Opinions, Beliefs and the Importance of Context

  • On 2012-02-09
  • 21st century learning, beliefs, context, education, exceptional, exceptional learning, intuyu consulting, learning, opinions

The following is an except from my book Exceptional that will be published later this year. For those of you who are first time readers – welcome. For those of you who are constant readers – welcome back for 2012!

Everyone has an opinion about education. I do. You do. Kids do. Parents do. Grandparents do. Teachers do. Politicians do. The media does. Radio shock jocks do. Billionaires do. There aren’t many days that I don’t hear some comment about education from someone. Unfortunately for a large percentage of the population much of it is misguided and uninformed.

You might believe that is a big statement – not really.

You have to consider on what people base their knowledge and understanding. Opinions are based on what people know from reading, listening, others people’s opinions, media, cultural background, and on their life experiences. Life experiences have the greatest effect on shaping our perceptions.

For example;

  • If you are a student and your Grade One teacher created with you that “mistakes are your friend” and then set up the learning environment to allow you to make mistakes and learn from them, then you would probably love learning all the time.
  • If you are a student and you failed assessment under test conditions, despite “knowing the material”, how long would it be before you decide that you “don’t get it” and progressively build an opinion about you and school?
  • If you are a parent who has had poor educational experiences you can unconsciously impart your beliefs and mindset to your children (“I’m no good at maths”, “school is hard”, “I hated homework”, “I couldn’t wait to leave school”, etc).  If you have an ingrained belief that maths is “hard” then, unless you deliberately tackle that self-belief as a parent, there is a pre-disposition for maths being “hard” for your children.
  • If you are a “Tiger” parent with a strong belief that it is only by working long hours and doing lots of rote learning that your children will succeed, it is likely you will drive your children incessantly to perform academically – sometimes to the detriment of other skills.
  • If were teased at school, perhaps bullied, maybe even had a humiliating experience, that would affect your perceptions of education and learning. This is the same if you grew up in a tough socio-economic environment.
  • If you as a teacher believe that you don’t need to adjust your teaching practice and the way you structure learning in the classroom for different students and different generations of students (“I’ve been teaching this way for 20 years and it has always worked”, “I’ve always produced good results with my students … well the good students … the rest didn’t want to work and that’s not my fault”, etc) then this will affect how you teach.

Whatever the life experiences, people form a mental model or picture of the way that education is and then hold on to that – sometimes for a lifetime. And it is quite challenging to shift that mental picture when you have a lifetime of reinforcement from looking through the lens you have looked through for years.

I still vividly remember one student from my first year of teaching Engineering at university. He approached me to give him some one-on-one tutoring for a subject he had failed twice previously and he needed to pass it that year to finish his Engineering degree. I agreed, looked up the textbook and set a problem up on my whiteboard. My intention was to get a sense of what he knew and what he didn’t know. In my mind I thought I had a chosen a reasonably simple example. As this student approached the board to have a go at answering the question I heard him mutter to himself “this is going to be hard”. I stopped him in the moment and asked him if he realised what he had just said. He said “No”. I repeated back to him what he had muttered and said “That’s what we are going to go to work upon – your belief that it is hard. I am going to make sure you start to see how to think about the subject so you can make it easy for yourself”. It was an extraordinary learning experience for me as an educator because I really had to get into his world and understand what his misconceptions and understandings were first before having him step into my thinking and methodology. It took time and persistence on both our parts. And yes he did pass with flying colours when he took the exam again.

In this discussion I am not implying or asserting that people’s opinions are invalid. They all have some validity – at least to them and their personal experiences and understanding. For that student who struggled to the point of failing that Engineering subject twice, it was reality that the subject was hard – for him. However, that is my point really. Our opinions and beliefs are mostly personal. Understanding and experience on the small scale. People’s opinions are rarely built upon exploring and coming to grips with the context and assumptions upon which those lessons and understandings were built.

This is also true about governments and the media. How many governments have implemented change programs without actually looking at what the research shows works in schools and for learning (No Child Left Behind policy in the USA, Merit Pay for teachers, and so on)? How many millions of dollars have been spent on what looks good and is politically impressive rather than what actually works? How many media organisations report on education and learning from a very narrow perspective? How many rank or discuss the quality of schools based purely on standardised testing that only measure very limited outcomes of student abilities?

It is not easy or common to look at the context or assumptions within which you learn and understand things. These contexts are like the air that we breathe. They are often so invisible to us and just part of everyday living that we don’t think about it.  Shankar Vedantam discussed a number of these “unconscious forces that influence us” is his book “The Hidden Brain: how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives”. We will go into much more depth about unconscious biases and mental models at another time. Suffice to say right now that people’s opinions are quite often not based on hard facts and research but hearsay,  personal experiences, and unchallenged underlying assumptions.

If we are interested in creating and building educational systems that will allow / encourage / support ALL young people to become exceptional then we have to go beyond the normal everyday opinions about education. Notice the emphasis on ALL. We need to look at the contexts and assumptions that underlie our beliefs and actions.

What do you think?

If you are interested in our work and research see some of what we do on www.intuyuconsulting.com.au



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