11 dysfunctional beliefs that profoundly undermine leadership, teaching, and learning

 Dennis Sparks

Change the way you think, and you are halfway to changing the world. —Theodore Zeldin

You may call them beliefs, assumptions, conceptual frames, mental models, or world views.

While for the most part they may be invisible to us, they are likely to have a profound effect on leadership and teaching.

And, as a result, when left unexamined, some of our beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are 11 such disabling beliefs that provide an often unspoken subtext in countless professional conversations:

1. Some students cannot be expected to learn very much because of their families, economic status, or race.

2. Teaching is a non-intellectual, low-skilled, primarily nurturing activity.

3. Good teachers and leaders are born, not made.

4. Teaching is “telling” and performing.

5. Content is “delivered”; learning is demonstrated by repeating what one has been “told.”

6.. Leadership of change means giving directions. Teachers who do not do as they are directed are “resistant.”

7. For the most part teachers know what to do and how to do it; they just have to be motivated to do it.

6. Because teaching is telling/performing, content is “delivered,” leadership is directing, and the primary challenge of leadership is motivating teachers, continuous improvement results from telling/delivering/directing/motivating.

9. Most significant questions and problems of teaching and learning have one right answer, and an “expert” knows it.

10. Therefore, the primary means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

11. It takes years to make significant and demonstrable improvements in the quality of professional learning, teaching, and student achievement.

Are there any dysfunctional beliefs that you would add to or subtract from this list?

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3 Responses to “11 dysfunctional beliefs that profoundly undermine leadership, teaching, and learning”


  1. 1 Chuck Bell (@Chuck_Bell_) January 29, 2014 at 8:18 am

    I would add this dysfunctional belief: In a successful classroom environment, students don’t have to “like” their teacher, but they must “respect” him.

    Skillful teachers understand that when students both like AND respect you, the sky is the limit on what can be achieved.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks January 29, 2014 at 12:32 pm

      That is a complex one, Chuck. I agree that it is important for students to perceive that their teachers like and value them. In the minds of many teachers, though, being liked requires pandering to students rather than holding them to high standards or making tough decisions that may not please students or their parents. I am curious how you or others synthesize these two perspectives. Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

  2. 3 Patricia T DeBello January 29, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    That scores and statistics are the fairest ways to judge the efficacy of any teacher or administrator ! So not true, to my way of thinking..but one which is sidetracking the real policy changes that should be examined!


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