Follow the evidence, do the right thing – at your peril.

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Some behaviours are worth imitating but be mindful of the negative impact of overimitation

I’m curious about a behavioural science phenomenon called “overimitation”. As you would expect, it describes the behaviour of imitating too much. You can find a deeper explanation of this theory and how scientists tested it out here. Of course, social imitation brings benefits to society. But overimitation is the problem. There will be situations when it is going to cause things to go awry. For example, if you hear that a bunch of other people are doing a bad thing, you are also more likely to do that thing, without even realising it.

What’s this got to do with teaching and learning?

It’s because it reminds me of a story that I heard many years ago. A story that reveals the implications of overimitation.

A lead teacher decided that the school should invest significant amounts of money and resource into an external programme because it was thought that it would have significant benefits to the learning of all the students. The programme was very prescriptive in its requirements and required significant levels of teacher and parent input.

The uptake of the programme was almost universally supported. Barbara* was the only dissenting voice. She tried to make the point that there was little, if any, scientific evidence to support the programme and that it was increasing her work load without providing sufficient learning benefits to the children.

In the end, Barbara felt that it was just easier to suppress her rational thoughts and join in the imitation behaviour. Being ostracised is a powerful motivating force for social creatures, as humans are. Interestingly, some years later when the team leader had moved on, new discussions regarding the benefits of this “essential” programme surfaced. Strangely enough, when the teachers were invited to speak freely, not one spoke in favour of retaining the programme. It was immediately and completely abandoned. “I never said I wanted to do the programme”, said the teachers in unison. Really.

Barbara described how she felt vindicated by this decision but also noted that she was never acknowledged for her willingness to take an evidence-based approach to the issue in the first place. The change came about by accident rather than design. Barbara went along with the ‘group think’ because it was “safer” and expedient to do so. For me, this is just another example of how it has come to be that we have a school system that is stuck.

The footnote to this story is that Barbara is no longer a teacher. That’s unfortunate. Because schools need more teachers like Barbara. Informed, effective and, gone.

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*Barbara is not the teacher’s real name – in keeping with the policy that all content on this site will be identity free. You will not find any reference on this site to individuals past or present.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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