What really changes our beliefs

Published by Lori Pickert on February 10, 2010 at 02:19 PM

I used to think that people’s beliefs determined their practices. And now I think that people’s practices determine their beliefs. As a child of the 1960s, I believed in the power of ideas to shape people’s behavior. I believed, for example, as many in my generation did, that the problems of failing schools originated in the failure of educators to “believe” that all children were capable of learning or — to choose a more contemporary framing of the issue — that changing teachers’ attitudes about what children can learn would result in changing their practices in ways that would increase student learning.

The accumulated evidence, I regret to say, does not support this view. People’s espoused beliefs — about race, and about how children learn, for example — are not very influential in determining how most people actually behave. The largest determinant of how people practice is how they have practiced in the past, and people demonstrate an amazingly resilient capacity to relabel their existing practices with whatever ideas are currently in vogue.

As practitioners, we are notoriously poor observers of our own practice and therefore not very good at judging the correspondence between our beliefs and our behavior. I know this about my own practice — as a teacher and as a consultant — which is why I rarely, if ever, practice solo any more. Resilient, powerful new beliefs — the kinds of beliefs that transform the way we think about how children are treated in schools, for example — are shaped by people engaging in behaviors or practices that are deeply unfamiliar to them and that test the outer limits of their knowledge, their confidence in themselves as practitioners, and their competencies. For example, presenting students with learning challenges that adults think are “too hard” for their students often reveals to the adults that the problem lies less in children’s abilities than it does in their own command of content and pedagogy. In many instances, our greatest successes in school improvement stem from scaffolding the adults’ content knowledge and pedagogy up to the level of what we know students can handle. In these cases, adult beliefs about what children can learn are changed by watching students do things that the adults didn’t believe that they — the students — could do.

You don’t really know what your espoused beliefs mean until you experience them in practice. The more powerful the beliefs, the more difficult and seemingly unfamiliar the practices. I now care much less about what people say they believe, and much more about what I observe them to be doing and their willingness to engage in practices that are deeply unfamiliar to them.

— Richard Elmore, I Used to Think … and Now I Think …, Harvard Education Letter, Jan/Feb 2010

How can we ask our children to push themselves as learners — to try new and difficult things, to critically reflect on their work and attitudes, to engage in work that challenges them intellectually and personally — if we aren’t willing to do the same?

See: Who Decides What You Can and Cannot Do?



Comment by Ian on February 10, 2010 at 03:45 PM

One of my favorite quotes is by author Donald Miller. He said, "What I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do."

Comment by Holly on February 10, 2010 at 04:54 PM

DS has anxiety and I find this particularly important. When he sees me stretching myself, pushing myself to do things that scare me, he realizes that doing things that scare him aren't deadly.

Besides,stagnation is boring.

Comment by Arwen on February 10, 2010 at 07:31 PM

This explains a lot about why when I TALK to my husband about child-raising ideas, he almost always agrees with me, but what we DO ends up completely different. I know that's not what this is really about, but it is frustrating!

It is going to take a major paradigm shift for most peope to change their ideas about educating children. How do we do that, especially if this is true about actions and beliefs?

Comment by Theo on February 11, 2010 at 12:46 AM

Hi there! First of all, i'd like to say that your blog is a kinda passion to me. I'm from Brazil and currently getting graduate on Letters, English Education and Literature. I just want to share from another blog that I also love: Do-blog. They posted, coincidence or not, this:

Comment by 'Ailina on February 11, 2010 at 06:04 AM

"How can we ask our children to push themselves as learners...if we aren’t willing to do the same?"

Indeed. And once we get the hang of pushing ourselves, we can work on setting a good example for our kids. Great article. Thanks for the insight!

Comment by Mags on February 12, 2010 at 07:35 AM

What a great post - food for thought, action and reflection to increase our self-awareness and be mindful of our habits. Hopeful about our capacities to expand our learning and what we know, by taking the plunge into the unknown. Thanks!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 13, 2010 at 12:01 AM

my apologies re: slow response to comments, but our internet has been out. i can manage to approve comments on my phone, but i’m not up to typing responses!

great quote, ian. :^)

holly, it’s wonderful that you set that example for him. i think a lot of children’s anxiety isn’t necessarily that they will fail, but that we will be upset with their failure.

arwen, that’s a huge question and i don’t have the answer. it’s certainly easier for parents — we don’t have to wait for a huge institution to allow us to do what we know is best. we can be as progressive as we want to be.

re: your husband, i guess most of us do have to deal with an institution — the institution of marriage! ah, marital communication. ;^)

theo, thank you for another great quote!

thank you, ailina!

thank you, mags!

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