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.
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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"What you hear repeatedly you will eventually believe."
eople working in many fields of endeavor have a set of unspoken, but commonly accepted, beliefs that guide their behavior. Education is no exception. "Conventional wisdom" drives much of the behavior of those involved in the teaching of students. Unfortunately, these unconscious beliefs are rarely reexamined for validity. They retain their power through the everyday language of the field that passes from one person to another much as a virus. Consider these statements.
Statements such as these are not facts! They are beliefs. Said with conviction, they take on the authority of the speaker. The mind accepts them as truth—as factual information. Such statements are what psychologist Robert Dilts calls "thought viruses."1 A thought virus is a limiting belief—a generalization or a distortion once drawn from experience but now separated from its context. The danger in thought viruses is that, because they contain some truth, because they are partly true in some contexts, people are less likely to question their validity.
Statements such as students are motivated by grades and students must learn the basics before they can tackle more complex problems sound like fact. However, they are not always true. Almost everyone can recall situations where the opposite is true. These are not "exceptions" to a fact. They are pointers that let us know the statement is a belief rather than a fact—IF we are paying attention.
Simple factual statements that are part of consensus reality are often context-free. Statements such as snow is white, the sun rises in the east, and Seattle is north of Los Angeles are true in the contexts most people encounter in daily life. However, the more complex a statement gets and the less defined are the terms used in the statement, the less likely the statement is to get general agreement.
In order to reach agreement, people must specify the context and negotiate the definitions of the terms to be sure everyone means the same thing. Unfortunately, when people can think of a couple of instances where a statement is true, they frequently accept it as truth without further negotiation. This is how beliefs become established as "facts."
Many educational thought viruses are so much a part of the fabric of everyday life in schools that they are doubly hard to detect. Teachers simply nod their heads at such statements. It's not a case of deception. It's just that the language of education has the power to define the behaviors of teachers.
Let's examine a couple of the statements listed above. (To see how you may have been "infected" by similar thought viruses, see the Self-Inventory in Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education.) You may find that you agree or disagree with these statements initially. The important thing is to identify on what basis you agree or disagree.
Have you ever learned anything where you began with the basics and then worked your way up to more complex concepts? Have you ever learned anything where you jumped in at a fairly complex level and eventually worked your way down to the basics? Most people answer "yes" to both questions, so the original statement is only partly true. Better stated, it is true in some contexts, but not in others. As such, it is inappropriate to use the statement as a fixed truth or rule for the purposes of making decisions about how to organize academic content. Yet this statement is used as the basis for most textbooks and course outlines!
This statement assumes several things. First, that it is possible for a teacher to "give" students knowledge. Research on internally-generated knowledge calls this assumption into serious question. Second, the statement assumes that the teacher knows what knowledge the student will need. While it's reasonable to assume that all students will need basic literacy and numeracy skills, what does this statement mean for teachers of any subject beyond those levels?
Many teachers have fallen victim to the myth that giving students information is their primary role. Giving is part of a "knowledge as objects" metaphor (see the article on metaphors of education.). The word give is extremely powerful in defining the role of teachers. The original statement sounds like a statement of fact—of wisdom—of truth, yet once again it is true in only some contexts. It is a thought virus.
Decisions based on context-free generalizations rather than on what is actually happening in a specific context are poorly informed. For example, habitually shushing students based on the thought virus that a quiet classroom is conducive to learning often inhibits learning rather than supporting it.
If you are frequently aware that different contexts will change the truth of the statement, you're well on the way to recognizing the inherent danger in such limiting beliefs. To avoid infection by thought viruses, it is imperative to question the "conventional wisdom" of education by asking, "Are there any situations in which this is not true?
Teachers base their decisions on a set of basic assumptions about learning, knowledge, teaching, and the nature of students. Mindful teaching requires identifying whether those assumptions are valid or whether they are actually thought viruses. The important thing is whether the statement is true in the present context. If not, then decisions based on that statement will often be inappropriate.
It's undoubtedly easier to apply the same rules to every person and every situation than to have to constantly evaluate a situation and decide on the appropriate action. The cost of that "ease" is mindlessness. To the argument that there isn't time to evaluate each situation, I must agree with Norman Cousins: "It is nonsense to say that there is not enough time to be fully informed…. Time given to thought is the greatest timesaver of all."2
An extensive discussion of thought viruses and how to overcome them may be found in Chapter 6 of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education.