Photo courtesy of J.E. Theriot

One of the more common and vexing problems of human behavior is that we tend to point the finger of blame toward an individual person or group when something goes wrong, an outcome isn’t achieved, or behavior isn’t exactly what we’d like it to be.

It’s their “fault,” or “someone didn’t do their job,” or “someone has to be held accountable.” More often than not, the issue isn’t with an individual person or group of people. More frequently, the real issue is with the systems or conditions in which people are working or living.

Social psychologists call this effect “fundamental attribution error,” or more simply the tendency we have to blame people for systems issues.

Teachers get this all the time, and both the “blame teachers” movement and the counter-reaction against it are real life examples of fundamental attribution error gone off the deep end. Sure, there are ineffective educators – everyone knows this and probably has even had a few. But more often than not, it’s not the teacher that is failing, it’s the system the teacher is in.

We do the same thing with administrators. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard “if principals would just do their jobs.” This comes up a lot in matters related to evaluation. The logic is that if principals would just do their jobs related to evaluation, we wouldn’t have an ineffective educator problem and would be able to remove those that aren’t effective.

But the principals, more often than not, don’t do their jobs when it comes to evaluation. Frequently when they do, it’s a drive-by assessment with little meaningful feedback or improvement. But is it really the principal, or is it the system we’ve put this person in?

And we do have ineffective educators – many of whom have the potential to get better and maybe even become great teachers. But they work in substandard conditions and have no real support systems about what “better” even looks like or how they might get there.

Our answer lies less in individual accountability, though that is important, and more in better systems.

The next time you hear someone make the fundamental attribution error, call it out. Our thinking has to change.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA