Rebuilding Your Ladder of Inference

A student leaves the room without permission, suddenly, and in the middle of direct instruction. The teacher, justifiably, exclaims to the class “Can you believe her nerve?” He makes a show of writing up her consequence in front of the class – while claiming it was the student who caused the interruption. The student returns to explain that she had left the room to help a teacher in the hallway who had dropped her papers and her coffee.

A non-teaching staff member reports to the principal that another student is refusing to go to class at the start of the day and is “giving me attitude.” The principal intercepts the girl in the hallway and she asks to use the phone to call her mother. When asked why, the student explains, “My mother did not come home last night. I need to call to see if she is okay.” After calling home and speaking with her mother, the student returns promptly to class.

A coach, upset at a student who had gotten in yet another argument with yet another teacher in the school, tells a student, “You don’t belong here.” Following a suspension, several interventions from school staff, parents, counselors, and a psychiatrist, the student proceeds to have a full semester free from any disciplinary action. When, after winter break, the student has another conflict, his first in months, the coach dismisses him, saying “I knew it.”

In each of these cases, a person in authority, and in a position to make or break an individual’s day or even their life, made a series of judgments about a student in their care.  And in each of these cases the person made a judgment about a student that was incorrect, or at least incomplete.

We know that any decision we make is based on a series of other decisions and underlying assumptions, beliefs, and facts. At each of these decision points, we are often left with only one resource for our decision-making: our own past experience and, perhaps more powerfully, our biases. In the moment, the teacher is unable to research or investigate, and instead must base a decision entirely on his or her own learning and experience. This is where cultural competence, kindness, and investments in personal relationships can combine to turn potential conflicts into learning experiences.

This series of inferences impacts every decision a person makes. It starts simply, and uncontroversially, from observable reality and facts. Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline and Kegan and Lahey’s book Immunity to Change both describe the role of a “ladder of inference” that prevents a person from seeing anything without a certain bias.

In a presentation discussing the lessons in his book Conversational Capacity, Craig Weber described a situation where a police officer and an architect share the same taxi downtown. Driving through a neighborhood and seeing the same things, essentially, they draw very different conclusions about where they are. “It’s a dump,” proclaims the cop, who sees evidence of age and lack of care in the buildings. “It’s beautiful,” exclaims the architect, who sees the age and care taken to build these same structures years earlier. Same set of facts, different sets of experiences, very different conclusions.

At the bottom of the ladder is objective reality. In the case of the cop and the architect, they looked at the same buildings in the same part of town. This was reality and facts. From there, they started climbing the ladder. The age of the buildings then prompts them to climb the ladder. Perhaps they both focused on this same selected feature of the buildings. It is in their interpretation of reality that they then start to derive divergent views. The officer sees the age as a potential indicator for a less cared for part of town, while the architect sees strong “bones” of a building.

From here, each professional made assumptions based on their experience, and developed conclusions. The officer concluded it was a dump, and the drawer concluded it was beautiful.

In this example, the only “action” was an exclamation. In the world of daily instruction and education however, hundreds of tiny actions and reactions can result from a few beliefs. These actions can influence how much or little a student is pushed to be successful, or punished for breaking a rule.

It is hard to overcome these initial biases. It is even harder to overcome the assumptions and conclusions we reach based on these lower rungs, these hidden biases that we might not even know we have.

In the George Bernard Shaw classic play Pygmalion, a teacher, Professor Higgins instructs his student, Eliza, in the manners and language of their time. He promises his ability to educate her to the point where he could pass her off as “the Queen of Sheba” and haughtily claims, “I shall make a Duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe”. After winning his bet with a friend that she could fool a room full of elites, he tells Eliza she is free to return to the gutter from where she came. She instead elopes with a gentleman of the same social class as her professor.

The role of education today is a bit more noble, and hopefully less class-driven than that. However, ultimately, the goal is to increase the ability of our students to make their way in the world through increased academic skills and – perhaps more importantly – their increased social skills.

It is from this work that the term “Pygmalion effect” originates. This effect relates to Professor Higgins’ inability to see that education has indeed transformed Eliza. More broadly applied, this is the inability of any person to see the transformation in another, or to ultimately always judge a person based on their first impression.

In the classroom, this can have positive or negative effects, depending on the initial opinion the teacher has of the pupil. Studies have repeatedly shown that teachers who have high expectations for their students, even as a result of being fed incorrectly positive information about the group, achieve high results with that group of students. Alternatively, students who have a low opinion of their students, get lower results.

It is evidence that, despite our best efforts, the Pygmalion effect happens to teachers too. Just like in Professor Higgins’ case, the irony is that it is teachers who should best understand the ability of an education to profoundly change a person to their core. And so often we do not.

In the examples at the start of this article, a teacher or other school employee makes a judgment about a student action that could have long-lasting negative effects on a student. In each case, an assumption was made and acted upon. In each case the child faced the disapproval and the potential of consequences from an adult. In one case, a child was told he did not belong in school, and even a period of prolonged improvement appeared to have no effect on an adult who seemed interested in proving an earlier opinion over working to improve a student.

We must be willing to be wrong in order to reach a student

As educators, we have to learn to prevent ourselves from climbing the ladder of inference. Or, short of abandoning our human nature, we must learn to use our ladder of inference to reach better results.

Our ladder of inference can be retrained to provide positive rather than negative outcomes.

In a situation similar to those that started this article, one teacher found herself needing to move a student from a talkative group. Three years earlier she had a similar situation with a similar student that turned into a disruptive confrontation in class when the student refused to move. This time, though, the teacher asked the student to step outside, and reminded him that he liked to sit alone at the table at the back of the room. She asked if this might be one of the times where he would do this to get away from a talkative table group, and he quietly agreed and chose to move.

Overcoming the ladder of inference in your own thinking requires discipline of thought.

  1. Assume the best / most positive explanation
  2. Ask questions to attack your own assumptions
    1. Ask each person involved what they did
    2. Ask each person why they did it – what was their intention
  3. Question your own conclusions by presenting them as questions to others
  4. Be willing to challenge your own beliefs
  5. Act on the facts, and let assumptions go without being acted upon

This feels like a lot. In reality, though, it is just the same series of steps you might take anyway. The only change is that you are practicing climbing a ladder of inference where the student gets the benefit of the doubt.

How important is that concept? So important it was enshrined in the Constitution of the United States of America, though unnamed, in the 5th Amendment.

As educators, we must always see the best interpretation of an act by a student. We must always provide a better reality for a student to live into. We must also grow in our ability to do this with other adults.

Finally, we must be encouraged by the words of Eliza Doolittle, when she returns at the end of Pygmalion to meet with Professor Higgins, and his partner in the experiment, Colonel Pickering.

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl isn’t how she behaves, it is how she is treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will. But I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.”

Seeing our students as we want them to be, and as how they want to be, is a powerful elixir.

Many years ago, as a second year teacher, I failed to get a student to remove his hat and was following him down the hall. He seemed impervious to my requests. Until, that is, he reached the door of a veteran teacher. She immediately summed up the situation and with a big smile on her face she embraced the student and called him by name. “Certainly you would not be wearing your hat indoors, would you?”

“No ma’am,” he demurred, awkwardly crooking his arm around her snug embrace to remove his hat.

She asked, without really asking, “Why don’t I hold on to your hat, and you and I can talk about it when you come back at the end of the day?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She let him go with a hearty, “I am glad you’re here today, the reading is at your desk and there is a writing prompt on the board.”

This student had sought to remove himself from the nuisance of correction from a teacher he did not know, but he walked into the arms, literally, of a teacher who expected more from him. She didn’t ignore or disregard his behavior at all. Instead of seeing the young man, as I did in the moment, as someone simply seeking to avoid consequences, she chose to see him as someone growing in his ability to regulate himself. She got the desired results, and ensured that there would be meaningful follow-up later, and she did it without a confrontation.

4 thoughts on “Rebuilding Your Ladder of Inference

  1. Excellent article! It’s so important to take a breathe and evaluate the situation and not jump conclusions or ass-u-me that you have interpreted the situation correctly. That’s one reason I like working in a Montessori classroom… its less about managing large groups of kids and more about relating to individuals in small groups. Teachers get a chance to know their students and understand them.

    • I think it is a certain mindset that is present in many teachers already. The Montessori approach intentionally fosters this set of skills with powerful effect. It sounds like you have found yourself in the right place!

  2. Dear Jack, This piece speaks to the heart of relationships to everyone in our lives whether we are teachers, or simply human being interacting with others. I have never seen the ladder before and for me it helps to have a visual. Thank you for this post. It is a reminder to all of us to know ourselves as well as the knowledge that how we interact with others creates who they know themselves to be.

    • I had the honor to be taught the ladder by Dr. Kagan (I haven’t yet met Dr. Lahey) a couple of summers ago as part of of a work they call “Immunity to Change.” It is powerful personal leadership work. Your last sentence really puts it powerfully “how we interact with others creates who they know themselves to be.”

      That’s the article in a nutshell.

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