Groupthink is Alive and Well in Edtech Decision Making

Teaching my undergraduates more than a decade ago, part of the curriculum in my interpersonal communication course focused on small group work and the positive and negative traits that impact decision making. For many students, they detested the concept of being graded not merely for their work, but being graded for the shared work across a team of people they had little control over. It would be a learning experience that would help them prepare for the real world, where we often don’t have the luxury of selecting our bosses or teams.

Besides the obvious challenge of social loafing – one where one/several team members sit back and allow others to do the heavy lifting work – groupthink was the other obstacle most felt got in the way of true progress. Students were too quick to want to move ahead, they often adopted a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach for their projects, and would allow the most vocal people on the team to represent their unanimous view.

Many second and third level administrators have been forced to resign or retire, whether by association or for the fact that others will feel “you should have known better and said something."

Over the past few years, we’ve read the stories about failed edtech initiatives of every size and shape. In my role advising school systems, I have come across many more ready to pull the trigger on an altruistic, yet expensive endeavor. Yet in many of those cases, groupthink mentality was their enemy and, at the end of the day, would be their undermining. I would often try to delicately raise the issue, but after getting certain responses, I knew the institution was committed to a path of failure.

Knowing It Helps Us See It

Irving Janis, as early as 1972, first started to closely examine the impact of groupthink, identifying eight symptoms commonly found. They include:

1. Illusion of invulnerability — Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.

2. Collective rationalization — Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.

3. Belief in inherent morality — Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

4. Stereotyped views of out-groups — Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.

5. Direct pressure on dissenters — Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.

6. Self-censorship — Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.

7. Illusion of unanimity — The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.

8. Self-appointed ‘mind guards’ — Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

It’s interesting to note that when in the situation, most leaders and team members do not realize what they’re doing represents a serious flaw to the institution’s integrity. Among the most well-known examples of the impact of groupthink is the role it played in the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. Janis cited this example, noting how staff began to worry about the O-rings months before the disaster, yet critical information didn’t reach all leaders and compromised the decision making process.

When the Superintendent is “Too Busy”

One of my earliest meetings with a school system took place in an urban school system, planning to use ARRA Stimulus funds to purchase over 15,000 devices for its high school students. I recall the meeting quite vividly to this day. It was a large U-shape set of tables with nearly two dozen directors, C-level leaders and assistant superintendents making up every facet of the administration. The only person missing was the superintendent who was “too busy” with other matters to attend the session. However, I was assured, all of the leaders in the room fully understood the superintendent’s directive and were prepared to make their final recommendations to him.

Over the next hour, I would seek to understand how the district planned to use these devices, how they planned to change the curriculum from print to digital, how they would prepare the faculty for this change and how they would measure success. “We know just by handing these devices out, our students will learn more,” was the crux of the message the leaders in the room repeated a few times. Yet it was clear they had no ideas about curriculum, change management, professional development, financial sustainability, or any of the other critical factors necessary for successful adoption.

Clearly, none of the leadership team was comfortable telling the superintendent that there were flaws to his plan. They would not question the plan or call attention to blaring omissions, either because they themselves did not know, did not want to know, or feared presenting an opposing opinion. 

Even after bringing a speaker from a nearby district who previously inherited a failed edtech initiative, reminding this audience “You don’t know what it is you don’t know” seemed to fall upon deaf ears. They were insistent that our sales team recommend the right device and quote them the price for the unit, as had our competitors over the last two days.

Instead I told the officials “You’re not ready to buy anything.” I would caution them that they hadn’t addressed 99% of the issues they were to face, and that buying these devices would be a disaster for them and mistakes likely to prematurely end their tenure in this district. Thinking I might have made my own career suicide, those feelings quickly subsided as the district CIO pulled us aside after leaving the meeting. He thanked us for finally saying “what needed to be said.”

While that district took pause and reflected on their internal issues, the same is not always true for every institution. I have seen this issue pop up in many districts, only some of which have garnered national attention for the wrong reasons. What have they done? Here are some concrete examples:

  • Set up unreasonable expectations regarding life expectancy of devices – I have spoken with districts that believe tablets used for 1:1 programs can last 6 to 10 years, yet these are the same officials who replace their smartphones every 24 months. I've heard this very comment from officials from 2009 and even well into 2016.
  • Created unsustainable models – After facing years with obsolete technology, they rely on bond funds to buy devices. But they lack a plan to encumber funds to refresh those devices in 3-4 years, as is the common refresh cycle for most technology. Instead, the burden themselves with 5-25 years of debt for technology
  • Failed to consider the importance of change management – They’ve done little or nothing to address the inherent fears every faculty member faces with a new technology initiative…the fear of time to adopt and the fear of failure
  • Made security an afterthought – Enough said
  • Created no measurable benchmarks – They have no idea how to objectively measure progress for their efforts to both demonstrate progress and justify ongoing investments for the initiative

Speaking up early in the process may appear to be beyond one’s comfort zone, fearing reprisal from superiors or Board of Education members. But as a leader yourself, consider the path of silence. Should that initiative fail, and fail publicly, stakeholders will be looking to assign blame. While sometimes the superintendent will be blamed for the failure, and their tenure cut short from the aftermath, many second and third level administrators have also been forced to resign or retire, whether by association or for the fact that others will feel “you should have known better and said something.”


Elliott Levine is Chief Academic Officer for Hewlett Packard Americas Education. There he works with schools and universities to support major educational technology initiatives and was co-inventor of the HP Personal Learning Engine (US PTO PCT/US2013/062777), an effort that has him featured as one of three employees at www.hp.com/go/jobs. A former K-12 official and regular public speaker, he has worked for and launched startups in the education and marketing industries. You can learn more about him at www.linkedin.com/in/elliottlevine/.

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