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Motivated Reasoning

When you are confronted by something new, how do you react? Are you curious? Do you try to understand what the new thing is on its own terms, or do you try to evaluate it using the frames of reference you are comfortable with? Your answer to this question, and approach to this scenario, may help explain your attitude to Curriculum for Excellence.

I Don't Believe In Global WarmingThe serendipitous nature of my RSS reader (NetNewsWire) landed me on a recent New York Times opinion piece about why 45% of Republicans in America believe that President Obama was not born in the USA. It’s an interesting, albeit brief, explanation by Professor David P. Redlawsk, professor of political science and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

It turns out the reason many Republicans do not trust the evidence is because their existing beliefs, those they have spent so long cultivating, are sufficient to reject any new evidence, no matter how compelling. This is “motivated reasoning”. As Prof Redlawsk writes:

We are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested. We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”

I think it was the phrase “existing evaluations” that gave me my Eureka moment, because what I realised was that the above paragraph could just as easily be applied to many of the critics of Curriculum for Excellence. We have spent so long teaching in a specific way, of assessing in a specific way, and learning in a specific way, that we are effectively ‘hard-wired’ and predisposed to reject anything new that is presented to us. In fact, I suspect this also goes some way to explaining why so much INSET time is perceived as being wasted. We are unable to accept new information at face value because we are comparing it to, and with, what we already know.

Perhaps the problem lies in the reliance we have on our feelings. Again, to quote Prof. Redlawsk,

It’s not the evidence that matters. Feelings come first, and evidence is used mostly in service of those feelings…

If we feel unsure — and with a new Curriculum, who isn’t — we will allow our feelings to overrule any evidence presented to us. No wonder CfE is proving such a hard sell. As well as changing what and how we teach, we are up against good old irrational fear! It doesn’t really matter what evidence is produced to show the benefits of CfE as many are still in the dark about what is involved… And we’re all, at an instinctual level, afraid of the dark.

What is the answer? Well, one thing the Education Futures: Scotland blog is intended to do, is throw light on good practice. Teachers need to share what works, and, just as importantly, what didn’t. In a sense, we need to do what parents do for their children who need to sleep with the light on: reassure, be patient, offer support and show them there is nothing under the bed. (Actually, I did have a sudden mental image of looking under the bed and seeing an HMIe Inspector there, but that’s maybe just me!)

It is not easy to do, but it is possible and the alternatives are too awful to contemplate. For me, the fundamental difference between Curriculum for Excellence and what has gone before is that CfE is trying to bridge the gap between testing and learning. Instead of comparing CfE to what you already know, try to look at what it is intended to be. If you don’t like the Principles and Practice documents, ask yourself if this is because you are comparing them to what you already know, rather than looking at what they are meant to do. And finally, remember that CfE is not really designed for us. We were taught in a different time and when society had different needs, and where it was easy to write learners off because they would still be able to pick up a job. At its heart, CfE is designed to help prepare our learners for the world they will enter on leaving formal education, not the world we entered.

We are wary of change, but change happens. By recognising that motivated reasoning is real — though irrational — but can be addressed, we are just a few steps closer to shedding some light on the future for our learners.

Cross-posted at



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National Qualifications – Mythbusters

Click on the image to visit the SQA Mythbusters page.

There is a new page on the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) website which is a start in addressing the FUDsurrounding the new National Qualifications.

The page is called New National Qualifications — Mythbuster, and has explanations of why the roll-out of the new National 4 and National 5 qualifications are progressing as they are. Well worth sharing, and don’t forget that you too can add you tuppence worth on the CfE Feedback page.


Welcome to, if not a Brave New World, at least an attempt to move beyond the rhetoric and inevitable negativity that surrounds most new initiatives in education. The title of this blog is Education Futures : Scotland. If we stand for anything, it is making sure that those we teach are given the best preparation possible for the future. We are interested in ensuring that young people are given every opportunity, every support, and every helping hand as we guide them to master the skills they will need to thrive in an unknowable future.

We are a group of educators, mostly involved in Scottish education. We have no affiliation with any local or national organisations, though we are more than happy to work with them. We are enthusiastic about the opportunities for learning that are now available to all pupils, teachers, parents and Governments. And most importantly, we know we don’t have all the answers, but we’re not afraid to try.

The intention of this blog is to share and to encourage and spark discussion. We will shortly be posting some examples of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in practice. What we are most keen on is moving beyond the discussions and theorizing to try and identify what works in CfE and why. We believe that by sharing our ideas, we can encourage you to share yours.

We invite you to join in by commenting, and if you want to become even more active, we’d be delighted to hear from you. So, with that said, here’s a starter question:

In your opinion, where is most of the resistance to Curriculum for Excellence coming from, and how would you address that resistance, if at all?