Using the Students’ Illusions: From Classroom Management to Classroom Manipulation

"But, Miss, if you are looking over your glasses at me, then surely you can't actually see me."
“But, Miss, if you are looking over your glasses at me, then surely you can’t actually see me.”

In a previous post, I explored how teachers perhaps unknowingly exploit misperception in order to manage the classroom (or, more specifically, to get children to shut up). I was interested in how, when addressing a group, phrases that were direct and aimed at an unspecified individual (e.g. “I can hear you are still talking.”), were more immediate in their impact than vague pronouncements (“Quiet, please.”) or appeals to individuals (“John, you are still talking.”).

My conclusion was that the individual more readily processes communication that is directed at them. Hence my comparison with Travis Bickers (“Are you talkin’ to me?”). Importantly for a teacher, this communication can be directed toward the whole group as if to an individual.

The sinister aspect of this observation (and its apparent success in my classroom) lies in its wider application. If a student perceives that he or she is being directly addressed, when it is objectively apparent that that is not possible (in a group context), then surely there are other “opportunities” in classroom management where this peculiar disparity between subjective perception and objective reality may be exploited. (At this point, I laugh maniacally and rub my hands together.)

So I did a little experiment…

In my class, I want my students to speak in English at all times. English is not their first language and the majority of them speak a common first language. For that reason, they frequently lapse into their native language (when they get tired, can’t find the word they are looking for, or want to say something naughty in the hope that I won’t understand). I have tried a range of measures to support them into using English as much as possible (reward charts, posters, frequent reminders, etc.).

This time, I told my students that (as I circulated during a speaking activity) I would be listening to the students furthest from me. Keep in mind that I teach a primary class, so I can exploit cognitive bias to a greater extent. As I walked around the class, I could see students in animated conversation look to me and then continue their chat in a less fluid manner. Being familiar with my class, this generally signals a move from first to target language. At the end of the class, I asked the students to show a friend (on a scale of one to five) how well they stayed in the target language. They did so, and I could see, generally, how accurate and honest they were in their self-evaluation.

My conclusion is two-fold:

1) Manifestly more English was spoken in that class. I would need to conduct the same experiment over time and have a colleague observe in order to be sure, but I’m fairly confident that I could hear more English and less native language.

2) We do not respond rationally to instruction. We respond personally, and we do not automatically empathise with the instructor. (By which I mean that we are too wrapped up in ourselves to consider whether the teacher really knows what he or she sees and hears.)

We think that the teacher can see into us in a way that is just not possible if considered rationally. That’s why we erroneously believe some teachers to have eyes in the back of their head. These teachers intuitively grasp that the truth is not what matters in classroom management, but the individual student’s perception. Our cognitive bias leads us to believe that teachers can hear us across a crowded, noisy classroom; we believe that a teacher asking for silence in a chatty room is talking only to us. In short, we have an inflated sense of our own presence in a group situation. And that, in a nutshell, is the Illusion of Transparency.


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