As favour and riches forsake a man, we discover in him the foolishness they concealed, and which no one perceived before.

Jean de La Bruyère

You know that lad in Year 9 who gives you constant grief? He’s a manipulative little git and he hates you. And that lovely, hardworking girl in Year 11? She’s such a warm, kindhearted soul – what a privilege it is to teach her.

As we trudge from day to weary day, we are each the hero of our own story and all others we meet merely bit players. But no matter the size of the part we see everyone as part of a narrative. As such tend to make the mistake that people’s behaviour, and particularly pupils’ behaviour, is attributable to their character. And so it may be, but more often than not it has as much to do with circumstances. How often have we said of a difficult pupil that he or she is perfectly pleasant when we interact with them in a difference environment? What’s more likely? That their character has changed or that our behaviour is dependent on the context we find ourselves? Although we know the behaviour of others is a tug of war between their character and their circumstances, we are seduced by the power of narrative as we struggle to make sense of the world.

In 1992, Sedikides & Anderson investigated attitudes towards Soviet citizens defecting to the United States and vice versa. Most people believed defection to the US would be explained by the hardships Soviet citizens experienced, but if American defected to the USSR, this must be due to fundamental disloyalty and a fault in their character. It was easier to blame such defections on defects in American citizen’s personality and on endemic problems with the Soviet system.

In another experiment researchers asked male subjects to be interviewed by a female actress. They were then shown either positive or negative reports she has written about their meeting. When the researchers told the indignant subjects the actress had been forced to write the negative reports as part of the experiment, they nodded sagely and agreed this was a reasonable explanation. But when told positive reports were similarly invented they continued to believe the actress had liked them despite the evidence to the contrary.

In our attempts to make sense of the world, we seek causal relationships. We want to know why things happened. Is it because of who we are, something we did or believed, our character, or was it pure chance, a random combination of events: ‘such things happen’. Our need for understanding extends to how we interpret other people’s behaviour, and this is especially true in the classroom. We see children behaving in various ways, and in trying to attribute cause, bias creeps into our ‘explanation’. These ways of ascribing causality are examples of the fundamental attribution error. That is, when making sense of other people, we put greater emphasis on what we assume are their character traits, and under-value contextual factors. We see a student obviously bored and switched off, and assume that they are a ‘low-achiever’, rather than noticing the room has become rather stuffy after lunch. But we don’t make that assumption about ourselves; we have a very good explanation of why we feel drowsy.

We instinctively take the credit when things go well – it seems obvious that our success is due to our talents and efforts. But when something goes badly we’re inclined to look for external causes and explanations. Conversely, we can be guilty of assuming that when things go well it’s just down to luck, but when you do poorly we wallow in self-recrimination and reproach. Each approach is guilty of the fundamental attribution error. When it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, we invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context. We will always reach for a ‘dispositional’ explanation for events, as opposed to a contextual explanation.

Schools do this every year when exam results come in. But should we congratulate ourselves on increases or are these due to natural variation or wide-scale dumbing down? When results are poorer than expected should we wring our hands and search for what went wrong, or should we blame the year group, the exam board, or the government of the day?

We view the world from within our own internalised context where it appears we determine everything that we do. In situations where we have no control over events, we attribute causes to an outside agent. These agents fill in the gaps in our knowledge, allowing us to ‘understand’ a complex and sometimes incomprehensible world.

As teachers, finding ourselves in a situation where we utilise a certain teaching approach and find it doesn’t work, we often tend to blame our pupils: they didn’t listen; they didn’t try hard enough; they are too dumb to learn. It’s their fault, their personal choices, behaviours, disposition and actions. As school leaders we might be guilty of making similarly flawed judgements of teachers.

When we label teachers as effective or ineffective we may well be guilty of making the fundamental attribution error. Stereotyping is a seductively simple shortcut to explaining the world. We don’t have to think further – events are caused by character traits. But the way we act is at least as dependent on the circumstance we’re in as the people we are. Is a teacher effective because they feel supported, or are they hardworking and talented? Might a teacher be ineffective because they feel under threat, or are they feckless and unprofessional? It’s relatively easy to do well when everyone around you is supportive and believes in you. Success breeds success and it becomes easier to think of some teachers as ‘outstanding’ than to honestly scrutinise their performance. Likewise, reputations can be easily crushed. If a member of staff is perceived as under-performing, how do we react? Do we give them our trust and support? Or do we put them on capability?

We like to believe we’re objective and reasonable in the way we treat others but the if the recent Sutton Trust report, What Makes Teaching Great? tells us anything it’s that it is really bloody hard to evaluate teachers’ performance in a way which is valid and reliable. It’s so much easier to go with our guts and assume we ‘just know’ who is ‘good’ and who ‘requires improvement’.