"All that we are is the result of what we have thought." — Buddha
"We have met the enemy, and he is us." — Pogo
Beliefs become reality
Why is “doing school” so ubiquitous, despite the intentions of well-meaning teachers, parents and administrators?
To answer that question, we have to acknowledge that all of us have preconceived beliefs about the nature of school, about teaching and learning, even about human nature, that profoundly effect how teachers and students act. We often base our ideas about school on our own experiences, and therefore propagate the nature of the schools we attended. As James Baldwin said, “We are trapped in our history, and our history is trapped in us.”
When teachers begin their careers, no one questions the assumption that tests measure learning, or that grades must be given to students by teachers. It is a given that without the incentive of grades, most students would not be motivated to learn. It is taken for granted that there is only one teacher in the room, one expert whose job it is to disseminate the curriculum. Until recently, there was little discussion about the established idea that every student in a class does the same work at the same time, both at home and in class, regardless of how well they understand the material.
Even when these beliefs do real damage, they remain unchallenged because they are often below the radar; they are so axiomatic that we don’t even know we believe them. For most of us, the nature of school is a given; it is not up for discussion. It’s the sea in which teachers and students swim, all pervasive, but invisible because it is very difficult to step outside of only reality they know.
Besides, teachers are generally too busy to stop and raise philosophical questions about their work. It’s like driving down the road on bald tires; even if you’re aware there’s a problem, it’s very hard to change the tires while you’re going sixty miles per hour.
In all the years I taught, in all the department meetings and staff development activities, in all the lunch table conversations, very few of the beliefs that are the basis of doing school were ever discussed. And yet, they are the source of so much of the meaningless and counterproductive activity of doing school.
In order to understand why schools fail so many students and why doing school is as prevalent as it is, we have to become conscious of those beliefs. Only then can we replace them with more productive and realistic beliefs about learning.
Changing beliefs is difficult. But the good news is that the solution to some of the fundamental problems of schools won’t require new laws or billions of dollars or building new schools. All that’s needed is a thoughtful effort to replace dysfunctional beliefs with ones that make sense.
Here, then, are eight common beliefs about school, and the unintended consequences that flow from them.