Damaged Goods

Crumpled Paper and Student Bias

photo credit: DillonH via photopin cc

A study published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people were less likely to recycle a crumpled ball of paper than a piece of paper that resembled its original shape.

Why? The study’s authors concluded that “consumers are psychologically hardwired to believe that damaged or incomplete products — such as small or ripped paper and dented cans — are without value”.

“The process is seemingly autonomic”, says the author, “and can only be overcome by helping consumers realize a product’s true value.”

I share these findings because of the implications between this study and schools today.

  • How many of our students come into our classrooms and don’t resemble our preconceived notions about what learners look, act and sound like? Like crumpled paper, maybe the clothes they regularly wear are wrinkled or torn.
  • How do our biases prevent us from seeing the true potential in each one of our students? I think the first step is realizing we are all predisposed to bias.
  • What is needed to help us realize each one of our students’ true value? In recognizing our bias, we can then take the time to reflect on each of our students’ progress and ask ourselves what we can do differently, instead of expecting things at home to change.

Through the process of self-awareness, reflection, and recommitment, we might see our neediest students, these “damaged goods”, as individuals with so much potential.


Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

4 thoughts on “Damaged Goods”

  1. This is a topic of immense importance to me. I routinely have 38 kids in my HS English classes. By 9th grade, some students have learned to “hang back” and to disappear, but what is more remarkable is that I’ve learned not to call on those kids. So much is driven by the sub-conscious motivators that we teachers aren’t aware of. The CCSS value equity, not just equal access to a good school, but equal access to a teacher in every classroom. Over the past year I’ve spoken to teachers who desire tools to help raise their awareness and tools that ensure equity in the classroom. Awareness that we have preconceived notions about student abilities is a first step, but we must move beyond mere awareness and incorporate strategies that help us engage and understand each student. Once these tools of equity become the norm, it is amazing to see what otherwise taciturn and dour students are really capable of.


    1. Wow, 38 kids in a class. You have got your work cut out for you, Scott. As a former secondary level administrator, I can attest to how you describe students melting into the background when they aren’t engaged.

      You speak of strategies…two books that I have found immensely helpful in ensuring all students are given equal access to education are Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam and Making Thinking Visible by Ritchart, Church, and Morrison. Both titles give teachers practical ideas to implement in the classroom immediately.

      One of the points Wiliam makes is that by allowing students to not participate in class, we are only continuing to foster an inequitable learning environment. Kudos to you, Scott, for reflecting on this issue and realizing this problem. Best of luck, and stay in touch.


      1. Thanks Matt. Equity in the classroom has become a big issue for me, that’s why I created Oncore, an iPad app that helps teacher integrate the collection of formative assessment data into their instruction, and then to use that data to help ensure equity. My website is oncoreeducation.com, if you are interested in seeing how I’m tackling the CCSS while trying to promote equity in the classroom. Thanks for the book titles. Making Thinking Visible sounds a lot like John Hattie’s Visible Learning, which has been the foundation for my edtech endeavors in the last year.


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