking Upstream in Education

It is human nature to look for patterns; in the absence of clear, verifiable patterns, it is also human nature to invent patterns even in spite of evidence. In sports, for example, this can manifest as superstition:

  • don’t shave during Stanley Cup Playoffs
  • don’t wash your team jersey until the season is over
  • don’t curse a pitcher by saying he is on track to throw a perfect game, etc.

The outcome — surviving playoffs, having a good season, pitching a perfect game — clearly has no measurable or meaningful connection to the behaviors extolled, but the belief in their significance continues undeterred. In social contexts, a similar fallacy prevents us from correctly attributing effects to their causes. In education, it is possible we have focused on desired outcomes that fail to account for the power of confounding variables.

The variables of student life today are too many to count: from home life, social life, and social media, to the quality of instruction, the presence of role models, and even the medium of instruction and assessment, there are a lot of variables getting in the way of assigning cause and effect.

To move beyond fundamental attribution error, or falling into the old habit of superstition, it is important to spend more time and energy looking upstream for the real causes that need our attention. Going upstream is a principle of public health in which caregivers go beyond treating symptoms and instead look for opportunities to prevent sickness and injury. Businesses engaged in corporate social responsibility and other forms of social entrepreneurship take a similar approach: throwing money at a problem or social ill no longer impresses consumers or shareholders. Looking upstream for opportunities to meaningfully impact communities and benefit the world not only makes for a better story, it makes for more lasting forms of giving.

Both of these examples apply in education as well. By going upstream to understand what drives student performance, classroom behavior, and any other outcomes we care to monitor, we can better connect cause and effect and control for other variables. Going upstream in education isn’t just a matter of more spending or more resources, but of aiding teachers, administrators, and the general public to focus on what really drives outcomes.

When we stop focusing on outcomes to the exclusion of understanding inputs, we create a machine for using money and resources without generating improved results. When we go upstream to identify the real cause and effect relationship surrounding school, we can put our resources where they will have the greatest benefit.