The key to good CPD? Inconsistency

“Americans don’t really have opinions. What we have is bumper stickers. Once you’ve committed to a bumper sticker, there’s no changing your mind then.”

Rich Hall, comedian

Furby, Buzz Lightyear, Tickle Me Elmo. What have they all got in common? Yes, they are all toys (not that kind of toy, tsh). What else do they have in common? Well, along with Star Wars figures, Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, Nintendo game cartridges, Tracy Island playsets, Xbox 360, Playstation 2 and a whole host of others, they are all massively popular toys that have found themselves with a supply shortage at Christmas.

Wild scenes at the release of the Michael Gove's autobiography.
Wild scenes at the release of Michael Gove’s autobiography.

This happens almost every year: a toy or game is deemed the number one most desirable ‘must-have’ present for kids at Christmas only for it to be in very short supply, meaning that thousands of children have to go without it over the festive season.

So surely toy companies would learn from these mistakes and ensure that they are fully stocked for Christmas? Why has this been same phenomenon been happening for decades?

Psychologist Robert Cialdini (yep, him again) has a friend who worked in the toy industry who gave him an explanation for this. The explanation is based on the idea that there is a huge lull in sales during the first quarter of the year as people had already spent their toy budgets during the Christmas boom. Despite investing financially in extra advertising or dropping prices, toy companies found that this slump persisted. So the companies came up with another approach. An approach which cost them nothing.

The theory goes that companies advertise these must-have toys in the run-up to Christmas. Kids then nag their parents for these toys and parents promise that they will get them in their stockings. Companies then undersupply the toys to the market and so parents, facing an upset child as they can’t follow through on their promise, buy toys or games of equal value.

The companies then advertise the must-have toys again after Christmas, during the first quarter sales slump. The kids see these ads, remember the promises made to them, and go back to their parents citing those earlier covenants. The parents then go back to the shops and buy the original must-have toy that they promised their children. A toy which is now, funnily enough, in plentiful supply. This theory means that the toy companies double their profits.

Now this story is repeated in Cialdini’s book, ‘Influence: Science and Practice’, as an anecdote from somebody who used to work in the toy industry. Regardless of whether we believe it or not, the idea behind it is based on something interesting: the consistency principle. This is the idea that we have an innate drive to be  – and to appear to be – consistent with our prior behaviour or beliefs. So, in the case of the toy companies, they are tapping into the human desire of the parents to be consistent with their earlier commitment to buy the toy. They know that a large number of the parents will be consistent with a decision they had made earlier.

There are a number of studies where the power of this principle has been shown. An interesting one cited by Cialdini is a 1968 study by Knox and Inkster that noted how people at horse races are more confident of their horses’ chances of winning just after placing the bets than they are immediately before. Despite nothing changing in the horses’ chances, the consistency principle ensures that the gamblers have convinced themselves that their decision is the right one and so feel better about it. This is a close cousin of the sunk cost fallacy, which I wrote about here.

Now consistency is largely seen as a desirable trait, which is difficult to argue with – as Cialdini acknowledges, “[w]ithout it our lives would be difficult, erratic, and disjointed”. But he also notes that, whilst “it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we fall into the habit of being automatically consistent even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be.”

One of the reasons consistency appeals to us is that once we have made a decision, if we stay consistent to that decision we don’t have to think too hard anymore. And as Daniel Willingham points out, “our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.” So consistency is a useful shortcut to stop us from having to think too much.

Rodin's most famous sculpture, 'At the End of  the CPD Day' (1880).
Rodin’s most famous sculpture, ‘At the End of the CPD Day’ (1880).

The other reason Cialdini cites for being consistent is that, sometimes, we just don’t want to face the reality of what may happen if we think differently: consistency is “a safe hiding place from troubling realisations: Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.” In this way, consistency can be seen as harmful to our best interests: we eschew something that may be helpful, or indeed truthful, and fall back into the safety net of our consistent beliefs.

I quite often discuss subjects such as edtech and SOLO taxonomy and, in debating it, it may seem that my sceptical position on the value of both of these is quite consistent. Unmoving, even.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. My beliefs on these two issues are entirely inconsistent with my prior positions. I have, in the past, been a torch-carrier for iPads in the classroom, opening up my classroom for many to observe the use of these and other new technologies. Furthermore, I actually delivered sessions on new technology in education for four years on a university ITT course for both primary and secondary trainees. My position on the value of new technologies in the classroom has shifted considerably over the past few years, but it is a position that shifted through the spectrum. I don’t hold my position as a sceptic through a lack of experience or through Luddism. Largely, the shift is down to an understanding of opportunity cost, alongside facing a poverty of evidence.

Likewise, I also read heavily on SOLO taxonomy and put my ideas together for about 6 months before applying them to the classroom. I then spent about two years experimenting with SOLO in the classroom, during which time I led a school improvement group which trialled its use. Again, my position on SOLO has developed to one of scepticism. This is largely because of the value it places on ‘thinking skills’ over and above knowledge. As knowledge is the third stage in the hierarchy, I have reservations of how important both pupils and teachers see knowledge in the learning process. These are reservations I noted over many months of seeing teachers and pupils approach the process.

The reason I chose to look specifically at edtech and SOLO is that they seem to be areas where automatic consistency is prevalent. As in the opening quote from Rich Hall, SOLO enthusiasts often have the bumper sticker of their beliefs in their Twitter bios. Likewise, I don’t know how someone can be objective about the use of iPads in the classroom if they include an Apple symbol in their online username. With these sorts of behaviours, automatic consistency is so pervasive that challenging such a belief is often akin to challenging someone’s faith.

David Didau recently wrote a defence of how some of his views have changed, in the face of accusations that he somehow lacked conviction by changing his mind. Likewise, plenty of my views are entirely inconsistent with what I thought about them just a few years ago. I don’t think such development of thought needs defending, but the fact that it does is entirely compatible with our default nature to see consistency as the desirable trait.

The fact is that by eschewing the drive to be consistent, my thinking and practice has developed in ways that it wouldn’t have had I just stuck to a consistent position  – and that goes for many areas of pedagogy, not just edtech and SOLO.

So my advice for great professional development is: be aware of your drive to be consistent and don’t be afraid to be inconsistent at any time. Inconsistency can – and does – bring about real development.

And, by the way, I reserve the right to think that this is a terrible approach at any time in the future.


‘Influence: Science and Practice’ by Robert B. Cialdini

‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ by Daniel Willingham

18 thoughts on “The key to good CPD? Inconsistency”

  1. A very thought- provoking post. My views on many aspects of teaching and learning have changed over the years. In many ways, remaining defiantly consistent in your views demonstrates laziness in your thinking. All ideas and opinions should be questioned, especially your own. Thank you for such a fantastic post.

  2. Some really interesting thinking here, James. I hope it’s fair to summarise thus: that you should run toward, not away from, cognitive dissonance, strive to be equally critical of all views (including your own) and open to change. If I’ve managed to summarise that right, then I couldn’t agree more and I think you’ve expressed it elegantly based on some smart thinking.

    I’d like to offer a question to you about the words you’ve chosen to illustrate this: consistency/inconsistency.

    People associate these with leadership of CPD – i.e. how consistent the themes/practices/ideas are behind them. In the Teacher Development Trust’s work, possibly the biggest reason we see that so much CPD has no long-term impact on teachers and pupils is the constant chopping and changing, the proliferation of hundreds of ideas with no focus, and the lack of follow-through for any process. One of our missions is to bring some consistency, clarity and long-termism to the leadership of CPD.

    How might we bring these two concepts together, do you think, so that people accept the need to change, while being more systematic?

    1. I completely agree with that association of CPD leadership and I hope that my post was clear in looking at the individual teacher’s approach to CPD. Maybe I need to make that explicit in the post (but I must admit that I deliberately obscured itt in the title as clickbait!)

      But the question you pose is an utterly important one, and I think it has something to do with having a readily available research base for all teachers to access. That drives the systematic, consistent side of CPD so that when the ‘proliferation of ideas’ are rained upon teachers during their school-led CPD.

      I think one of my frustrations has always been the lack of an accessible research base. Luckily, my school is a SCITT provider so I now have access to journals, but this isn’t the case everywhere. I know that the work you do with NTEN, as well as things like the EEF toolkit, are seeking to address this too – which is great.

      The worst problem is that school teacher libraries are full up with books that go along the lines of ‘1001 Tips for Outstanding Teachers’, etc. which means that CPD is just an ideas industry, rather than the development of a profession.

  3. With regards to CPD maybe the underlying values and foci (to the individual) need to be consistent but the methods and processes do not. So the CPD leader should be consistent in their approach to all staff in their CPD however the what, whys and hows can be less consistent. Developing a understanding amongst staff of research and basic critical thinking will enable them to take it forward themselves which may be a consistent value for the school.

    1. Maybe it wasn’t clear that the post is about the individual approach to one’s own development, rather than the leadership of CPD? Apologies, I’ll try and make that clearer.

      1. Not at all. I can’t tell who it was responding to on my phone! Apologies again! I do agree with your point and don’t believe that all CPD should be approached with inconsistency and that certainly the leadership should be consistent.

  4. The issue for me is that when people experience a new idea like SOLO or engage with Edtech it becomes for them ‘the answer’ and they make pronouncements, blog posts and conference talks based on their damascene conversion only for a few more months of reflection, reading and engaging others to turn away from such ideas. If you already view learning/CPD as *becoming*, then you will see these views as part of the process of understanding and treat them as such rather than ‘the answer’. In this sense, inconsistency seems to be the wrong word as it implies that your core values as a teacher can be changed easily. If your core values relate to understanding rather than telling what you think you understand at the present time, then being inconsistent is not a necessary or desirable state of being.

    1. Yes, I agree with what you say but please note that I use the term ‘inconsistency’ purely in relation to psychology – not as a general term to mean ‘flitting between ideas’.

  5. This seems a strange rendering when the piece suggests otherwise and is inconsistency used as a psychological term? I see that you are trying to be more expansive in terms of thinking about development and that is a good thing.

    1. My apologies if the piece suggests otherwise – obviously my writing is unclear. I will seek to address that – thanks for your comments, always helpful to have feedback.

      And as I say I use the term in relation to psychology, within the context of the consistency principle.

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