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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories, Student Voices

Acknowledging Our Assumptions

I don’t quite know how to begin this or how to write it, or how to end it, but there are thoughts hiding in my mind, flying around in it, and scurrying here and there that just won’t let me NOT write. I think the unrest began consciously at Educon, when Kirsten Olsen summed up our conversation by saying she heard us (us being Becky Fisher, Pam Moran and me) saying there is an assumption of competence as we work with learners.

An assumption of competence. That means we believe kids–learners–are competent and come to us with strengths and knowledge and skills and talents and curiosities and yearnings and expertise and questions.  Yep, we do.

I know that about myself and it’s something I respect greatly in both Becky and Pam. They’ve each been an important part of my adult learning and growing since WAAAY back in the early ’90’s when Pam taught my Kindergarteners how to hold our leopard gecko and plant ‘mums, and Becky’s high school kids brought their Lego Fairground (including a working Merry-Go-Round) to our class. Neither of them have ever treated me like I needed to be “fixed” or like I had to learn what they brought–they came to interact with my kids and me and learn and grow with us.

I’ve discovered that the way I look at kids is not like many teachers with whom I’ve worked over the years. I know that I look for what kids know as opposed to what they don’t know and I must not express that very well. When I try to share my thinking with others, it gets misunderstood sometimes–heck, many times! Like just last month, in a meeting where we were talking about our very bright younger kids in our school, teachers were saying that even though sometimes kids could read 4-5 years above their current grade, they still needed to work on comprehension questions and do worksheets that asked them to infer. When I said they did NOT need that, I wasn’t even given a chance to say that what they needed was to be involved in conversations about the books, connecting them to their lives, to other books, to their writing. I was immediately discounted because I seemed to be saying they didn’t need practice inferring.

I wasn’t saying they don’t need experiences to help them grow as a reader and thinker. What they need practice with is deeply talking about and enjoying books and learning more about them and what’s behind them and what’s in them that connects them to the kid–or other books–or other writings. I could immediately see other ways they could show and change what they know, while not killing their desire to read.

For me, it wasn’t about what they needed to practice, but about finding ways for them to show their competence, and looking for ways that scaffolded them to grow and understand themselves more fully as they worked with (and perhaps struggled with) complex material. For me, it wasn’t–and isn’t–about making things simpler so students understand, it’s about making things more interesting and more complex so kids are intrigued and want to work hard to understand it. For me, it’s assuming kids will work their fingers to the bone if need be when they have an interesting problem.

So why is that apparently so unusual that teachers assume competence rather than incompetence? We’ve all had kids who needed our guidance less than others…we’ve all had kids who needed a LOT of our guidance. But why do teachers assume kids don’t know, or can’t figure out, without the “more knowledegeable other” drilling or pouring it into their heads?

Why can we not see teaching as the chance to give gifts of opportunity?

…the opportunity to grow…see what Blaine thinks.

…the opportunity to learn…Noa and Evan were working with definitions by choice

…the opportunity to show off…see Jordan’s video (coming Wednesday, but in the meantime, see what she wrote)

…the opportunity to fail…make small mistakes and learn from them (Monday’s question to Jessica–“Did you mean to say adjectives or did you mean to say verbs?”– I won’t immediately assume she doesn’t know the difference!)

Why can’t we live Albert Einstein’s definition of teacher?  “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

And, finally, why can’t we have fun, as India, Ashley and Abby did?

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


4 thoughts on “Acknowledging Our Assumptions

  1. Paula–great post. If you aren’t already familiar with Gordon Lawrence’s book “In the Zone”, you should pick up a copy. It’s all about how we need to challenge the blank slate assumption when kids come to school and instead focus on keeping them “in the zone” so they don’t “zone out” in class. Asking kids to do learning chores that don’t stretch their minds is just going to make them get turned off to school…not encourage them to learn more!

    Thanks for writing this post. 🙂


    Posted by Jen Lilienstein | February 19, 2012, 12:02 pm
  2. I’ve always felt it best to instill passion for learning and exploring (maybe the same thing) by showing that passion, and by respecting and acknowledging it in my kids. In fact, respect may be one of the greatest tools a teacher can possess. It’s encouraging to see someone who follows those same principals.

    Posted by Andy Gauvin | February 19, 2012, 2:05 pm


  1. Pingback: Teacher As Coach: Transforming Teaching With the A Coaching Mindset | Pedagogies of Abundance - March 1, 2014

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