The ladder of Inference


Jan 11, 2019

Advice and guidance for all teachers.

Teachers; throughout your working day you will be under constant time-pressure to observe what is happening, interpret situations, and then make decisions. Unfortunately, this time pressure can have some quite detrimental effects and may lead you to jumping to conclusions about what is happening and the actions that need to be taken.  This in turn may place you in conflict with pupils, colleagues, parents and stakeholders who may have a quite different view as to what is going on and the actions required. So to help prevent 'faulty' thinking and unnecessary conflict it is helpful to use some basic 'thinking tools' available to help you both examine and deconstruct your own thinking, but also the thinking of others. One such tool is the ‘ladder of inference,’ which is sometime also known as the 'ladder of abstraction.'

The ladder of Inference

Originally developed by Argyris (1990) and subsequently used by amongst others such as: Senge, Roberts, et al. (1994), and Robinson and Lai (2005), the ladder of Inference will help you understand that just because 'you' see something as being a 'fact' does not mean that other people see the same 'fact' as either existing or being relevant.   Indeed, it may help you understand the evidence and logic supporting your conclusions, which you might otherwise think is blindingly obvious or self-evident. 

The ladder of Inference has a number of distinct 'rungs' and is illustrated in Figure 1

  • Select - data is selected from the pool of all the information that is available - be it research, school data, stakeholder views or personal experience and expertise.
  • Paraphrase - the various sources of data and evidence are summarised.
  • Name and interpret - this is where the data is interpreted and an attempt is made to name and work out what is happening.
  • Understand and evaluate - this is where an attempt is made to make a judgment about what is happening and identify a theory of action - if we do A then B will happen.
  • Conclusion and action - at this stage you decide what you are going to do.

So let's know look at how the ladder of inference can be applied to a recent discussion on Twitter about the legitimacy or otherwise of 'silent corridors' when pupils move between classrooms. 

Example 1 - "Silent corridors are a good idea"

  • Select - I really like school X that has greatly improved GCSE results and has introduced a ‘silent corridors' policy for pupils when moving between lessons.
  • Paraphrase - School X is an improving school, which has implemented ‘silent corridors’
  • Name and interpret - 'Silent corridors' contributes to school X's increasing success and record of school improvement.
  • Understand and evaluate - 'Silent corridors' will help our school improve its GCSE results
  • Conclusion and action– We should introduce ‘silent corridors’ into our school

Example 2 - Silent corridors are inappropriate

  • Select - I disapprove of the leaders in school X who have introduced a 'silent corridors' policy for pupils when moving between lessons.
  • Paraphrase - School X is an 'oppressive school', which has implemented 'silent corridors'
  • Name and interpret - 'Silent corridors' contributes nothing to helping young people manage their own behaviour
  • Understand and evaluate - ‘Silent corridors’ will not help our pupils regulate their own behaviour nor prepare them for the wider world.
  • Conclusion and action - We should continue with our existing policy of 'monitored' non-silent movement between classrooms.

Making the most of the ladder of inference

  • Thinking about your own thinking: You can use the ladder of inference at any stage of your thinking process. You may want to ask yourself the following questions:
    • Is there any data/evidence - which I have ignored?
    • What have I taken for granted?
    • Have I missed any of the rungs in the ladder of inferences?
    • Are there other ways in which this data could be interpreted?
    • Does the evidence support my conclusion?
    • Are there other decisions and actions I could take?
  • Understanding others' thinking
    • Using the ladder of inference can help you understand others thinking
    • Work back through the ladder of inference to see what led to their conclusion
    • This may lead to the identification of easy to resolve misunderstandings
    • Alternatively, the ladder of inference helps you manage disagreements by helping you articulate others' thinking better than they could do themselves Dennett (2013)
  • Managing meetings and working with others
  • The ladder of inference can help you run better meetings by getting you to;
    • Try and identify the contribution others are making, for example, are they paraphrasing or interpreting
    • Ask follow up questions which help tease out connections in others thinking
    • Where there is disagreement – ask others in the meeting questions such as:
      • Does anyone else have data that bears on this?
      • Does anyone think something different might happen if we did this?
      • Did anyone else arrive at a different conclusion?
      • Did anyone make different assumptions?

And finally

The ladder of inference is an extremely useful tool for you to have at your disposal.  In particular, it’s a tool that helps you appraise the different sources of evidence; in particular it helps you challenge your own thinking and expertise. At the same time, it can help you avoid unnecessary disagreements with colleagues, saving both time and emotional energy.

Want to know more


Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming Organizational Defenses. Allyn and Bacon Boston, MA.

Argyris, C. (2000). Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They're Getting Good Advice and When They're Not. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Robinson, V. and Lai, M. (2005). Practitioner Research for Educators: A Guide to Improving Classrooms and Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.

Senge, P., Roberts, C., Ross, R., Smith, B. and Kleiner, A. (1994). The Ffth Discipline Feldbook. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.

Argyris (1990)

Robinson and Lai (2005, Senge, et al. (1994)

Jones (2018)

About the author

Dr Gary Jones worked in further education for nearly thirty years, with most of that time spent as a middle or senior leader.  Gary publishes a weekly blog on evidence-based school leaders – his book Evidence-Based School Leadership and Management: A practical guidehas recently been published by Sage.

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