Using the Ladder of Inference to View Data

In this article, you'll learn how and why we recommend approaching your survey data using the Ladder of Inference, a mental model created by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and popularized by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization

What is the Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference is a way of understanding the decision-making process. At the bottom of the ladder is data, which we encounter all the time as we go about our daily lives. When we make decisions, we quickly climb this ladder, from taking in data, making assumptions, drawing conclusions, and finally taking action. It is essential to our survival that we are able to react quickly based on data, but when we are reviewing and analyzing student data, 

Read this example of how quickly climbing the ladder may lead you to jump to conclusions, which could potentially be harmful if it results in taking action. 

You are at a joint Parent-Teacher committee meeting. Jean, one of the teachers on the committee leaves the room suddenly one evening in the middle of a presentation. This might get you thinking: Maybe Jean isn’t really invested in the work. Your mind, expertly and automatically, filters through memories of Jean. A couple linger with you: she hasn’t really seemed all that engaged lately. You might decide you need to have a conversation with her to tell her this isn’t acceptable for your group.

Now, imagine an alternate reality where in the middle of that meeting, Jean received a text message that her daughter fell off the monkey bars during recess. The action that you observed had nothing to do with Jean's engagement; she just had to go.

Think about how this situation could have played out if you had confronted Jean. And once you had updated your beliefs about her, there’s a good chance you would have continued to selectively filter your observations of her to be consistent with your beliefs, starting a vicious cycle. That’s how the mind works. This is one of the most dangerous risks of climbing the ladder of inference too quickly.

How to Stay Low on the Ladder of Inference

As you dive into your school reports to look at data, we recommend that you start with “Just the Facts." The point of this is to stay low on the Ladder of Inference, or to notice and observe data without yet asking “why” or thinking about what we should do about it. Intentionally taking a moment to observe and hear what your school community is telling you through data will allow you to make much more informed decisions.

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