Posts Tagged ‘beliefs’

a-belief-is-not-merely-an-idea-the-mind-possessesHow much change has been occurring in your school of late? What is your experience of the change?

If we asked those questions of teachers in your school what do you think their responses might indicate? Would they respond in a joyful and empowered way or perhaps respond “yep yet another change”? I suspect for many teachers and leaders in schools there always seem to be some change initiative or another going on. Education appears to be undergoing a period of constant change, as it has for many years, and I don’t believe that this is going to be different for many years yet to come.

Given the constant changes occurring in our schools – whether they are driven by political, curriculum or pedagogical drivers – it is surprising to me that we consistently find that one of the biggest areas that schools seem to struggle with is managing the change that is occurring. Most school reforms or change initiatives fail because we don’t examine the underlying context or beliefs that exist within a school.

Let me give you some examples from our experience:

  1. A school has experienced a high turnover of senior leadership members in the past five years and have experienced “micromanagement from above”. The staff teachers indicate they have “change fatigue” and have little faith or trust in leadership at this point. Embedding new initiatives to improve student learning outcomes has been extraordinarily slow.
  2. A school has recently changed its senior leadership after a long period of stability and the new team wants to bring in a raft of much needed curricula and pedagogical change given the significant drop in student numbers at the school. However, there is a lot of “baggage” and resistance due to the “wrongs of the past”. Unless staff members have the opportunity to address and complete past issues again change will be slow.
  3. A school has a large number of teachers who have been at the school, and only that school, for decades. Whilst many of them are good to excellent teachers they aren’t necessarily interested in changing the way they teach or assess.

I could go on with a variety of examples but my point is that each and every school has individual challenges that need to be addressed to empower and enable positive change to occur. Some schools occur as fortresses against change, others are beginning to take down their walls, and others are flowing rivers where change has teachers meander from one initiative to the next and nothing gets embedded.

There is a wonderful old Sufi tale that tells of a man whose neighbors come upon him on his hands and knees under a street lamp. The man explains that he is searching for his lost keys. The neighbors immediately join in the search, but without success. When they ask the man if he’s sure this is where he lost the keys, he replies, “No. I lost them outside my door—but there’s more light here!”

Schools need to stop looking where the light is and start strategically searching in the most likely areas. They must uncover the invisible actors at play within a school – whether they are school structures, policies, past practices, teacher beliefs, parental beliefs, student beliefs, etc.  What are the causes of the way things are? What are the teacher beliefs about their students? What are the parental beliefs about their children? What are the staff beliefs about leadership? The more a school makes visible the underlying beliefs and context the more it can actually enact change appropriately within the school.

Case in point, Judith Lloyd Yeo in her book “Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education” pointed out the following specifically about teacher beliefs:

  • Teacher’s beliefs profoundly influence their understanding of attempted reforms
  • The same words or phrases might signal quite different things to different teachers
  • Each teacher operates from a set of unexamined beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning, about knowledge, and about the purpose of education itself.
  • Teachers base their thinking and behaviour on unconscious values – personal, professional and those of the culture in which they live and were raised. Often personal values conflict with values of the school, school leadership, and even with a teacher’s own values regarding students.
  • Some practices never take root or cannot be sustained because the underlying beliefs have not changed.

For those of you who have worked with us before this is why we often start our professional learning workshops with inquiries that unpack teacher beliefs and habits. If you are interested in further reading here are some great articles for you to explore!

Cultivating Teachers’ Beliefs, Knowledge and Skills for Leading Change in Schools

Teacher Beliefs

How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

Teaching Practices, Teachers’ Beliefs and Attitudes

The Beliefs-Behavior Connection: Leading Teachers Toward Change

Leading Change – Why Transformation Efforts Fail

The following is an except from my book Exceptional that will be published later this year. For those of you who are first time readers – welcome. For those of you who are constant readers – welcome back for 2012!

Everyone has an opinion about education. I do. You do. Kids do. Parents do. Grandparents do. Teachers do. Politicians do. The media does. Radio shock jocks do. Billionaires do. There aren’t many days that I don’t hear some comment about education from someone. Unfortunately for a large percentage of the population much of it is misguided and uninformed.

You might believe that is a big statement – not really.

You have to consider on what people base their knowledge and understanding. Opinions are based on what people know from reading, listening, others people’s opinions, media, cultural background, and on their life experiences. Life experiences have the greatest effect on shaping our perceptions.

For example;

  • If you are a student and your Grade One teacher created with you that “mistakes are your friend” and then set up the learning environment to allow you to make mistakes and learn from them, then you would probably love learning all the time.
  • If you are a student and you failed assessment under test conditions, despite “knowing the material”, how long would it be before you decide that you “don’t get it” and progressively build an opinion about you and school?
  • If you are a parent who has had poor educational experiences you can unconsciously impart your beliefs and mindset to your children (“I’m no good at maths”, “school is hard”, “I hated homework”, “I couldn’t wait to leave school”, etc).  If you have an ingrained belief that maths is “hard” then, unless you deliberately tackle that self-belief as a parent, there is a pre-disposition for maths being “hard” for your children.
  • If you are a “Tiger” parent with a strong belief that it is only by working long hours and doing lots of rote learning that your children will succeed, it is likely you will drive your children incessantly to perform academically – sometimes to the detriment of other skills.
  • If were teased at school, perhaps bullied, maybe even had a humiliating experience, that would affect your perceptions of education and learning. This is the same if you grew up in a tough socio-economic environment.
  • If you as a teacher believe that you don’t need to adjust your teaching practice and the way you structure learning in the classroom for different students and different generations of students (“I’ve been teaching this way for 20 years and it has always worked”, “I’ve always produced good results with my students … well the good students … the rest didn’t want to work and that’s not my fault”, etc) then this will affect how you teach.

Whatever the life experiences, people form a mental model or picture of the way that education is and then hold on to that – sometimes for a lifetime. And it is quite challenging to shift that mental picture when you have a lifetime of reinforcement from looking through the lens you have looked through for years.

I still vividly remember one student from my first year of teaching Engineering at university. He approached me to give him some one-on-one tutoring for a subject he had failed twice previously and he needed to pass it that year to finish his Engineering degree. I agreed, looked up the textbook and set a problem up on my whiteboard. My intention was to get a sense of what he knew and what he didn’t know. In my mind I thought I had a chosen a reasonably simple example. As this student approached the board to have a go at answering the question I heard him mutter to himself “this is going to be hard”. I stopped him in the moment and asked him if he realised what he had just said. He said “No”. I repeated back to him what he had muttered and said “That’s what we are going to go to work upon – your belief that it is hard. I am going to make sure you start to see how to think about the subject so you can make it easy for yourself”. It was an extraordinary learning experience for me as an educator because I really had to get into his world and understand what his misconceptions and understandings were first before having him step into my thinking and methodology. It took time and persistence on both our parts. And yes he did pass with flying colours when he took the exam again.

In this discussion I am not implying or asserting that people’s opinions are invalid. They all have some validity – at least to them and their personal experiences and understanding. For that student who struggled to the point of failing that Engineering subject twice, it was reality that the subject was hard – for him. However, that is my point really. Our opinions and beliefs are mostly personal. Understanding and experience on the small scale. People’s opinions are rarely built upon exploring and coming to grips with the context and assumptions upon which those lessons and understandings were built.

This is also true about governments and the media. How many governments have implemented change programs without actually looking at what the research shows works in schools and for learning (No Child Left Behind policy in the USA, Merit Pay for teachers, and so on)? How many millions of dollars have been spent on what looks good and is politically impressive rather than what actually works? How many media organisations report on education and learning from a very narrow perspective? How many rank or discuss the quality of schools based purely on standardised testing that only measure very limited outcomes of student abilities?

It is not easy or common to look at the context or assumptions within which you learn and understand things. These contexts are like the air that we breathe. They are often so invisible to us and just part of everyday living that we don’t think about it.  Shankar Vedantam discussed a number of these “unconscious forces that influence us” is his book “The Hidden Brain: how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives”. We will go into much more depth about unconscious biases and mental models at another time. Suffice to say right now that people’s opinions are quite often not based on hard facts and research but hearsay,  personal experiences, and unchallenged underlying assumptions.

If we are interested in creating and building educational systems that will allow / encourage / support ALL young people to become exceptional then we have to go beyond the normal everyday opinions about education. Notice the emphasis on ALL. We need to look at the contexts and assumptions that underlie our beliefs and actions.

What do you think?

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