I watched a TED X talk the other day on Netflix while I was going for my nightly run on the treadmill. My mind often wanders when watching documentaries and running. That night my neurons were passing potassium through the pathways connecting the TED X talk on illusion, learning, Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, and more generally Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

In our everyday lives we make many decisions based on partial information. Our interpretations of this information, if not based on sound reasoning, can be illusory. An illusion: an instance of a wrong or misinterpreted perception of a sensory experience. (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/illusion). At the end of my run I had formed the kernel of thoughts you will find below.


Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit is a good, simple, visual representation of what I would like to delve into. Given your past experiences – or what sections of the picture you attend to first – you might see a rabbit, or you might see a duck. Interestingly, and this came out in the Ted Talk in the “nuts illusion:” your mind cannot attend to both understandings at once; you either recognize it as a duck, or a rabbit, but not both. It switches as you attend to the visual patterns differently. What you understand the picture to visually represent depends upon what features of the you are focusing on and interpreting.

Here is another visual illusion that brings the importance of past experiences to light. It is a little risque, but it definitely highlights how past experiences affect our interpretations of sensory experiences.


I could not see the dolphins (until my son followed the outline of one with his finger), and my little boy (despite the best efforts of the internet and Netflix) cannot see the other image. In other words, our interpretations of the world around us are influenced by our background knowledge.

Now, Wittgenstein also discussed how a misinformed view of language can lead us into illusory interpretations of our world, from which escape is almost impossible. The metaphor he relied upon was linking this erroneous view of meaning in language to a fly-bottle. Once you believe that the meaning of a word determines its use, then you become the fly, trapped inside the fly-bottle. There is a way out, but your interpretation of the world based on your assumptions about meaning and language prevent you from ever escaping. Once in the trap, your view of language prevents you from seeing the way out as a way out.

There are many traps and pitfalls that we can fall into as teachers. The ones I will discuss below are illusions we create when we interpret our experiences from the wrong angle, we do not take different perspectives into account, or when we do not have sufficient information to form a sound opinion. In these cases, we create our own fly-bottle, and without a change of perception we can get stuck. Over this post, and my next couple of blog posts, I will look at (1) student behaviour, (2) student performance, and finally (3) evidence of learning, as three areas where illusions can hold us captive in a fly-bottle of our own making.

Teaching is a profession where misinterpreted perceptions have unproductive and unintended consequences, not only for the teacher, but for the student as well. Our perception of student behaviour can be illusory, if we are not careful enough to take into account student voice. Earlier this month a boy I teach was giving me a run for my money. He was challenging me at every step and was enjoying the reaction he was getting from his peers. He was walking that thin line between being funny and being disrespectful. At one point he was being so disruptive to the learning of his peers that I almost sent him out of the small group I was working with, and this probably would have been to the office (so he could be supervised). At the time I think I gave him the choice to stay and learn with us, or to go sit at the office until I had time to talk with him. The illusion that I was beginning to treat as reality was that I was somehow the cause of the boy’s disruptive behaviour; I was beginning to take it personally.

After the bell rang I kept him back and asked him, “What’s up?” It turns out that he hadn’t eaten anything all day and his mom didn’t have enough money for groceries. I can’t imagine where our relationship would be now if I had sent him out, instead of checking in on him.

(Obviously this is a simplified expression of a very complex situation. If truth be told, the activity itself was not engaging and it was the last period of the day. There are many more things that were influencing this boys behaviour.)

The key I think educators should take from this is that there are many factors that influence student behaviour. If we only take the immediate situation into account (the student-teacher situation) then we may come to an illusory understanding of the cause of the behaviour: the student is just disrespectful, the student dislikes the subject, the student isn’t good at the subject, the student has ADHD, the student has it out for me etc. It is imperative that we take the time to gain insight into the situation, so we do not fly into the fly-bottle. Allowing for student voice, and reserving judgement until you have time to reflect, is necessary for clarity.

It should also be noted that illusions around the causes of student behaviour have the capability of holding, not only teachers, but the students captive. Unfortunately this prison is made through the interpretations of the people who are supposed foster and nurture in our students a love of learning and the belief that they can become what they dream. Our opinions of students affect how we deal with them on a daily basis. Not only this, but our opinions are discussed in staff rooms with colleagues and shared at closed door meetings with other professionals. The labels and qualifiers we use to describe students create identities for them without the possibility of the validity of those definitions being debated and challenged by the student.