Challenging Our Beliefs

By Jon Saphier - March 6, 2015

Virtually all the reform initiatives of the late 20th and early 21st century (Response to Intervention (RTI), Data Analysis by Data Teams, Instructional Coaching, and PLCs) rely on commitment to a particular belief to be effective. These beliefs, however, are rarely an explicit part of the dialog in schools implementing the initiatives. It is important that they be addressed directly, because they provide the drive and the passion to implement the initiatives thoughtfully and deeply. Without surfacing and working to develop these beliefs, reform initiatives become empty shells.

Belief 1 – We believe everyone can “get smart.” Children’s learning is primarily determined by their effective effort and use of appropriate strategies. “Intelligence” is not a fixed, inborn limit on learning capacity. All children have the raw material to do rigorous academic work at high standards. Teachers who have internalized these beliefs believe it is their responsibility to:

  • Communicate belief and confidence messages to students
  • Constantly reexamine their practices in light of student results
  • Explicitly and implicitly teach their students how to mobilize effective effort
  • Teach their students strategies for successful learning

If we implement RTI without acting authentically from this belief, the structures of extra instruction for students functioning in lower tiers cannot succeed. We need to convince the students we believe in their capacity and they can actually increase their ability with effective effort at the same time as we do the re-teaching.

Belief 2 – We believe we need to develop deep collaboration and trust of our colleagues. The Data movement and the PLC movement bring student work to the table for analysis so that efficient and insightful plans can be made to address instructional problems. For teams to function well, however, teachers must believe a) they can safely reveal what they have been unsuccessful in teaching their students without fear of judgment or humiliation by peers and b) several people together will be smarter than one person alone in generating solutions to learning problems.

Belief 3 – We believe the knowledge and skill to teach well is both huge and complex – far beyond what the public or even education professional structures acknowledge. It’s on a par with that of architecture, law, or engineering. Thus, we must constantly reach out for new learning and create a school culture where we can learn from each other as we solve problems together.

Belief 4 – We believe culturally proficient teaching is an indispensable domain of professional skill. Despite programs of extended time, student advisories, small schools, new curricula, efforts to close the achievement gap cannot succeed unless disadvantaged students and students of color feel known and valued in the classroom and in the school. Culturally proficient teaching becomes not just a gesture to diversity, but also a knowledge-based ability to convey respect and value authentically to students of color.

The bottom line here for reformers and school leaders is that we have to work directly with our colleagues on developing these beliefs to drive any reform effort to success.