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How Challenging Our Own Assumptions Can Impact Student Learning

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What Elise Foster, co-author of The Multiplier Effect, researcher and education advocate, wants most for district leaders and educators is the strength to confront their own assumptions.What Elise Foster, co-author of The Multiplier Effect, researcher and education advocate, wants most for district leaders and educators is the strength to confront their own assumptions.

“Checking our own assumptions and thinking about what’s motivating our actions is one of the most important things we can do,” said Foster. “Is what I’m doing coming from a place of my own personal identity? Is something at stake for me, or is there some greater whole that’s at stake here? When we ask these questions of ourselves, we start to see how some of our own self-interest can have a way of creeping in despite us being in helping professions and wanting to see every child succeed.”

Foster recognizes that many decisions are subconscious ones and hopes, in her interactions with educators, to help them learn to uncover their own assumptions in a safe environment. Leaders and teachers aren’t always comfortable feeling vulnerable, but that vulnerability is key to uncovering insight into one’s own practice and, according to Foster, learning to “catch yourself in the moment and press pause, because with awareness comes choice. Without awareness, we never have the chance to choose a different action.”

At a recent convening of approximately 500 teachers and district leaders in Grand Junction, Colorado, Foster spoke about the difficulty in challenging our own assumptions. Mesa County Valley School District 51 has been working for two years to shift from a traditional environment to a more student-centered, performance-based one. Foster recognized and celebrated the curiosity and commitment of attendees to shift their practices and the opportunity to help them realize the sort of learning community they truly wish to build.

“I know they’re doing the best very they can,” said Foster. “And I want to help them see new perspectives and challenge where they are, start to notice some of their own tendencies. For example, as participants explored the learner-centered shift they’re in the midst of making, they began to ask important questions of themselves: If we set the homework and the bell schedule, is that a student-center environment? If we determine the rubric, is that a student-centered environment? Just hearing these questions surface is evidence that these leaders want to do this well, and appreciate the deep-seated assumptions that make this work so tough.”

Among Foster’s recommendations to all educators:

  • Think about how what we know about learners impacts our interactions with them
  • Provide opportunities to take risks, both for teachers and students, so that everyone has the opportunity to practice creative problem-solving and critical thinking
  • Teach and lead from a place of questions, rather than having all of the answers

“A lot of leadership and teaching is experimenting and seeing what happens,” Foster said. “Personalized learning isn’t without structure, it’s not just letting the kids run the class – it’s well-planned, intentional and deliberate experimentation, done in full knowledge of the fact that the success of the experiment is not whether it worked or not, but what you learned from it.” Room for risk and the opportunity to make a mistake, to be playful and experiment, is a cornerstone of personalized learning for students, and the same should be true of the educators leading the transformation.