Subjectivity in Teacher Decision Making: Underlying Cognitive Processes

By Shepard, Richard | Education, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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Subjectivity in Teacher Decision Making: Underlying Cognitive Processes

Shepard, Richard, Education

Reducing subjectivity is a desirable goal for decision-makers of all kinds - from military leaders to management personnel to individuals dealing with their day to day personal problems. But considering the varied and ambiguous nature of most classroom life, the potential for personal traits to shape or color teachers' perceptions of reality is especially great (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Helping teachers become aware of these personal attributes and to reflect on their own learning has become the focus of many educational research projects and training programs recently (e.g., Richardson, 1990b; Ross, 1989; Schon, 1987; Zeichner & Liston, 1987).

But, while being reflective and examining the contents of one's belief system may help to reduce subjective bias in one's decision making, the process of thinking itself will always be a biased endeavor. How information is gathered, stored, and retrieved is subject to unavoidable limitations inherent in the human mind; the particular beliefs and personality dispositions of any given person have their biasing influence as a result of these inherent limitations.

The purpose of this paper is to review research evidence and theoretical perspectives that specifically address those underlying cognitive processes that influence teacher decision making. An information-processing approach will be adopted in that biases occurring at different stages within the system will be discussed along with their implications for teacher decision-making. It will be shown that not only are the contents of one's underlying cognitive structures more difficult to uncover than is often (intuitively) believed, but that effecting changes requires much more than simply a rational acknowledgment that a faulty or inadequate belief exists. Gaining an accurate understanding of what an "objective" decision-maker is (particularly with respect to a profession as ill-defined and multifaceted as teaching) must begin with an appreciation for the spontaneously occurring biases that are a natural part of perceiving, remembering, and problem-solving.

Cognitive Psychology and the

Information-Processing Approach

There are two basic assumptions underlying cognitive theories of learning and information processing models that summarize all sources of bias found in human thinking and decision making. First, incoming information takes on meaning only to the extent that it can be related to knowledge already existing in the mind of the perceiver. This has been a fundamental theme for cognitive psychology beginning with the schema theories of Bartlett (1932) and Piaget (1959) and later, applied to educational settings by theorists such as Ausubel (1968)), Rumelhart (1981) and Anderson (1983). The view of the learner as actively constructing meaning based on his or her private conceptions of the world leads to the conclusion that learning is a highly personal and constantly evolving process (Novak, 1985).

The second assumption has to do with the restricted ability of the mind to process only a limited amount of information at any given moment. Kruglanski (1989) uses a "search-light" metaphor to describe this limitation; only a small portion of (incoming) external information or internal knowledge (memories) may be "lit up" into conscious awareness at any point in time. Because of the obviously restricted nature of consciousness, researchers have taken a great deal of interest in trying to explain the process by which humans are able to perform seemingly complex tasks (such as driving a car or reading) at high rates of proficiency and with relatively little mental effort. The nature of and interactions between these two basic factors of information processing forms the basis for all the distortions, subjective inferences, and general capriciousness found in human decision making.

Belief Systems and Personally Constructed


If one assumes a constructivist philosophy of learning (see Novak, 1985, for example), it becomes readily apparent that not only is the act of knowing a highly personal and self-perpetuating experience, but that the processes involved usually operate outside of conscious awareness.

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