Teaching in Mind

Helping Teachers Mindfully Transform Education

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The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.

Other Articles

Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

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Who's Right? Who's Wrong? Damaging Dichotomies in Education

O

ne need only read the commentaries in Education Week or the letters to the editor in education journals and blogs to recognize that people hold a wide variety of beliefs about educational issues—often about the same issues. You may wholeheartedly agree with some ideas and almost violently disagree with others. Given all the research that has taken place in education—all the experience amassed by professional educators—why are there still such fundamental arguments over basic issues? Why are so many educators quick to dismiss the ideas of others rather than search for common strengths and build on points of agreement? In this article, I'd like to suggest a couple of reasons.

Although we like to think of ourselves as rational, "objective" people, many of us assess the "value" in the arguments of others not so much by analyzing their logic and reasoning, but by unconsciously comparing those arguments with our own beliefs. Because beliefs are personal rather than factual, there is often a surge of emotion when someone's ideas don't agree with our own—a tendency to feel personally attacked by the ideas of others and a need to defend our views. Those holding opposing ideas engage in mythical battles that, theoretically, can be won or lost once all the "facts" are clear. And of course, people are sure that their "facts" are true in some absolute sense and therefore, the ones that must prevail. It's interesting to notice the number of military metaphors in the last few sentences—metaphors that all too often characterize so-called rational "discussion" of educational issues.

[To learn more about the difference between beliefs and facts, you may wish to read the related articles on Beliefs and Dichotomies. These topics and the danger of military metaphors in education are also discussed in detail in Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education.— chapters 4 and 5.]

People often fail to recognize that they are focusing on only one aspect of an issue rather than the entire problem. Think of the information presently available to your senses. How much of it actually registers in your conscious mind? Simply by shifting your focus, you become aware of sounds, sensations, and other information in your environment that were there all along, but which your mind filtered out to avoid sensory overload and allow you to attend more fully to the object of your present interest.

The same thing happens when people consider complex issues. We selectively zoom in on information that interests us and filter out the rest, although it remains accessible to us if we choose to notice it. With cognitive issues, people tend to forget the other information is there—that the issue they are studying is much more complex than the object of their focus. They mount their arguments based on their area of concern, unconsciously extending them to the entire system.

As an example, let's look at one hotbed of dissent in today's educational environment—testing. I hope you would agree that the whole issue of testing and assessment is extremely complex. As with any other complex issue, there is no simple right or wrong answer—no "facts" that apply across the board on which simplistic decisions can be based. Yet controversies over the either-or question of whether testing is good or bad abound. Consider these statements, harvested from various websites and print media.

Before judging any of the statements right or wrong, consider the following. Every one of the statements can be both true or false, depending on the context. Despite the certitude with which a person makes these statements, they are not truths, or facts, in the absolute sense because they are not true in all contexts. It's also important to recognize that each statement may be true in some contexts. The problem here, as it is with so many of the statements made about education, is that the context in which the statements were originally made have disappeared. We are left with generalizations that only serve to ignite the passions of others. Each person is free to supply his or her own context, and because the "truth" of the statement varies from context to context, disagreement is inevitable!

Adding to the confusion, the terms in the statements are undefined. When you think of the word "test," what image comes to mind? Pencil and paper tests where students fill in bubbles? Tests of physical skills or procedures? A quick conversation about a topic between a teacher and student? Or something entirely different? Many types of tests focus on knowledge and comprehension, while others assess higher-level thinking. Some assess less tangible characteristics, such as teamwork, determination, or ingenuity. Is assessment the same as testing? Without specifying any of this information, these statements about testing are vague generalities, often appearing contradictory. Battle lines are drawn and the arguments begin.

It is imperative to recognize that, because each of the statements focuses on a different aspect or definition of testing, the "truth" of one statement does not automatically make the others false. Therefore, each belief—each statement—has value in helping us decide on a course of action because it enlarges our perception of the issue.

If our goal in discussing educational issues is to identify problems and find answers, we must first be sure we're asking the same questions. The testing statements listed above can be thought of as answers to questions about testing. "Are there abuses in testing?" "What, if any, psychological effects do tests have on students?" "How can the effectiveness of schools be assessed?" "What are the appropriate uses of tests?" Clearly, there are multiple answers to each of those questions. The statements listed above are not only generic answers to different questions, but answers that are correct only some of the time. Therefore, unless all these questions about testing—and their possible answers—are addressed, any decisions about testing will be limited in scope. Seeking a single answer to such as complex issue not only limits possibilities and applicability, but will inevitably lead to disagreement that solves nothing, and often does more damage.

In his book, Metaphors of Mind, Robert Sternberg discusses various theories of intelligence. His words are applicable to many other educational theories and statements of educational belief such as those found above.

"…we pay too much attention to answers at the expense of paying enough attention to questions. As a result, we often see theories as competing, when in fact they are not: They are different answers to different questions, not different answers to the same question. Even when we recognize that two theories address different questions, we may still try to compare them on some illusory basis that prejudices the outcome of our comparison in favor of one theory or the other."1

Isn't it time to stop reducing complex educational issues to a question of who is "right" and who is "wrong?" Isn't it time to stop looking for simple answers—simple formulas that let us off the hook when it comes to making decisions based on the situation at hand? Rather than condemning people whose opinions don't agree with our own, let's begin with the assumption (until proven otherwise) that the people arguing about educational issues share our concern for the well-being of students. Let's identify the aspect of the issue that dominates their thinking. And let's ask one critical question. "Is what they are saying "true" in any context?"

If the answer is "yes", then it's appropriate to add their arguments to our database of information. Problems in education, such as those of assessment and accountability, are extremely complex. There are often multiple "answers" rather than a simplistic "yes" or "no" stance. Rather than caving in to ongoing political demands for more hard data on which schools may be judged, it is imperative that those concerned with the ultimate well-being and development of students confront these limited views and demand a broader consideration of the issues.

Even in something as relatively straightforward as buying a car, people typically check out the vehicle from all angles. They research the record of the make and model, take the vehicle for a test drive, and consult with others on their opinions. In short, people examine the purchase from multiple perspectives before making a decision. Why should the future of our children be less important? How, in good conscience, can educators give in to the current fad—fall for the current hype—act on information that is incomplete and limited in scope? How can educators and parents nod like bobble-head dolls at government pronouncements that are filled with glittering generalities and undefined terms?

I'd like to suggest that when we feel ourselves becoming agitated over what someone has said about some educational issue, we refrain from condemning their ideas out of hand. Assume that their ultimate goals for students are similar to your own and simply ask yourself if the circumstances they use to support their arguments are valid in any context. If so, those arguments may have value—they provide additional pieces of the puzzle, giving us a more informed view of the larger picture.

Like the classic movie, Rashomon, our perceptions and the way we interpret those perceptions are significantly biased by our beliefs and how we are personally affected by a situation. The real danger in leaping to agreement or disagreement—in judging whether something is "right" or "wrong"—is that this type of thinking limits perceptions, robbing us of a wealth of perspectives that add immeasurably to our ability to make informed decisions.

By changing ourselves—by engaging our willingness to consider alternatives—we improve our chances of contributing to meaningful change in the large and complex institution of education.


References

  1. Sternberg, R. (1990). Metaphors of Mind: Conceptions of the Nature of Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 284.

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New!

The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.


Other Articles

Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

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