Do Professionals in Education make Too Many Assumptions?

It all came as a bit of a shock to me.  That school staff constantly made announcements based on assumptions that they made.  Assumptions about anything and everything…. but in particular assumptions in an area that they are not especially knowledgeable… not knowledgeable at all as it turned out.  I’ll explain with some examples….

I trained as a nurse (a million years ago) and if a patient had a high temperature, low blood pressure and high pulse that is is exactly what we would report.  Our observations.  We could have said “he is septic” or “she has an infection and is bleeding”.  Both might be true but if the medical profession simply made assumptions, rather than describing an observation and thinking through the possibilities, then there was the potential for wrong treatment decisions and catastrophic outcomes ……. oh wait…….

That is exactly what happens in education…. the wrong decisions are made and the outcomes ARE sometimes catastrophic.  Only linking cause and effect in education is more tricky and messy.  Mistakes can be embarrassing (there is no healthy culture of ‘no blame’ and ‘learning from your outcomes’ in education it seems) and anyway, children often move schools before the catastrophe is realised – so school staff are free to carry on with clueless assumption making.

So what could you expect, how can you spot the difference and what can you do about it?

I’ll give you a couple of examples…. “he socialises well, enjoys playing football with the other boys and has lots of friends” (implicit in this – so clearly the extensive home, school and clinic based assessments identifying Asperger’s are wrong – but that isn’t the point here.)  The point is “socialising” “enjoying” and “lots of friends” are assumptions.  The observations might be “he runs around at playtime with the others who are playing football”.  The latter would give the multi agency team the opportunity to consider things a little better.  The initial assumptions could be absolutely right.  But to know if he enjoys it you would have to ask him.  Socialising is a far more sophisticated skill that requires more time and further consideration by those skilled to do so.  Again “lots of friends” requires far more thought.

So for the alternatives.  There could be a few, but I will cut to the chase here.  He was 6.  He hated football.  He was desperate to blend in and mimic the other boys.  He was full of adrenaline from the stress of school and masking in the classroom: he was frantic to do something to burn off the energy that is a byproduct of all that fight, flight and freeze hormone.  He was confused, stressed and sad.  He said he wanted to go to college so at playtime he could sit on a step and look at a book.

But no one cared about that.  He was “fine at school”.

So for another example, one from year 1.  Every playtime he went with a small group of boys to some large shrubs they called trees.  They played the same game with the same rules and roles every day digging in the ground and putting things in the branches.  I know YOU will all hear “predictability” “consistency” “rules” and imagine a safe playground time for a little boy who was at CAMHS regularly for high anxiety. NO NO NO!  Skip the observations of a boy playing the same game with the same peers with the same rules (probably with him in charge) every day and leap straight to the nice safe ASSUMPTION.  An assumption that can be recorded everywhere as fact and reported to everyone as evidence.  “He is a happy sociable boy with a nice peer group”.

They cut the trees down during a holiday.  My son was inconsolable.  The trees that helped him to feel safe at playtime vanished without warning and he was devastated.  I made a call to school and asked if there was a reason for this that I could explain to him.  I later learned that my call was gossiped about and laughed at.

So what can you do?

Maybe start to develop some skills in unpicking the difference for yourself to start with.  With school staff ask for the actual observations, or skillfully reflect back to them their observations “so you saw him running around at playtime?”  Also perhaps consider asking them directly to only pass on their observations?

My son had a report written by an autism teacher in which I felt a lot was implied.  He was now 10, having been admitted to a Tier 4 CAMHS age 9.  He was slowly getting his head around needing a residential school (I told you the outcomes could be catastrophic).  He was thoroughly stressed by the idea initially but was bravely getting used to it.  He told her he wanted to go to a school and gave her a name that he had made up.  She went on and on about my son talking about this fictitious school in her report (she seemed to assume it was a real school).  I felt she was implying I had applied pressure on him to tell her he wanted to go there (not easy when I am living 150 miles away but hey ho.)  That assumption could have made her look very stupid.  Maybe it did, I have no idea.  She made other awful statements in meetings I wasn’t invited to (but had access to the minutes of)…. so….

I wrote a horribly long email quoting all her unhelpful statements.  For each of her assumptions and statements I asked her for 1) her observations, 2) every alternative conclusion she had considered and 3) on what basis each of the alternatives had been ruled out.

She didn’t answer the questions but I hope she thought twice about making assumptions in the future.  Who knows?

Posted by Peter and Lily’s mum.

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6 thoughts on “Do Professionals in Education make Too Many Assumptions?

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