Using the Ladder of Inference to View Data

What You’ll Learn

You will learn about how and why we recommend approaching your feedback or SEL 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.

Why Using the Ladder of Inference Matters

Imagine that there is a tiny ladder in your mind. We’ll call this the Ladder of Inference. As we go about our days and encounter data in the world around us – and by data we're referring to any information you encounter in your environment rather than specifically calling out numbers like those you see on your reports – you zip up this ladder.

We quickly climb this ladder every time we filter, process, and take action on information in our environment.

When we are at the bottom of this Ladder of Inference in our minds, we are observers. As we climb the ladder, we process, interpret, and become motivated to take action.

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.

Climbing the Ladder Too Quickly Can Lead You Astray

As an example of why climbing this too quickly can be dangerous, imagine the following:

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.

You can imagine the way 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.

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