Going too easy on our changes: Teachers and doctors “affective errors”

Teachers make an uncountable number of decisions. Many of those decisions relate to how hard to push our students and how much leeway to grant those that don’t conform to expectations.

Here’s a scenario related to behavior management: You are a 10th grade science teacher. In the middle of a final exam review session, a student calls out a profanity about how much she hates math. The entire class erupts in laughter. What do you do? Consider the following options and possibilities:

  • Pause the class to deal to speak to her or calm everyone down and plow ahead with the crucial review session?
  • Eject her from the classroom?
  • What if she is part of a team scheduled to deliver a presentation in ten minutes and her presence is needed for the group to proceed?
  • What if she uses the f-word? What if she uses a curse word that is less intense than the f-word?
  • What if she immediately shows contrition? What if she has been sweet to you all year and at times helps you carry things to your car after school?
  • What if she enters the classroom every day with a surly attitude, ignoring your “good morning”?

Do students that you like a lot receive more flexibility and forgiveness that ones you like less? Or, conversely, do oppositional students receive get more leeway because you’d rather not face the rigmarole of trying to hold them accountable when you know they’ll argue their side to the bitter end?

I’m betting that the sweet student— let’s call her Jane— who has helped you out and always has a smile for you in the hall would be much more likely to receive a sympathetic grimace, a back pat, and some variation of “I know you’re frustrated, but let’s have a heart-to-heart about how handle that frustration appropriately.”

The pissed-off kid— we’ll call her Sally— who has treated you with disdain all year would likely receive moral outrage for an egregious outburst, ejection from the classroom, and a disciplinary write-up.

With this approach, have we done our best by Sweet Jane, Surly Sally, or any of their watching classmates? Are they all getting what they need to put them in the best position to be successful?

I’m hoping my two-year-old daughter Sadie will be a diligent, kind student. I’m also hoping that any teacher would rain disciplinary fire down on her for a profane outburst in the middle of class. I don’t want them to dismiss any shortcomings or failures because overall she is a goodie. That’s just not acceptable and it could manifest in negative long-term consequences.

There is a corollary for this in medicine, and it’s known as“affective error.” I’m currently reading Jerome Groopman’s brilliant book How Doctors Think and he describes it:

We all tend to prefer what we hope will  happen to the less appealing alternatives; this natural tendency is termed “affective error.”  We also lull ourselves into thinking that what we wish for will occur when we get the first inkling, however fragmentary, that our wish may come true.  In short, we value too highly information that fulfills our desires.

Doctors may go easy on patients that they like, sparing them uncomfortable or invasive tests— unwittingly opening the door to the possibility of a devastating missed diagnosis. I think teachers do the same, too often providing personable students with a mulligan that may avoid a tense moment but doesn’t help them learn and grow.

One doctor in Groopman’s book expresses his regret after realizing just such an error: “I kicked myself over and over again. I just didn’t want to subject someone of this age, whom I liked so much, to the discomfort and the strain of the procedure. And because of that, I missed the diagnosis.”

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