Poetic Faith—the Magic of Belief

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer

Bill Turque’s January 5 Washington Post article on Michele Rhee’s reform efforts contains this interesting comment in reference to staff development efforts:

  • Within the first five years on the job, most enroll in The Skillful Teacher, a program of six day-long sessions devised by Jon Saphier of the Massachusetts-based Research for Better Teaching program.
  • Saphier said the program fosters teachers’ belief in their power to lift student achievement despite conditions outside school.
  • An independent study in 2004 showed that before taking the course, Montgomery teachers rated students’ home life and motivation as the factors that most influenced learning. After the course, home life dropped to 11th on the list, and teacher enthusiasm and perseverance were described as most important.

A skeptical reader’s response would almost certainly be “So what? What difference would that change in attitude make?” In my experience, it is the most important difference-maker of all, for it is the basis of all other positive change.

In my own teaching, nothing transformed what I did more than adopting that attitude. Once I believed that all students could succeed if I made the right instructional decisions, I became diligent in seeking those approaches, but before that I just accepted student failure as a problem beyond my control.

When I was still a relatively young teacher, I was assigned sections of sophomores with a history of failure in writing. I saw that they universally wrote in fragments and run-ons, so I dedicated the next few weeks to intense, traditional, grammar-based instruction on sentence structure. When I saw scant improvement despite my most diligent efforts, I determined that they were incapable of doing better and moved on. There was no reason for me to change because their failure was their fault.

Not many years later I was a department chairperson trying to improve a school’s horrid writing achievement. I created an innovative (and controversial) approach, and, as a part of it, I assigned myself a class of sophomores with a history of writing failure. Once again, I had an entire class writing in fragments and run-ons, but this time I was armed with a new belief, a belief that they had the ability to succeed if I did the right thing. I therefore abandoned that intense, traditional, grammar-based approach that had failed in the past and did something totally different.

I taught almost all mechanics through editing. In my mastery learning system, students could not get credit for a piece of writing until the conventions met standard. A draft might be met with a response like, “Great ideas and support! This makes a lot of sense! Now, just fix those fragments and you’ll be done with it, and you’ll get a great grade!” Within a few weeks, 100% of the students were writing in complete sentences.

coleridgeNot long after that, I was part of a research team examining the results of a writing assessment given at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in a low SES area in a large school district. The overall results (a little over 50% proficient) had been reported for each grade level, and we surveyed the teachers to try to get more information. What none of the teachers knew was that none of them had anywhere near 50% proficiency in student performance. Teachers had either nearly all of their students proficient or nearly none of their students proficient. Even though our survey was anonymous, it was therefore easy to tell from their responses to certain questions which camp they were in.

We asked them for their overall beliefs about student achievement, using the kind of wording you see in the Turque article. All the teachers with high success rates believed that their actions were the primary forces determining student success. Every single teacher with high failure rates believed student success was entirely determined by student ability and other factors beyond the teacher’s control.

Just after Turque’s article was published, my hometown newspaper published an article about a similar survey done by the state department of a school with a history of failure to meet No Child Left Behind achievement goals. The school has a large Hispanic population, and the audit revealed that teachers believe that their population is not capable of achieving at a high level on state tests. The report noted that “Some parents and students feel that some of the teachers do not believe that all students can achieve at high levels. . . . It was observed and reported that there are some populations of students held to higher standards than others.”

Once you have accepted a reason for failure that is beyond your control, you are freed from any obligation to try to succeed.

In his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the famous phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he called “poetic faith.” In modern terms, this is the human trait that allows us to weep as a movie actor pretends to die. It causes us to jump in fright at the flickering image of a monster on a TV screen.

Poetic faith is a trait that serves a teacher well. The effective teacher looks at every student and thinks, “I believe that if I make the right instructional decisions and follow the right approach for you as an individual, you will succeed, despite all that stands in the way of that success. If I look long enough, I will find the path to your success.” The effective teacher searches education literature for strategies that will lead to that success.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen predicts that technology and online education will transform education because it will enable the teacher to identify student learning needs and take the appropriate steps to meet those needs. That cannot happen, though, until teachers fully believe there is a reason to make that effort.

2 Responses

  1. What you say is so true. I have Saphier’s book on my own shelves. My sister-in-law took his course and has advised me often about teaching strategies.

    I have often been frustrated by teachers who will not consider new teaching strategies. In my case, the strategy involves using a new technology. You have enunciated a major reason for that resistance.

    In my opinion, teacher attitude is more important than subject expertise. An excellent scientist may fail completely as a teacher without the belief that the teacher has the power to succeed or fail in the class. It may take hard work, but an out-of-discipline teacher can learn the science and become a good science teacher.

    This transformation cannot happen overnight because a deep understanding of the nature of science must come to the teacher, and that takes time and effort. Still, it can happen if the teacher has the right attitude.

  2. Of course, “the” teacher must have the right attitude towards offering learning possibilities that will suit each student’s learning style in a class . But that might not be enough if this is not part of the school culture as well.
    In spite of the recommendation of a “learner-centered approach” in CH official education guidelines, for instance, teachers who really try to apply it are often perceived as nuisances by more traditional colleagues. And students who have progressed under a learner-centered approach at times start failing again when they get another teacher who does not believe in it.
    For instance, in a foreign language, students who are “bilingual” often have a poor command of spelling in that FL, because they have been schooled in the local language, and as they feel confident in the FL, they don’t bother with learning spelling for it.

    One way to encourage them to do so is to have separate assessments for understanding, capacity to make themselves understood, and form (including spelling). This way you don’t fail these bilingual students for spelling mistakes – which is absurd anyway – but they feel encouraged to make an effort in that to get even better grades. But if the following year, they get a teacher who detracts 1 point per spelling mistake, they’ll get failing grades.

    Other example: in math or science, if a teacher requires students to state the successive stages of their problem solving and assess this too, if a student gets the wrong result, s/he will be able to see where s/he has gone wrong, whether in reasoning or in calculation. But if the following year, another teacher only considers if the result is right or wrong, the student won’t be able to do so.

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