The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Normalcy bias

Normalcy bias is one of the greatest challenges facing education today – but recognizing its existence opens up tremendous opportunities for those who can step outside the box and react accordingly.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, it basically means this: If you’ve been traveling on a straight road for a long period of time, you tend to think that road will continue to be straight well into the future. We look at the progression of our lives and assume that the status quo will continue rolling forward on a linear path. And it is something we are all naturally very susceptible to.

Nassim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” (the business book, not the movie!), writes about it from the perspective of the Happy Turkey. Every day for a couple of years, a farmer comes out and gives the turkey water and tasty food; the turkey has a covered place to sleep and is kept safe from predators. Based on these past two years, this is how he expects to live out his life; however, those who celebrate Thanksgiving know that a very different fate awaits him.

I’m not suggesting that anyone in education is going to lose their head, of course. I share the story as an example of how our views of the future are built from our experiences up to this point. In education, we had a long period – 60 years or more – of relative prosperity, every year seeing growth in spending and an increase in services. That prosperity went on for so long that today, even after a few years of belt-tightening, many expect us to end the current financial detour and get back on that road.

But what if our road is no longer straight? What if we’re in the middle of a turn, and we haven’t even realized it?

If that’s the case – and I believe it is, based on some of the reasons I’ve laid out elsewhere – then K-12 education is going to start looking very different from what we see today. I can’t say that I know where we’re headed, but I do believe that enlisting local communities as full and equal partners is the single best strategy available to us to counter the challenges we face and revitalize our entire approach to educating our children.

For that to happen, we must all recognize our own tendencies toward normalcy bias – and realize that while the future will very likely not look like the past, we can make it look better if we engage our communities and make it happen.

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