This New School Year, What Do You Believe About Learning?

shifting-conversations-logoI want to circle back to a post I wrote in this space a couple of months ago regarding the “Pedagogic Creed” of John Dewey and the model that he presents for clearly articulating your beliefs about learning.  I’ve begun asking the leaders at the schools I’m visiting if they’ve ever written down what they believe about how students learn, and you won’t be shocked to learn that to date, none have. Granted, it’s a small sampling size of about a dozen, but I know that for many of these folks it’s the first time that anyone has asked them the question. To be honest, I find it really troubling.

As much as we like to talk about the “modern” aspects of learning here, the focus of all of our work is just plain learning. How does it happen? How can it happen more effectively in schools? And what role do people play in that interaction now that we are surrounded by so many technologies and people and resources? If these are not the questions we are asking on a daily basis in schools, why not? All of our practice should be founded in our beliefs about how kids learn. If we believe that kids learn by pursuing questions that interest them, then our practice should revolve around inquiry. If we believe that kids learn best through direct instruction and lecture, then our practice should reflect that.

Too often, however, our practice is based not on what we believe but on what other people expect regardless of whether it’s good learning. “I believe that students learn best through test prep” is not something I would hope too many teachers would say they believe, yet that is what they practice. By and large, we’ve come to a place in public education (and to some extent private education as well) where other people are setting the agenda and we’re reacting to that agenda with what we think is appropriate practice. In the process, we defer to non educators to dictate what happens in classrooms.

This is obviously a problem.believe

My friend Gary Stager clarifies the dilemma in no uncertain terms. In an interview with Steve Hargadon last week (well worth 12 minutes of your time), he said “Where schools get in trouble is by not knowing what they believe, not articulating what they believe, and not standing by what they believe.” Each of those is crucial, but obviously, the last two are moot without the first. If you don’t know what you believe, you can’t articulate it, and you can’t defend it.

No one is asking for 75 belief statements akin to what Dewey offers, but is it unreasonable to expect that every teacher be asked to think about their beliefs, articulate them, and defend them? Is it unreasonable to expect that we do that as schools and districts?

If you want to know what it looks like, I’ll refer again to Princes Hill Primary School in Melbourne, AU where the principal, Esme Capp and her teachers start every school year with full days of talking about learning and how they believe it happens with kids. What results is a clear understanding on the part of the staff, students, and community as to what teaching and learning look like in the classroom. Here’s the latest iteration:

  • Children are active, important members of a variety of communities eg: family, school, ethnic cultures, multi-media and friendship groups – their understanding of the world develops through these social and cultural interactions
  • We learn through active participation, using the many forms of expression
  • We learn through critical engagement in complex, purposeful contexts where relevant connections are made to our world
  • We learn through consciousness of thought where we re-configure pre-existing understandings and concepts
  • We develop motives to learn through positioning ourselves within social situations
  • We learn through the unity of emotions and intellect

(For more on Esme’s leadership on this, don’t forget to watch her masterclass.) Those six principles are the foundation for practice in the school. Those principles are what clearly separates Princes Hill from other schools in the area. Parents bring their kids to Princes Hill in large part because those principles resonate. No one is guessing as to what Esme and her staff believes about learning.

Yet, Princes Hill is in the small minority of schools that can easily point to an articulated stance about learning. Almost everywhere else that I’ve been, I’ve had to hazard a guess. And in most cases, I can’t even do that since practice varies so much from room to room.

So, what do you believe, both as an individual educator and as a school community about how kids learn and what an education should be? Where is it articulated? And how does it play out in classroom practice. As you start this new school year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere,) I hope this is a conversation that you are renewing once again, or picking up for the first time. It may be the most important discussion you have all year.






Image credit: *Blue Moon

2 thoughts on “This New School Year, What Do You Believe About Learning?”

  1. Charles G

    I find that the conversation of “how students learn” is quite poignant – not just because administrators can’t present an opinion, but because it is so decentralized in schools when comparing one teacher to the next. While I always respect the way a teacher approaches the delivery of content, I do believe that I should (as a division head) lay the groundwork for what is expected. In other words, division heads should have their own value to how students learn, this value system should be mirrored in the school’s mission, and that division head should be able to guide teachers in ways to apply this value system.

    If a family does not agree with the way we teach children to learn, they need to find another place for their children (I know, typical private school opinion). But our mission should have a unified delivery system. We never want to pit one teacher’s methods against another’s. It is my job to ensure that doesn’t happen by formulating an expectation for “how students learn.”

  2. Diane M

    I don’t think anyone can top this, from the late Maxine Green, “The educational task, in the moral domain, as in others is to find out how to enable individuals to choose authentically and intelligently for themselves. It involves learning how to equip them with the conceptual tools, the self-respect, and the opportunities to choose – in specific circumstances – how to do what they consider right.”– Maxine Green, Teacher as Stranger: Educational Philosophy for the Modern Age

    Which lends support to my views that the goal of education is for me to model within the learning environment what I hope my individual students will leave the learning environment with — the knowledge to evaluate situations effectively and make choices that are both faithful to themselves and choices that positively effect the whole. (From my blog:

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