"Embracing Change in Education: Overcoming Contraction Bias” Or "Future-Proofing the Flock: When Sheep in Educator's Clothing Resist the New Wool"


"In the classroom, the only constant is change, but our brains might be playing tricks on us, convincing us that new teaching strategies are just old wine in new bottles. Let's debunk this myth and dive into the curious world of contraction bias—where progress may be more than we think."

Part of the “Barriers to Professional Learning & Doing” series…

First, my introduction to the Contraction Bias (CB) Support Group:


Me: “Hello, my name is Robb and I have CB” 

You: “Hello, Robb”


What the heck is CB? It stands for “Contraction Bias” and it’s one of the reasons why we aren’t making headway in education reform in our districts and schools. I’m worried that I may have been part of the problem! [Enter sad face here!]


Let’s talk about this for a second…


What is Contraction Bias?


According to ScienceDirect, “One commonly observed perceptual distortion is the contraction bias - the tendency of observers to underestimate stimuli that are larger than expectations and overestimate stimuli that are smaller than expectations.” In other words, when we are faced with something that's way bigger or more intense than what is familiar to us, we often gravitate toward what we consider to be the norm. To add to this, if something seems less significant, we tend to think even less of the impact. When educators learn about a unique and groundbreaking teaching method or an innovative approach, they might not fully grasp the potential. Those with contraction bias often fall back to statements like, "This won't be as big of a deal as they say," or "It probably won't work as well here," keeping schools in a middle ground that will potentially bar us from making, possibly, game-changing decisions.


To help make the concept more accessible, I dropped the ScienceDirect quote above into ChatGPT and asked it to “Explain it like I’m 5 years old” or ELI5. This was the output:


Imagine you're guessing how many candies are in a jar. You might think, "Well, I don't want to guess too many or too few, so I'll pick a number that seems safe and not too far from what I think is average." This is kind of like contraction bias. It's when people make guesses or predictions, they often choose something not too high, not too low, but closer to what they think is normal or average, even if the real answer could be a lot higher or lower. It's like playing it safe when you're not sure.

How is contraction bias often a barrier to long-term, quality change in education?


Contraction bias in education can stand in the way of growth and innovation by causing educators and leaders to take a more conservative, cautious view of change. It leads educators and policymakers to play it safe, often underestimating how effective new change options are impacting growth. As examples, suppose a school is monitoring the implementation of virtual reality (VR) in classrooms or measuring the effect artificial intelligence (AI) to develop individual lesson paths.  These changes may be seen as bold and unprecedented; the newer and bolder the change path, however, the more likely it is to suffer contraction bias and causes true effectiveness difficult to understand, measure, and evaluate. Due to contraction bias, decision-makers might assume that these technologies have only a moderate impact, based on familiar, average outcomes, and therefore opt not to continue in the uncharted waters. This cautious stance tends to support the status quo, causing schools and districts to cancel their “bold path” because of a lack of ability to genuinely understand and measure the effects of change.


Research in educational psychology suggests that when decisions about student potential or educational reforms rely too much on what’s considered “average,” we miss out on opportunities for substantial progress. Not only will educators prematurely abandon efforts, but their skewed understanding due to contraction bias may actually create barriers for even starting down the change journey. Current education is built on the concept of “average.” That needs to change and steps must be taken to reduce the hold that contraction bias has on understanding and measurement of implemented, innovative strategies.  We’ll talk about some ideas to help us combat the effect in a moment.


Think about your tenure in education. How many programs have come and gone during your career? Have you ever wondered why that is?  As a consultant, I’ve heard a number times the statement, “Why are we doing this now? It’ll just be replaced with something in a year or two!” You know what? They’re right! That’s how we roll in education. When we allow contraction bias to skew our thinking, we miss out on potential, long-term gains. When we switch directions each year (or two) because we’re not seeing the effectiveness we expect, two things tend to happen:


1.   District educators get frustrated with learning and relearning something new each year. Teachers are already spread thin and are quite exhausted. Burnout is real.

2.   Teachers lose faith in leaders; they can perceive leaders as ineffective or out of touch with what’s happening in the classroom because of the constant change in directions and continual implementation of the “next best thing.”


As a result of bias towards average outcomes, the education world is moving too slowly. So many kids are slipping through education systems to graduate with elementary-level math and ELA skills.  But sometimes change takes time. When we don’t take time to reduce or eliminate bias, we overlook the possibility of major breakthroughs that could profoundly increase student proficiency. Comfort in the warm embrace of the “status quo” and the “average mindset” cause schools to not only miss out on exciting innovations and methods that could better meet our students’ needs but also fail to address longstanding challenges in education that so desperately need to be addressed.

What does the research say? 


Contraction bias is not a well-known concept and, when you add in the variable of educational change, there is virtually no research or information on the topic. I did find some research that connected contraction bias and change in an article by Tyack and Cuban called "Tinkering Toward Utopia." Their writing emphasizes the intricate nature of reform and the importance of acknowledging and adapting to this complexity to promote meaningful change (1995). That helps us get a good idea on what we need to do.


In addition, Ericsson and Pool, in their book "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise" (2016) provided insights into how consistent support and feedback can improve teacher practice and alter perceptions over time. Their findings indicated that addressing contraction bias requires approaches that concentrate on growth and the small achievements that signify progress. Great! Another good idea to consider in my suggestions below.


Why does this all matter? 


Bottom line? We must be proactive and actively reduce the bias that sort of messes with our perceptions of “change reality.”  Because of contraction bias, there have been many quality change initiatives that have failed or just “went away” when they could have left indelible impressions on the world of education and could have supported increased student proficiency. A mantra at a school I served in was the acronym, DTTBOWTB. What the heck? It stands for “Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater.” Rarely do we have to throw out everything and start anew; too often, schools engage in REVOLUTIONS, when they should really focus on EVOLUTIONS. When we embark on a new journey within change, it’s not an “all or nothing” situation. We need to own the change. Live the change. And look for little steps along the way that promote achievement. If we think a program change decision is not working and want to switch gears, it’s advisable not to simply wipe the “ineffective” change plan from our collective memory. We need to focus on the small things that were working before casting everything aside. 


I’ve listed some considerations below to reduce the likelihood of contraction bias as you plan for change within your schools/districts. This might seem like a lot, but it should provide a way to brainstorm the change process and the support you provide. 


1.   Establish Clear, Objectives:  Clearly define what success entails right from the start. It becomes easier to recognize change when you have a target in mind.

2.   Flexibility in Goal Setting: Avoid sticking to fixed objectives and consider setting goals that adapt according to the initial results of the change effort. This flexible method helps counteract the impact of contraction bias by adjusting expectations as needed.

3.   Consistent Support is Vital: Change is not a one-time occurrence but rather a continuous journey. Check-ins, opportunities for growth and constructive feedback can significantly contribute to fostering development and monitoring progress effectively.

4.   Utilize Diverse Assessment Techniques: Employing strategic evaluation methods can help capture the spectrum of changes ranging from tangible outcomes to more intangible aspects. This approach aims to present a view of development and its impact.

5.   Regularly Acknowledge Progress: Time for introspection on the transformational process is necessary. We need to measure outcomes regularly, using formative processes for auditing growth and to make important changes along the way. It’s important during this time to provide a lot of opportunities for collaboration and discussion. We should be using the constant stream of evidence to repeatedly reflect on progress and change.

6.   Encourage a Culture of Experimentation: Inspire educators to try out innovative approaches and methods in a controlled manner. Understand that not every experiment will be perfect. View each one as a chance to learn and grow. By promoting a mindset of exploration, you can build resilience against bias towards the familiar.

7.   Enhance Communication: Maintain lines of communication where both successes and setbacks are openly discussed. Sharing experiences and results helps to demystify change and enables educators to see the impact as opposed to their preconceived notions.

8.   Continuous Professional Growth: Invest in professional development that not only introduces novel concepts but also teaches how to assess their effects objectively. Educators who grasp the process of change are less susceptible to bias against bold ideas.

9.    Engage Students: Involve students in the process of change. Their unique perspectives often offer insights, and their feedback serves as a useful gauge of the effectiveness of new teaching methods.

10.  Long-Term Research: Encourage the use of studies to monitor how educational changes unfold over time. Such data can offer proof that challenges biases towards sticking with traditional methods.


By addressing the issues of contraction bias, we can help our educational system evolve and progress, fostering school cultures where innovative strategies thrive and are accurately assessed and evaluated. 


Learn, Do, Report


Educational Leaders


Commission: "Evaluate and Elevate"


As a leader, commit to an 'Evaluate and Elevate' initiative. This month, select one educational innovation that you've implemented or are considering. Gather a comprehensive set of data—both qualitative and quantitative—regarding its use and impact. Engage in dialogue with your staff and students to better understand the effects of the change.  Host a meeting to present these findings, celebrate the wins, however minor, and constructively consider the setbacks. Use this information to refine and understand the innovation and to consider additional next steps and goals. This continuous cycle of evaluation and elevation will promote a culture that appreciates nuanced progress and breaks away from the contraction bias.




Commission: "Classroom Explorers"


Embrace the role of an explorer within your classroom. For the next term, adopt a new teaching strategy or technology you've been hesitant about due to its perceived complexity or past oversimplifications. Consider keeping track of your observations and reflections with a journal.  Share these insights with peers and encourage further discussion. Your aim is to build upon your current environment of shared learning as you move towards new educational landscapes, thus diminishing the influence of contraction bias in your practice.




Tyack, David, and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. 


Ericsson, Anders, and Robert Pool. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 



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