Posts Tagged 'beliefs'

Ch. 8: Inventing a school

in·vent verb
/inˈvent/
create or design (something that has not existed before); be the originator of

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of experimentation, both socially and educationally. 

The book Summerhill about an experimental British school was popular, “open classrooms” were becoming more common, and high schools like my own were experimenting with teaming and various forms of scheduling. 

Nonetheless, the boundaries of what could be done were always being pushed.

By my 4th year of teaching I was being introduced as the “local irritant” by the principal to the frequent visitors who came to see our school’s innovations,

I took that as a compliment, both in that he wanted visitors to meet me, and because he took my frequent “suggestions” with a grain of humor.

So when my principal was asked by system administrators to select two teachers to join two teachers from another high school to plan a vaguely-formulated “alternative school” for students who were likely to run afoul of a new, tighter, and more punitive attendance policy, my name came to mind.

In the summer of 1972 our team of four—a social studies teacher (me) and a guidance counselor from my school, and an English and math teacher from the other school—began to design a school with just two “givens”—that it would serve at least 20 students from each of the two sending high schools and that it would require school board approval before opening in the fall.

We were minimally supervised by two district administrators who put no restrictions on what we would create, and we were paid for our time, with no limits placed on the number of hours we worked.

In one sense, we were in way over our heads. We had no experience in designing anything larger than a course, and we were relatively inexperienced, with three of us in our 20s and another in his mid-30s. 

But our lack of experience also meant that we weren’t weighed down with tradition about how things should be done.

And we were free to invent with few restraints.

Imagine that you were given such an opportunity, to create a school without any restrictions other than the political reality of school board approval.

How would you begin, and what would you write on the blank slate you were handed?

For reasons I don’t recall now, but perhaps because of my experience the previous school year with the power of my principal’s beliefs, our team of four began by listing our most important beliefs about teaching and learning and their implications for our school. 

That discussion took several days, but it was time well spent because once we had reached a deep and shared understanding of our common beliefs and their implications for our work, all the other decisions were much easier to make.

Now, decades later, I am disappointed that I cannot find this list, but it likely included statements such as these:

Because we believe that students learn best when they feel known and respected, we will create a close-knit community of learners who will support one another in meeting high school graduation requirements and in achieving other important goals.

Because we believe that classrooms are not the only place in which important learning occurs, we will incorporate the larger community into the curriculum through independent study and community service.

Because we believe that students have unique learning interests and strengths, we will offer a variety of options to meet high school graduation requirements.

And, in retrospect, the most important belief of all:

Because we believe students learn significant lessons from one another, we will ensure through our selection process a diverse student body, particularly in their attitudes about learning and school.

That belief was included because we knew that there was little chance of success if the school’s student body was composed entirely of students removed from the traditional school due to poor attendance, which was the primary impetus for our work.

As a result, we stipulated that no more than half of our students could enroll due to the new, more restrictive attendance policy. The others would volunteer to enroll, we hoped, because they would be attracted to the school’s learning goals and methods.

While inexperienced, we knew that should the school board approve our plan the biggest challenges lay ahead—filling in the program details that would make the school appealing to a broad cross-section of students and enable them to meet graduation requirements.

What would you write on the blank slate of a school you were charged with inventing?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 7: The power of beliefs

be·lief noun
/bəˈlēf/
something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction

In 1972, during my fourth year of teaching, the curriculum department of my school district offered a two-day workshop on “mastery teaching.”

As I recall I was the only teacher from my high school to attend, but I remember little else about the workshop other than that by its conclusion I was convinced that student learning would improve if I changed a few things in my classroom.

Basically, I came away from the workshop convinced that if I gave students more opportunities to learn in different ways and multiple opportunities to demonstrate that learning, almost all of my students would learn virtually everything I wanted them to know.

I remember telling my students about what I had learned and of my newfound belief that they could become more successful in my class than any of us had previously thought possible.

I also remember one of my more astute students asking if their improved learning would be reflected in better grades, say As or Bs. Because I couldn’t recall grading being discussed in the workshop, I made up an answer on the spot – yes, they would receive As and Bs if they learned the appropriate amount of content. Put another way, I would be grading based on demonstrated competence rather than on “the curve” or any variation of it.

But by the end of that day I realized I had a problem, and that problem was my principal’s belief that the job of a teacher was to shift the normal curve of distribution (“the curve”) in a positive direction, which meant that there would be more As and Bs than Ds and Fs, but that there should continue to be some students who received low grades.

These low grades, my principal believed, would reflect a teacher’s high standards.

So I made an appointment with my principal to discuss the problem. He expressed skepticism that all students could learn enough to pass no matter what methods teachers used, but he allowed me to experiment for the few remaining months of the school year if I agreed to bring him samples of my students’ quizzes, tests, and other work so that he could be assured I had not lowered my standards.

And that’s the way it was for several months until the conclusion of the school year. I brought him my students’ work, and he grudgingly let me continue, at least until our next meeting.

That was the first time, but not the last, I would experience the power of leaders’ and teachers’ beliefs to positively or negatively affect teaching and learning in their schools or classrooms.

But in June an unexpected and once-in-a-career opportunity arose when that same principal invited me to join three other teachers in creating an alternative high school, which I’ll say more about next time.

What was or is your experience with the power of beliefs to positively or negatively affect student learning?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

“Change the way you think…”

Some beliefs are enabling—they support us in fulfilling important life purposes. Others can disempower and otherwise undermine the realization of those goals. Fortunately, we can choose our beliefs.

 This post from January 2014 examines 11 disabling beliefs.

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

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?

If ignorance is not the problem, what is?

[I]gnorance is rarely the problem. The challenge is that people don’t always care about what you care about. And the reason they don’t care isn’t that they don’t know what you know. The reason is that they don’t believe what you believe. The challenge, then, isn’t to inform them. It’s to engage and teach and communicate in a way that shares emotion and values and beliefs. – Seth Godin

It is common to blame ignorance for what we view as someone’s wrong-headed behavior.

Not knowing something important, of course, is sometimes the problem.

But more often than not when people argue about ideas or goals or strategies, especially with strong emotion, they are as likely arguing about underlying beliefs, which are often invisible to participants in the “conversation.”

Resilient people listen attentively for the beliefs that are often hidden beneath the surface of conversations, and they engage others in respectful conversations about their beliefs.

Such listening is challenging, of course, because of the emotions that may be attached to often invisible beliefs.

But unless we listen deeply and have dialogue about our beliefs we will continue to repeat the same frustrating conversations, conversations that not only diminish our influence but may damage important relationships.

What skills or processes enable you to “engage and teach and communicate in a way that shares emotion and values and beliefs”?

Some of my favorite questions

question: [kwes-chuh n]/noun

1. a sentence in an interrogative form, addressed to someone in order to get information in reply.

2. a problem for discussion or under discussion; a matter for investigation.

3. a matter of some uncertainty or difficulty; problem (usually followed by of).

4. a subject of dispute or controversy.

Resilient people are resourceful, which means they enjoy the challenges presented by intriguing questions and the ambiguous situations or problems they may pose.

Such questions cause people to think more deeply about important things and to think thoughts that they otherwise would not have thought.

Here are two of my favorite questions:

• What would you do if you had more than enough money to support yourself and your family for a lifetime? What goals would you pursue and how would you spend your time?

• What significant challenge would you take on if you knew you could not fail? Or, put another way, what important things would you do if you were not afraid?

And here are a few questions that specifically address resilience:

• What core beliefs or principles would you not compromise?

• When will you stand firm, when will you bend, and how will you decide?

• What strengths do you bring to situations that require resilience?

• What people, groups, or other resources do you draw upon during challenging times for inspiration, clarity, and guidance?

• What lessons has your life taught you about surviving and even thriving during difficult times?

What are your favorite questions?


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