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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Teacher Thinking: The Hidden Dimension in Effective Education

If We Should, Why Don't We?

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S

ince the earliest days of organized education, teachers have asked questions such as: What should we teach? How should we teach? How should we organize knowledge? How should we assess learning? It is a rare educator who cannot supply a wealth of reasoned and reasonable answers to these questions. Why then, after so many years, are we still asking them? Why have their answers failed to create an educational process that builds on excellence rather than constantly recreating itself?

The word should conjures up thoughts of duty, responsibility, and proper behavior. Since childhood, people have been told how they should and should not act in various contexts. Yet even the most conscientious among us frequently behave in ways that are contrary to what we believe we should be doing. For example, we believe we should exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet—yet, many of us do not.

Many teachers welcome ideas and theories that promise to improve their practice. Hundreds of books, magazine articles, and professional development opportunities provide answers to traditional questions about what teachers should do. Yet even while consciously (intellectually) accepting those answers, teachers often fail to implement them in effective ways. Why?

One important reason is that these answers—these ideas—are neither understood nor applied in the same way by individual teachers. Each teacher has a unique mental representation of the world of education and the role he or she plays in that world. That representation is a tangled web of beliefs, values, metaphors, and other thought processes.

These constitute the individual's worldview—his or her "reality." If a new idea or mandate fails to fit a teacher's inner reality, it is often rejected at the unconscious level. Even if the teacher consciously accepts the mandate and attempts to implement it, his unconscious belief that it is "wrong" will force him to perceive ways in which it fails to work. This, of course, validates his beliefs.

Even when new ideas fit a teacher's existing inner reality, they may produce a variety of behaviors other than those expected. The idea/theory/methodology may seem perfectly clear to the person proposing it. She may have had great success implementing her ideas because they are completely consistent with her inner world. However, assuming that they will be equally effective for all teachers fails to recognize the tremendous variability in those teachers' worldviews. Even the meaning of such basic words as teach, learn, or understand vary enormously from one teacher to the next.

Many studies have shown that individual teacher beliefs and values play a vital role in shaping the objectives, goals, curriculum, and instructional methods of schools. Those same beliefs and values can spell success or failure for any reform efforts imposed by a school or district.1 Even when there is surface agreement on what should be done, variations in the way teachers perceive the task create huge differences in implementation or the lack thereof.

Teachers who have taken part in curriculum development teams for a single school have experienced the kind of disagreement that can occur over what aspects of a subject should be included and how that subject should be taught. [An example follows at the end of this article.]

Some teachers go along with what the group decides, but behind the classroom doors they continue to teach in the same way they have always taught. Now that standards have defined so much of a school's curriculum, the problems are compounded. Teachers have little input into the topics they are expected to teach. Their task is reduced to "aligning" their curriculum to the standards. This does little to change the fundamental beliefs of teachers. Unconsciously, they will adapt whatever decisions have been made to conform with their own reality. Keep in mind that this is not deliberate sabotage—it is the fundamental way in which our minds unconsciously operate!

Yet despite increasing research-based recognition that "The most important factor that affects student learning is quality teaching"2, most educational improvement efforts continue to focus on external factors—the curriculum, instructional methods, discipline, school organization, assessments—rather than on that "most important factor"—teachers. The actual thought processes that underlie a teacher's effectiveness are largely ignored.

Neglecting to take those thought processes into account—treating teachers as constants, rather than variables in the educational equation—all but assures the failure of many of the shoulds to significantly influence education. While it may be daunting to recognize the potential variability among teachers, ignoring it will not make it go away.

Here are just a few of the individual filters through which the shoulds—the answers provided by others—must pass.

1. Each teacher has a personal "definition" of education—a definition that shapes and limits what the teacher chooses to do and to not do. How would the emphasis a teacher places on content or process, student vs. teacher-centered lessons, discipline, group work, standards, or assessment shift if that teacher believed each of the following definitions?

How do you define education? Simply stated, there is no consensus definition of education! Is it any wonder that there are so many different approaches to what we should be doing when the primary purpose of education is still a matter of debate?

2. Each teacher possesses a set of beliefs about the nature of knowledge and how students learn. Those beliefs typically exist outside conscious awareness and are largely unexamined. They are, however, no less influential for their invisibility.

For example, several decades ago, educators were tremendously excited about the work of Jean Piaget. Piaget's theory of internally-generated knowledge made excellent sense, addressing obvious problems with teaching and learning. What educators failed to take into account was the pervasive belief that permeates the educational establishment. That belief is that there exists a body of knowledge—facts—truths—"out there," and that the primary goal of education involves teachers giving that objective knowledge to the students.

Without recognizing either the nature or the power of that underlying belief, educators tried to fit inquiry and student-constructed knowledge into their existing practice. They were attempting to apply Piaget's ideas without also adopting his belief system. How does one "internally generate" what is already "out there"? Consistent with their own beliefs, teachers would first give students the facts and then assign a pre-determined activity in which the students were supposed to "mess about" with those facts. Was this what Piaget meant? Where was the student given the opportunity to "internally generate" anything?

When Piaget's approach failed to bring about the expected changes in test scores—tests that were largely the same as those used with the old paradigm—many teachers simply decided that the approach didn't work. Work to do what? What expectations did they have? Were those expectations valid in terms of the theory itself? How can any method based on the belief in internally-constructed knowledge "work" if one believes that all knowledge is, ultimately, "out there"?

When teachers hold a fundamental belief that learning means accumulating knowledge, they may cognitively accept the wealth of research supporting internally-generated knowledge, but it will not significantly affect their practice. And despite mountains of additional research supporting the effectiveness of learner-centered education accumulated over decades, public schools remain the poster-child for "teacher as teller" methodology.

3. Each teacher has a personal set of values that determine the priorities operating in the classroom. Which is more important—content or process, discipline or self-expression, student respect for the teacher or mutual respect? How do those values shift from moment to moment?

Personal values also play an important role when teachers balance what they should do with what they are already doing. For example, a teacher says he values higher-level thinking skills, yet the "high-stakes tests" he is required to give require little more than simple recall or recognition. This doesn't mean he is lying. There is simply another value at work, one of which he is unaware, such as keeping his job! Taking the time to create and grade tests that assess higher-level thinking is what he has been hired to do, which is to make sure his students get good grades on the mandated tests! He fails to notice that he's not "walking his talk" because he believes a good teacher should value higher-level thinking skills and he perceives himself as a good teacher.3


These are just a few examples of the complexity of the thought processes—the beliefs, values, and meanings—that shape the choices teachers make. Those largely unconscious processes both enable and limit a teacher's behavior. They also determine to what extent answers provided by others—shoulds—will be reflected in their behavior.

Having a set of absolutes—shoulds and should nots that can clearly be labeled right or wrong—effective or ineffective—contributes to the comfort level of those who must assess teacher behavior and effectiveness. Such absolutes make supervision and assessment appear more objective. However, the quality—the effectiveness—of a teacher cannot be separated from that teacher's thought processes. A teacher's quality derives from those processes rather than from adherence to some external set of externally-defined effective behaviors.

Regardless of the weight of research supporting this or that methodology, teachers will continue to act in accordance with their fundamental values and beliefs. Therefore, what might we gain by focusing on what teachers already do and why they do it? By reflecting on teacher thinking—by bringing the thinking of individual teachers into consciousness and determining how it influences their teaching—we begin to understand the fundamental reasons why some teachers are more effective than others. By determining the values and beliefs that underlie teacher behavior, we begin to comprehend why seemingly foolproof methods work for those who propose them, but may not work for others.

In the past several decades, researchers have increasingly addressed the influence of beliefs and metaphors on teaching.4 However, many still see teacher thought processes as interesting artifacts rather than as the fundamental factor that shapes every behavior in a teacher's repertoire. Theorists such as Michael Fullan5, Seymour Sarason6, and Renate and Geoffrey Caine7 have encouraged self-reflection among teachers. Yet organized professional development opportunities that assist teachers in that process are all but non-existent. Worse, as the pressures of accountability and standards increase, teachers have less and less time to engage in what Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer8 calls "mindful" teaching.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in reflective teaching. However, it has largely been focused on what Donald Schön referred to as reflection-on-action. Reflection-IN-action involves the choices teachers make as they move through the school day. These are largely unconscious and intuitive—based on the teacher's beliefs and values. Only occasionally does a teacher stop and think about those choices. And because these choices aren't "observable" and "measureable," they are largely ignored.

Reflection-ON-action has increasingly been recognized as a way to help new or experienced teachers take a step back and think about what they have done. Often, teachers will tape a lesson and then meet with a mentor or peers to discuss what they did and how it turned out. They may then identify other choices they might have made to better accomplish their goals. This is certainly an example of reflective practice, but it rarely if ever gets to the core of the problem! The questions that aren't asked are "Why did the teacher make those choices in the first place?" "What beliefs about teaching, learning, and knowledge informed those choices?" Without knowing the answers to those questions, how likely is it that teachers will change their practice in any meaningful way?

If they hope to understand what makes teachers effective, educational leaders must encourage teachers to explore their personal mental landscapes of education. They must support teachers in examining how their thinking influences not only their own behavior, but the experience of their students. They must design and offer more professional development opportunities to help teachers focus on their own beliefs, values, metaphors, and the meanings that they assign to words and actions.

Focusing on teacher thinking offers numerous insights into why reform efforts succeed or fail. It is also an important step toward returning the humanity to an institution that has become obsessed with numbers.


Example

Here's what happened when four teachers tried to collaborate on a unit dealing with the Great Depression.

All four of these teachers had master's degrees in education and secondary school teaching certificates in social studies. All agreed that the Great Depression should be taught. It was, however, their personal interests and values that determined the content they believed should be included.9


References

  1. cf Battista, Michel T. (1994) Teacher Beliefs and the Reform Movement in Mathematics Education, Phi Delta Kappan, February 1994, pages 462-470. Munby, Hugh (1990, Fall) Metaphorical Expressions of Teachers' Practical Curriculum Knowledge, in Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, Vol. 6 No. 1, 18-30.
  2. Tell, Carol. (2000, August) Fostering High Performance and Respectability. Infobrief Number 22, ASCD.
  3. Yero, Judith Lloyd (2010) Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education. Chapter 3.
  4. cf Bullough, R.V. ,Jr. & Stokes, D.K. (1994) Analyzing personal teaching metaphors in preservice teacher education as a means for encouraging professional development. American Education Research Journal, 31, 197-224. Tobin, Kenneth (1990) Changing Metaphors and Beliefs: A Master Switch for Teaching? Theory Into Practice, 29(2); 122-127. Pajares, F. (1996). Self-efficacy Beliefs in Academic Settings, Review of Educational Research, 66(4), 543-578.
  5. Fullan, Michael (1993) Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Education Reform, Bristol , PA. The Falmer Press.
  6. Sarason, Seymour B. (1991) The Predictable Failure of Education Reform: Can We Change Course Before It's Too Late? San Francisco , CA. Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  7. Caine, Renate Nummela and Caine, Geoffrey (1997) Education on the Edge of Possibility, Arlington , VA. ASCD.
  8. Langer, Ellen J. (1997) The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading , MA . Addison-Wesley.
  9. Wilson, Suzanne M. and Wineburg, Samuel S. (1988, Summer) Peering at history through Different Lenses: The Role of disciplinary Perspectives in Teaching History, Teachers College Record, Vol. 89, No. 4, pp 525-539

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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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