Is School Becoming Irrelevant? (Part 2): How Our Beliefs Shape Our Practices

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Beliefs are powerful. What we believe—about school, learning, learning in schools, and learning for the world—shapes every instructional decision made on behalf of students. For example, the belief that teachers need to be held accountable for student test scores is behind value-added teacher evaluation. The belief that all students can and should be learning the exact same material at the exact same time is behind standardized tests. And the belief in technology’s positive impact on learning is behind the decision to implement blended learning initiatives.

Last week, in the part 1 of this post, I wondered if school was in danger of becoming irrelevant after seeing Will Richardson speak at the #TCT16 conference. Too often, Richardson warned, the learning that students do outside school is increasingly disconnected from the learning we require students to do in school. The first step in addressing this disconnect is to ask ourselves the simple but often neglected question—what do we believe about how children learn most powerfully and deeply in their lives? 

The beliefs above about teacher evaluation, standardized tests, and technology integration—and the practices and policies they’ve inspired—are often the ones that get the most attention. They’re also the beliefs that weigh most heavily on teachers. “Just close your door and do your job” is advice I’ve heard over the years.

Of course, we can’t just close our doors. When we close our doors and isolate ourselves—for whatever reason—we exclude ourselves from the bigger conversations happening in the hallways of our profession. We allow other people’s beliefs about teaching, learning, and students to dictate what we do in our classrooms. Put another way, if we don’t open our doors, someone else will come along and pry them open.

All that said, there is a time for turning inward. I know that in the day-to-day busyness of teaching—answering emails, grading quizzes, making copies—that it can be hard to find the time to reflect. Yet critical self-reflection is perhaps the most important action we can take to improve ourselves as teachers and learners. And self-reflection—particularly about our beliefs, as Richardson advocates—is the first step in ensuring that schools stay relevant in a quickly changing world.

I recently began reading a collection of essays called The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning, and Teaching (2015), edited by Ellin Keene and Matt Glover. I first came across this collection when our Director of Staff Development used an excerpt as a shared reading during a workshop. (I am also so happy that it will be the first shared reading for Heinemann Fellows!) In the introduction, Keene and Glover write (emphasis added):

There are just a few times in teachers’ lives when we are asked to formally share our beliefs about teaching and learning: once, when we apply for admittance into teacher education programs, and next, when we apply for teaching positions. The important exercise of expressing one’s belief about teaching and learning, when limited to these moments is reduced to a method of gatekeeping around the profession.

Once we’re in the field, however, our beliefs about teaching and learning often recede and become background details in the big picture of our work as educators . . . once we’re in our classrooms, we find that our heartfelt beliefs are reduced to silent and sporadic fantasies—nice to think about on occasion, but unlikely to come true. We keep them to ourselves.

The problem with keeping our beliefs to ourselves, just like closing our doors, is that our beliefs can grow stagnant. They remain fixed and unchallenged. But beliefs shouldn’t be fixed—at the very least, they need to be revisited and questioned in the light of changing contexts.

In the essay, “Why Beliefs Matter,” Heidi Mills and Tim O’Keefe point out that “practicing teachers are rarely encouraged to articulate, ground, or grow new practices in current beliefs.” And yet, our “ongoing reflection on the relationship between our actions and beliefs helps us to teach with intentionality.”

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I‘ve been doing a lot of thinking about my own beliefs about teaching and learning. Looking back on my teaching career, I know that the most significant shifts in my thinking began with my summer reading and writing institute experiences at the PA Writing & Literature Project (PAWLP). It was through those experiences that I encountered the thinking of Don Graves, Don Murray, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, Tom Newkirk, and other teacher-leaders who continue to shape and challenge me.

At a session at the 2014 NCTE Conference, Kelly Gallagher spoke about the importance of encouraging students to track their thinking about an issue over time. This habit of deliberate self-reflection, particularly as we learn more about an issue and ourselves, is essential in building a literacy for democracy. Lately, it’s become increasingly apparent to me that the skills and dispositions we wish for our students—curiosity, flexible thinking, self-reflection, perseverance—are the same ones teachers need. Furthermore, the things that we ask our students to do to develop those skills and dispositions are the same things teachers need to be willing to do, too.

For example, here’s my attempt to track at least some of my thinking about teaching.

I used to think…  that as the Teacher, I was responsible for asking the questions—the right questions—that students needed to access and analyze texts. In other words, I didn’t generally trust that students could ask the most important questions. They would ask questions that focused on the wrong details or the irrelevant plot points. I was the expert reader; therefore, I had to ask all the questions. (BELIEF)

Therefore… I would give my students study guide questions that I created (or other teachers created). Students generally did not ask questions unless it was related to an answer to one of my questions.  (PRACTICE)

But now I realize… that students often have many fascinating and higher-level questions about what we’re reading (or anything) than I initially thought. I also realize that by not being purposeful about the time, practice, and reflection that students needed to develop good questions, some of them never fully developed a more inquisitive mindset. If students were only focused on what was asking, I was sending the implicit message that only my questions mattered. (CHANGED BELIEF)

Therefore… I give out fewer traditional study guides. Instead, I try get students to develop an inner “reader’s voice” by noticing what stands out to them in the reading—and then to generate written responses and questions that reflect their thinking. Books that have been valuable in shaping my thinking include both Notice and Note books by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst and Whole Novels for the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks. (CHANGED PRACTICE)

I could probably list and track my thinking on dozens of other beliefs. For example, I used to believe that the single most important thing I needed to do as an English teacher was to expose students to the classics—that the classics imparted a wisdom that no other texts could do. Now I believe that reading the classics is just one piece of a more balanced approach to reading, an approach that needs to include time and space for students to read books that they choose (and also that wisdom can be found in my place apart from the classics). I also used to believe teaching students to write a coherent 5-paragraph essay was an important and necessary step to make students better writers. Now I believe that students become better writers when they have frequent opportunities to write,  more choice over their topics, authentic mentor texts to guide them, and a teacher who models her own writing life.  In many ways, I echo what I’ve heard Kelly Gallagher say many times elsewhere—I see myself less a literature teacher and more a literacy teacher.

So how did this change happen? An inquiry stance, a willingness to try new things, a self-reflective mindset, and a sense of efficacy—these were instrumental.  And as Mills and O’Keefe point out, when teachers engage in true inquiry, “they also grow new beliefs.” The authors write:

Substantive, lasting change rarely occurs because someone mandates a new instruction or assessment program. Rather, when we encounter new beliefs that resonate, we are inspired to take up new instruction and assessment practices that match them. If we are deliberately growing and changing as professionals, our cutting-edge beliefs are often ahead of our practices. We grow new beliefs and then strive to live into them. In the process, we make both the beliefs and the corresponding practices our own. This process is at the heart of genuine, generative professional collaboration. That’s why it matters that we work together at the belief, not just the practice, level.

Critical self-reflection can be uncomfortable. When we dare to look critically at the beliefs that drive our practices, we may find that they no longer hold true. And in their place, we must “grow new beliefs and strive to live up to them.” If I no longer believe, for example, that the 5-paragraph essay is an absolute—and I instead believe that the best writing we can ask students to do is writing that is relevant to them and to the world, then I need to change my practices. This means reading more professional material on authentic writing, engaging in necessary conversations with colleagues, finding authentic mentor texts for students to read, and so on and so on. As Mills and O’Keefe write, “When we honestly inquire . . . we will all encounter a few beliefs we value yet know we have not yet institutionalized as ongoing practices.”

And this is probably why reflecting on our beliefs is so hard—and sometimes avoided. If we change our beliefs, we also have to change our practices—and that takes time and resources that many teachers don’t have. Still, as Nancy Frey, Doug Fischer, and John Hattie point out in Visible Learning for Literacy:

Skilled teachers know, for example, that their students and the contexts shift each year. Teaching the same grade level or content for multiple years does not mean the instruction is static. Quite the opposite: skilled teaching is dynamic teaching.

It also seems to me that if we want to create students who are open to new ideas, who question their own beliefs, and who are flexible and willing to change—then we have a much better chance of doing so if students have teachers who can model that type of reflective practice. After all, as Mills and O’Keefe write:

We can “inspire our students to change their hearts, minds, and actions by beginning with our own.”

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English teacher. Writer. Reader. Photography hobbyist. Daughter of immigrants. Wife to best friend. Mom to three Jedi-in-training. She/her.