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.

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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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What Do You Mean By That?

"Oh, what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to believe."
~ Laurence J. Peter

The following is an excerpt from Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education.

P

eople have many different ways of thinking about abstract or complex contexts. One would hope that we can find some consistency in the language itself. For example, you won't find much disagreement if you say that the purpose of school is to educate children!

The appearance of agreement may be comforting, but it is nebulous at best. The same is true of our assumption that people hold the same meanings for words such as understand, teach, learn, and knowledge.

Apart from the dictionary definitions, which are often of little value in their vagueness, the meaning that people attach to an abstract word is generally based on complex beliefs, values, worldviews, and experiences. Yet educators, particularly those who write standards, don't even bother to define words such as know or understand. Instead, they simply list what students should know or understand. For example, here are several content standards from various state and national documents.

Standards committees then list behaviors through which students may demonstrate knowledge or understanding. For example, a student is assumed to understand if he or she "recognizes the flag of the U.S.", "describes the nitrogen cycle", or "analyzes the interaction of predators and prey in an ecosystem." Despite the fact that these behaviors involve radically different cognitive levels (recognize, describe, analyze), they are all lumped together under the behavior of understand.

Is it valid to define understanding in terms of one's ability to fill in the correct bubbles on a multiple choice test, which typically require only recall or recognition—the lowest levels of cognition in terms of Bloom's Taxonomy. Would you agree that the ability to pick out the flag of the U.S. from among several examples signals an understanding of its significance in "providing continuity and a sense of community across time"? Obviously, the way in which people define understanding is at the heart of many choices made in schools and in individual classrooms.

Depending on your personal definition of understanding, the questions you choose to ask on a test might range from the lower levels of the taxonomy (state, express, recognize) to much higher cognitive levels (apply, synthesize, evaluate.) Keep in mind that it is the meaning that you assign to the word understand that drives these choices. It is your belief about what constitutes understanding. If you do not know what that belief is, then you will make your choices habitually—mindlessly.

Meaning Changes with Context

I

t's confusing enough when different individuals hold conflicting beliefs and values about the same context, but one would at least expect the same individual to have consistent beliefs. Wrong! Because values and beliefs arise from and reside in so many different contexts within our lives, people are often unaware that, as they shift from context to context, they contradict themselves.

The same person who condemns abortion or murder ("Thou shalt not kill!") may support the death penalty for capital crimes or, without much soul-searching, take the life of someone who threatens a child. The same person who says "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" to one friend may say, "Out of sight, out of mind" to another, in a different context. Truth—meaning—is a highly contextualized experience! Just when you think you have a person figured out, he or she behaves in a completely unexpected, and quite surprising, way.

For example, a professor in a graduate education class frequently presented us with "value-laden" problems such as the following: Imagine you have a child who is dying from a rare disease for which no cure is readily available. A scientist has developed a cure but refuses to sell it or make it available for use. When you visit him to beg for the medication, you see a vial of the medicine on the man's desk. When the man again refuses to make the medication available, would you, if you had the opportunity, take the medication to save your child?

In previous similar problems, one woman in the class had been adamant about any issue that she could interpret using the Ten Commandments. As expected, her answer to this problem was, "Absolutely not!" Her rationale: "Thou shalt not steal!"

Then the professor changed the problem slightly. This time, when you visit the man, what you see on the desk is a paper with the formula for the medicine. The question becomes, "Would you memorize the formula and give it to the doctors to reproduce?"

My assumption was that, if you wouldn't do the first, you wouldn't do the second. My definition—the meaning I assign to stealing—is taking something that belongs to another person without their permission. Much to my amazement, the Ten Commandments lady said, "Oh, of course, I'd do that." She then explained that you couldn't steal with your eyes—only with your hands! For her, stealing means taking something that belongs to another person without their permission with your hands! This woman, who consistently defended the highest moral ground, was completely at home with the idea of taking the formula "with her eyes."

I later discovered that there's a common perception that when one "takes" something without removing the physical object from a person's possession, it's not stealing. Isn't that what we do when we copy something from a book or make a photocopy of an article from a magazine? Is that stealing, or does one have to use the item for one's personal gain—be it health, an increased reputation, or monetary gain? If it's not stealing to photocopy a few pages for one's own reference, is it stealing to copy the entire book instead of buying one's own copy? What if the book is no longer in print or copies are no longer being sold?

"Truth" isn't always easy to define. Each individual determines the truth—the meaning—of a situation based on personal beliefs, values, and experiences. People assume that, when they use the same words, they've reached agreement. Yet, judging by the previous example, even words such as steal do not hold the same meaning for everyone.

Begin By Defining Your Terms—At Least to Yourself!

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ducators constantly toss around words such as successful, effective, appropriate, respect, learn, understand, and teach. What, specifically, does each of those words mean to you? What is your measure of success? Is it the same as that of a student? The student's parents? The experts writing educational standards? The people urging more individualized learning environments? When teachers try to motivate students to succeed, whose definition are they using?

Some years ago, a workshop leader began by having everyone in the room write his or her definition of "thinking skills." Of the 112 people in the room, no two definitions were the same. The differences were rarely cosmetic. They were fundamental differences in meaning that would significantly influence the way a person "taught" thinking skills.

As educators define the problems of the institution, they often make broad statements such as "We need to have more accountability." Rarely does anyone take the time to stop and ask, "How do you define accountability?" Instead, everyone simply nods and sets about trying to solve the problem—a problem that each person in the room may unconsciously define in a different way!

Being accountable in today's test-obsessed educational environment typically means producing students with high test scores. Is a teacher also demonstrating accountability by helping his or her students demonstrate exceptional creativity, citizenship, or responsibility? Depending on the unconscious meaning one assigns to accountability, the problem of "having more accountability" changes drastically. Is it any wonder that people find it difficult to agree on a solution when they are working on different problems without being aware of it?

Theorist Michael Reddy suggests that we spend too much time in problem solving and not enough in problem setting—defining the terms used in our statement of purpose.1 Let's stop assuming agreement on the everyday terms used in education. Develop the habit of saying "How do you define that word?"—not in a confrontational way, but in an effort to arrive at a common starting point. Let's move forward by taking a step back to the very meaning and language of education.

[Note: A much more extensive discussion of meaning and the role it plays in education may be found in Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education. You may also wish to read the article on The Meaning and Purpose of Education.]


References

  1. Reddy, Michael J. (1993). The Conduit Metaphor. In A. Ortony (Ed.) Metaphors of Thought, 2nd ed. (p 188). New York: Cambridge University Press

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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.

Email Updates

Want to be notified when the latest articles and/or information is added?

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