How many times in daily life do we make assumptions about others and the world around us? Hundreds of times a day? Thousands? And how many times are those assumptions wrong? How often do we jump to conclusions? A lot more than we might like to admit, I fear.

There’s a helpful model for thinking about this process of making assumptions and taking action.  It’s called the ladder of inference, first proposed by Harvard professor, Chris Arjaris. Imagine a tiny ladder in your brain, with every interaction entering on the bottom rung. Data from that interaction zips up the ladder faster than the blink of an eye and exits at the top rung, when we draw conclusions. The process looks like this:

1.  Observable data: Enters our subconscious based on what we see or hear
2. Selected data: The filtered data we choose to focus on
3.  Assumptions: We think we know others’ motivations
4.  Conclusions: We think things must be a certain way
5.  Beliefs: We adopt reinforced or new ways of seeing others or the world
6.  Actions: We do something based on our newfound (or reinforced) conclusions

Let’s walk through a plausible student-teacher interaction as an example. The teacher, Mr. Right, begins class and writes on the board; several students take out their notebooks, some talk to neighbors, a few finish scraps of their lunches, and one student, Melissa Misunderstood, taps away on her phone with her thumbs. When he turns around and surveys the room, Mr. Right’s eyes settle on Melissa. Mr. Right looks at her and thinks to himself, She looks like she’s not paying attention. I think Melissa is texting.  She is more interested in her social life than her school work. Mr. Right knows that this is true because lately he’s observed her on her phone more than once during his lectures, and has also noticed that Melissa seems to be involved in drama in the hallway during passing periods. Today’s incident confirms his belief that Melissa is not a good student and needs to be taught a lesson. He thinks, She never pays attention in class, and I’ve had enough! Mr. Right calls her name in front of the class, and asks her what could be so captivating on her phone. “We’d all like to know, Ms. Misunderstood.” Sheepishly, Melissa puts her phone in her bag.  

So what is so problematic about this interaction? The trouble with our own ladders is that we often select what data to focus on based on our beliefs. Mr. Right already believed that Melissa was not a good student. He selected the data that supported this belief. The other trouble with our ladders is that we take action without considering that our conclusions may be based on filtered data. Mr. Right didn’t notice that she was looking at the board, where the homework was written, while she was typing. Or that other students were also talking or eating.

What can we do to short circuit our own ladders? First we need to question our assumptions and conclusions. If Mr. Right had stopped to consider what else could be going on with Melissa, he might not have chosen to call her out in front of the class. Second, we need to seek understanding with open-ended questions. Mr. Right could have noted what Melissa was doing, and made a mental notes to ask her about her use of the phone after class. Melissa may have been able to explain that she’s using her phone to keep track of her assignments, especially because she knows when she leaves class she gets distracted by her friends.

We can more clearly see others and the world around us when we strive to stay low on the ladder of inference. The goal isn’t to stay on the bottom rung, however. The goal is to make prudent, informed decisions and take action based on a more nuanced understanding of what the data could mean.

Teachers, managers, parents, kids, anyone can use this information about the ladder of inference.  We all could and should pay attention to our own ladders, as well as seek to understand how others might be zipping up their own.

Commentary by Kristen Downey

Kristen Downey is UVEI’s Associate Director for Teacher Education.  Her other blogs can be found at:

You can follow Kristen on Twitter @UVEIconnect

Like many elementary educators, I entered teaching with little preparation or experience teaching math. My focus in grad school was on literacy education and that has remained my comfort zone ever since. This fall I wanted to tackle my area of weakness and joined Chris Ward in attending two math-focused workshops led by mathematics consultant This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., one of the developers of the Primary Number and Operation Assessment (PNOA). Loree’s work explores the parallels between how children construct an understanding of language and how they construct number sense. I spoke with Loree about her experiences with math and what advice she has for elementary teachers as they approach math in their classrooms.

Becky Wipfler (BW): What drew you to math?

Loree Silvas (LS): As an elementary school teacher, my initial focus was on literacy. I then became an informal math specialist and started helping with assessments. A few years ago, I received a four-year grant from UVM, which gave the gift of time to research with other math educators in the state.

BW:  In your workshops you stress the importance of dedicating the same time and energy to math that has historically been dedicated to literacy. Why do you think there is often more of a focus on literacy than on math?

LS:  Teachers of young children often get into teaching because they want to teach literacy. They tend to be math-phobic, uncomfortable with the subject themselves. They have math anxiety and tend to stick to methods and areas in which they are comfortable.

BW: What is an important shift in teaching math that teachers should make?

LS: Instead of teaching kids how to just get the answer, we need to allow the time for them to understand the concept. Kids need time to grapple with problems and problem solving.There needs to be systemic change and that takes time.

BW:  What does an ideal elementary math classroom look like?

LS:  Full of open-ended questions and exploration with lots of communication, filled with math conversations about multiple strategies. Kids should be encouraged to take ownership of their math learning.  We should use the techniques we use to teach literacy, such as the workshop model. Students could have math boxes, just like we do with book bins, to practice automaticity or fluency. There should be problem solving of bigger tasks, as well as math games. The teacher can work with small groups, as we do with guided reading. Parallel what we do in literacy. Kids need the encouragement to think of math as investigation, inquiry-based, like we do with science. As students explore or investigate big ideas, they prove what they know.

BW:  What are your final words of wisdom to elementary math teachers?

LS:  Talk less and listen more. Let students do the thinking. Learn from your students.

Commentary by Becky Wipfler

Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of our Program Faculty.  

Other commentaries by Becky, can be found at:

You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIwipfler


An internship at UVEI is a lot like the long distance thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Both have an exciting, though somewhat apprehensive outset into the unknown, followed by an arduous journey of several months, leading to a clear and lofty goal at the end.  But the novice hiker on the UVEI trek has a priceless asset in the services of a highly experienced, trail-wise personal guide:  the UVEI Faculty Coach.

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