The Dunning-Kruger effect in education

| In the eye of the director | In education, the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a person's opinion of their own knowledge of a particular field in relation to their actual level of competence, can essentially be viewed in four different ways. Our collaborator, Marc-André Girard, exposes them in his most recent post.

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Also called the “overconfidence effect”, the Dunning-Kruger effect directly links a person's opinion of their own knowledge of a particular area to their actual level of competence in that area. We often refer to it when we talk about an individual who possesses disproportionate confidence and assurance in relation to the basic knowledge he possesses and his real abilities. To understand the phenomenon, we can refer to the quote from Charles Darwin: "Ignorance more often generates confidence than knowledge". In education, this effect can be seen essentially in four different ways: 

1 – An individual considers himself sufficiently trained to judge the competence of an educational professional 

I have often heard this comment from some colleagues. I even heard it from a professor at the university: "Parents consider themselves experts in the school because they attended it for a dozen years". Despite the fact that the education of a child is indeed a shared task, we must respect each other's roles. Parents are not educational professionals, they do not have the same background or experience of teachers and management. They are certainly the best placed to know the needs of their child, but these needs, contextualized in a social and institutional framework, must be met by professionals in accordance with the study programs and ministerial expectations.

Parents can have their opinion on the education of their child, on the pedagogical approaches and the didactic tools favored by the teacher, but they must recognize that their posture as parent involves a certain degree of subjectivity. In this regard, the last months of home schooling will certainly have contributed to a certain awareness: to be an educator is not to be a teacher! 

2 – An education professional considers himself competent

This perception, which reflects a certain confidence in one's means, must be based on a continuous training process since competence is, after all, ephemeral. In education and 21e century, things are changing rapidly and the issues are becoming more complex. In the era of the personalization of pedagogical approaches involving new expectations of education professionals, it is in their interest to keep the thread of professional development uninterrupted. Being competent one day does not guarantee that you will always be competent!  

In some cases, this confidence can quickly turn into overconfidence caused by the belief that the competence is acquired by an initial training diploma. The one who feels competent exercises his profession based on past benchmarks, while his current interventions are adapted to past problems, sublimating the present needs of the student. 

According to the principles of the Dunning-Kruger effect, in several areas people tend to overestimate their competence and abilities. This trend has two consequences: on the one hand, the people in question make mistakes and make bad decisions without being able to recognize them, precisely because of their lack of expertise. Thus, they cannot deploy means to remedy these errors. As Neil Young sang almost thirty years ago: “ You feel invincible, it's just a part of life ". If today we feel confident and in control of our own professional practice, tomorrow this invincibility can turn into weakness. And this is true in education as in all fields. 

3- An education professional considers himself insufficiently competent

This situation, also observed by Dunning and Kruger, reveals that those who are really very competent tend to feel like impostors. The image they have of their own expertise is less than what it really is. The assumption behind this observation is that competent people who are involved in knowledge development activities are aware of two things: 

  1. They are aware of what they know;
  2. They realize that they know very little about a particular subject or area. 

As less competent individuals cannot recognize their mistakes, highly skilled individuals cannot realize how remarkable and rare their skill level can be.

4 – The professionals among themselves consider themselves able to do the work of the other 

It is not because we have similar training that we can necessarily do the other's work. In education, judgments about what a particular teacher or such director should have done at a specific time are frequent. Some people feel able to do the other's work, even when they don't have the contextual elements and nuances necessary for a good understanding of a problem. This phenomenon can probably be explained by the overestimation of one's own professional capacities. So how can we be sure that we have the correct information on our level of competence?  

  • Professional development and continuing education are essential. 
  • Ask for feedback from those around us and listen to their responses. 
  • Give importance to comments, even if they come from people who do not know our reality or who do not assume your responsibilities on a daily basis. Precisely, their external gaze can enlighten you and guide you. 
  • In our schools, do not neglect to consult the students who can also help us to develop professionally. 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect reminds us to keep the balance between modesty and blind confidence in our means. By ensuring that we maintain a high level of competence through a process of professional development and continuous training, we will discover that we know very little about the profession we practice. The heterogeneity of the students under our responsibility requires frequent upgrading of our knowledge and skills.

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About the Author

Marc-André Girard
Marc-André Girard
Marc-André Girard holds a bachelor's degree in humanities education (1999), a master's degree in history teaching (2003) and a master's degree in educational management (2013). He is currently a doctoral student in school administration. He specializes in change management in schools as well as in educational leadership. He is also interested in 21st century skills to be developed in education. He holds a managerial position in a public primary school and gives lectures on educational leadership, pedagogical approaches, change in the school environment as well as on the professionalization of teaching. He took part in educational expeditions to France, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Morocco. In September 2014, he published the book “Le change en milieu scolaire québécois” with Éditions Reynald Goulet and, in 2019, he published a trilogy on the school of the 21st century with the same publisher. He frequently collaborates with L'École branchée on educational issues. He is very involved in everything that surrounds the professional development of teachers and school administrators as well as the integration of ICT in education. In March 2016, he received a CHAPO award from AQUOPS for his overall involvement.

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