Why do edtech folk react badly to scepticism? Part 3: Sunk cost fallacy

After writing a fairly frivolous article expressing scepticism about using iPads in schools, and then experiencing a torrent of invective from various iPadistas, I began a series of posts exploring why asking questions about education technology provokes such an egregious responses. In Part 1 I wrote about vested interest and in Part 2 I addressed confirmation bias. The focus of this third installment is the sunk cost fallacy.

We have an irrational response to having wasted time, effort or money: I’ve committed this much, so I must continue or it will have been a waste. I spent all this time training my pupils to work in groups so they’re damn well going to work in groups, and hang the evidence! If you’ve ever paid for a cinema ticket only to realise, five minutes in, that the film will be dreadful and then opted to watch it anyway, you have fallen victim to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Sitting through something tedious may feel worthy but you’re essentially throwing good ‘money’ after bad; your continued investment in the film makes no logical sense. The money you’ve spent is gone and you can never get it back, but you could save ninety minutes of your precious time.

Imagine this scenario.* A school leadership team is faced with a difficult decision: the previous head had been a passionate advocate of one-to-one devices and believed that the best way to transform pupils’ experience of education was for everyone to have their own wireless tablet. Protests from parents and staff had been swept aside and the school outlaid a huge sum to create a wireless network, which would be sufficient to support over a thousand devices at any one time. The future was bright, shiny and encased in brushed aluminium.

Then the Head left. No one else on the leadership team believed in the project, but all the discussions were about how to roll it out in the least damaging and intrusive way. When one member of the team suggested that maybe the best decision would be to cut their losses and abandon the whole thing, they were shouted down. The new head made it clear that things had progressed too far, that too much money and credibility had been invested to simply pull the plug. So, even though no one thought it was the right choice, the juggernaut rolled on. Parents were asked to lease tablets for their children and pupils in receipt of free school meals had an iPad paid for by the school. Teachers were trained in how to use various apps in lessons and further resources were committed to ensuring the project was a success.

And the result? Because no one really believed in the efficacy of tablet devices to transform education, they became merely a distraction from teaching and pupils were often instructed to keep them in their bags in order for lessons to proceed. Staff members became cynical, parents were resigned, but pupils were for the most part delighted with their new toys.

Now, I’m not saying iPads could never be used effectively in schools – they probably can – but not if nobody believes in them. This can become a hugely expensive distraction with no discernible positive effects on outcomes. If this can happen with something as bloated and expensive as handheld devices, just think of the more subtle distorting effects the sunk cost fallacy can have on the way we teach. Are we doing what we do simply because we’ve already invested many years in training and practice, and now feel we can’t afford to change course?

Because there is always a cost. If it’s not sunk cost, it’s an opportunity cost; what else could you be doing instead? This is especially pressing in education where everything can be claimed to work to some extent. And even if our preferred teaching method is roundly debunked by research we can always assert that whatever it is we’re doing ‘works for me’. And who can say it doesn’t? How you choose to spend your time depends on your priorities, your values, and the perceived needs of the job. But you can’t do everything – you have to make choices. So time spent developing strategy x is time that cannot also be spent on developing strategy y. And if the scientific consensus is y would get better results is it immoral to continue investing in x?

With every decision and judgment you make it becomes harder to change direction. In Mistakes Were Made, But Not By MeCarol Tavris and Elliot Aronson refer to ‘the pyramid of choice’. At the apex of the pyramid how we feel about our beliefs is relatively neutral, but with each choice we make we become more invested in our beliefs and so justify our choices by seeing our own actions as sensible and honourable and those of others as daft and despicable. We find a way to reconcile that even though the scientific consensus says y would get better results, you will continue to invest in x. Our view of people who’ve made different choices becomes less flattering: they are ignorant, stupid or evil. Our descent down one or other side of the pyramid leads to us categorising others into ‘them’ and ‘us’.

In this case, anyone sceptical of digital technology is a threat to the self-esteem of anyone who’s sunk their credibility, time and effort into edtech. The sinking of these costs produces the kind of vested interest discussed in Part 1; suggesting that the investment may have been misplaced marks you as an enemy.

*This is not a fictitious scenario. Details have been changed because I don’t want to upset anyone who might otherwise be identifiable.

7 Responses to Why do edtech folk react badly to scepticism? Part 3: Sunk cost fallacy

  1. Ephemeral321 says:

    Good post, David. There are parallels here with our own school experience about non-tech management issues.

    In new situations humans are likely to make mistakes. Reviewing any situation involving myself I’ve often contributed some mistakes to the scenario. In relationships we cannot learn and grow if we are only focused on blaming others. Good relationships involve people talking, listening, and resolving issues. When we make a mistake the point is to accept it and focus on what we do next.

    • tinomot says:

      Isn’t there often an intention still to ‘keep the best of what we’ve invested in?’. At what point do you admit it’s a shame, and a mistake, and move on completely?

      • David Didau says:

        At what point *should* we move on or at what point *do* we? The answer to the former is asap and strategies like pre-mortems can really help. The answer the latter is, often, not until it’s way too late. That might call for a 4th Part on the perils of unscrupulous optimism.

  2. I’ve enjoyed your posts on scepticism in EdTech, David.

    “In this case, anyone sceptical of digital technology is a threat to the self-esteem of anyone who’s sunk their credibility, time and effort into edtech”

    There’s a lot of similarities to this with religion. Such as in Dan Dennet’s breaking the spell/Clergy project, that is you will be putting your financial security at stake if you change sides. So even if you no longer believe in EdTech as a solution you have little choice but to carry on seeking ever more confirmation bias.

    Sceptisim should always be the default option on any unfamiliar naturalistic claims. For all our tech advances of the last 6 years the UK economy is no more productive. So why should it be any different in the classroom? I worked in IT for 6 years before retraining as a teacher the amount of money companies would chuck at ‘game-changing projects’ only to then either find out they were no better off or ditch them entirely never ceased to amaze.

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    If your hypothetical school were to publicly and openly disavow tablets, it would create controversy, and the new head would be open to criticism–not the least because others, both inside and outside the system, also buy into the sunk cost fallacy. The new head, but not necessarily the old one, would be accused of wasting tax-payers’ monies. In any case, pressure to buy into ed tech is pervasive. Even people who merely regard it as just another tool in the teacher’s kit are afraid to stick their necks out.

  4. David says:

    The sad thing is that the stage just before the one you outline in the scenario is “those darn teachers are being obstinate! They need to get over their “traditional” teaching styles and embrace the technology! This will be on their observations!” Thus, before the realization that it doesn’t work and shouldn’t have been rolled out in the first place, there is the “hammering the square peg into the round hole” phase, which gets ugly.

    I’d add too, that when someone brings up the importance of reduced class sizes rather than shiny ed tech objects in terms of opportunity costs, we get the same baloney that the learning styles advocates spout–“class sizes don’t matter. I’ve read this many places.” Somehow, this has become embedded into the minds of many administrators and politicians. Yet: http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb_-_class_size.pdf

  5. […] Parts 2 and 3 I discuss how confirmation bias and the sunk cost fallacy affect the edtech […]

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